‘Sorcery!’ Frees You from Narrative Responsibility

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! is a branching narrative in which the branches are more important than the tree.

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! is a weird hodgepodge of a game. It’s a text-based adventure in that most of what you do and see is described in the text, but you also control a little figure of your character, moving it around a beautifully colored 3D map of the landscape, evoking the feel of a board game. It’s a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game, but you also have an inventory of items, including gold for buying stuff and rations you need to eat to survive. It’s like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, interactive fiction, fantasy RPG with great graphics. It’s also the first game in a series of four. I own all four games (they have their dedicated row on the home screen of my phone), but even though I’ve owned them all for about six months now, I can’t move on from the first game. Thankfully, it’s not a matter of difficulty, but of desire: Sorcery has one of the best branching stories I’ve ever played, and I don’t want to move on until I’ve seen all its branches.

“Branching narrative” generally refers to a story in which the player can make important choices that affect the outcome of the story. Sometimes it’s a matter of morality à la Mass Effect, at times it’s a question of drama à la Heavy Rain, and sometimes it’s a matter of character development à la Telltale games. The main selling point is that our choices affect the outcome of the story or our perception of the results of the story. That’s the main draw of a branching narrative — that feeling of customization. It’s why people get upset when they realize certain events will happen regardless of what you choose: The illusion of customized consequences is gone, and your story becomes just like everyone else’s. Consequences matter. Consequences are the backbone of a branching narrative. Consequences are key. Except in Sorcery!.

Sorcery! has more in common with those old Choose-Your-Adventure books than it does any of the games I just mentioned. That’s because it (like the books) isn’t all that concerned about the overall narrative. We might get a key we can use later or find a lot of gold, or we might run out of rations — these are all possible consequences — but they’re also minor in the grand scheme of things. Even the choices that carry over between games are minor: Rescue a person in the first game, and they appear in the second to help you out of a bind. That’s all.

Our choices don’t affect the overall narrative, but they do change the plot. They don’t matter to the bigger picture, but they’re important in the smaller picture. Each branch of this story presents an interesting scenario for the player to stumble into, and while that scenario may have only minor relevance to your journey, it’s still a fun scenario on its own. As a result, the game feels less like an epic journey and more like a series of standalone short stories. The individual branches of this metaphorical tree are more important than the shape of the overall tree.

This emphasis on moment-to-moment adventuring changes how we play the game, or at least it changes how I play the game. I don’t play it over and over again because I want to min-max my character, using knowledge of previous adventures to con the system and get the best gear before heading into the sequel — which is to say, I don’t think about the long-term. Rather, I keep playing because I simply want to see more of the world. I find myself making terrible long-term decisions if they’ll result in something immediately interesting: Should I explore the cave surrounded by decapitated heads on pikes? Hell yea!

I tend to be conservative when I know I’m playing a game with a branching narrative. I act with one eye always towards the future because I’m keenly aware of potential consequences. I want to be prepared for shit, and the games typically encourage this behavior by tying my choices to dire consequences like deaths, loss, failure, and such. In contrast, Sorcery! encourages us to seek out adventure regardless of the consequences because the narrative never gets that dire. You can rewind after any death to undo a fatal decision, whatever inventory you can lose feels negligible, and you can’t cause the loss of any innocent life. This lack of dire consequences is freeing. With the weight of narrative responsibility off our shoulders, we can just do things for fun. We play to create drama rather than play to make progress.

This is big success of Sorcery!. It’s crafted a rich world, then filled that world with a variety of interesting encounters, then designed the game in such a way as to encourage us to seek out as many of those encounters as possible. If I felt like I had a narrative responsibility to survive, I’d play carefully, practically, I’d be untrusting and paranoid to better survive in these wild lands. But I don’t have that kind of responsibility. I don’t care about surviving or storytelling, just exploring. So that’s what I do. I explore, I talk to people, and I say “yes” to every request because I want to see what happens next.

The important lesson we can learn from Sorcery! is that each step of a journey doesn’t have to add up to a larger whole. Every encounter doesn’t have to speak to a larger narrative or theme. It’s ok to make an adventure that’s just a series of unrelated encounters. In a branching narrative, it’s ok to ignore the forest for the trees. Or rather, it’s ok to ignore the tree for the branches.

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