Gamebook store

Saturday 4 May 2013

What sorcery is this?

The strain of fantasy represented by Dungeons and Dragons and the subdivision of same that is Fighting Fantasy are not my cup of tea, but I always had a bit of a soft spot for Steve Jackson's Sorcery gamebooks. I remember actually playing through a couple of them - and bear in mind that Jamie and I spent most of our working days back in the '80s writing gamebooks, so reading other people's wasn't usually the leisure activity we'd pick to while away an evening.

The Sorcery books benefited from Steve Jackson's innovative gameplay ideas (most notably the magic system, based on 3-letter spells that the reader had to cast from memory) and a world that was a bit more interesting than the usual DnD-flavoured setting. Apparently Steve was inspired by his travels in Nepal and, while we're not talking Tekumel here or even Jorune, there is a genuine sense of the exotic that moves it away from being sort-of Tolkien, sort-of medieval. It was also possibly the first time that a series of gamebooks built into one single epic quest. Oh, and it wasn't just room after room in a big old dungeon. In 1985, something new like Sorcery really stood out.

It's fitting, then, that now that gamebooks are enjoying an Indian summer thanks to digital media, the Sorcery series is getting a retool from the Rolls-Royce Ltd of interactive book apps, Inkle Studios. The first of their Sorcery adaptations for iPad, The Shamutanti Hills, was released this week and, as Kotaku's reviewer commented, it "takes the genre to a whole new level".

Full disclosure: Inkle were the developers of my Frankenstein app, and were responsible for its gorgeous look and feel as well as providing the smoothest set of tools for writing I could have wished for - so you may need to correct for a slight bias here. But even allowing for that, I've already spent three or four hours playing Sorcery and it was only released a couple of days ago. So trust me, it's going to be a gamebook-changer.

We were recently discussing the clattery old dice-based combat systems in gamebooks of yore, so I'll start with that. Inkle have dispensed with the random rolls in favour of a streamlined tactical system that allows for an element of skill. Combats are now really rather fun, as strong attacks temporarily sap your energy and, if the opponent attacks more strongly (as in the screenshot below), will also result in you taking a more serious wound. You'll sit judiciously weighing up your choice each round and wincing when a wrong move has you stumbling into the path of the enemy's sword.

As you'd expect from Inkle, the imagery and visual design are glorious. Even something as simple as selecting the three letters of a spell is evocative and tactile, and navigating on the 3D map feels almost like dropping into the title sequence of Game of Thrones. (Okay, maybe I'm overstating it a bit there, but it's a safe bet that's where Inkle are headed in future. Give 'em time.)

So, that map. I expected to find myself skimming the text and just playing the game like an '80s top-down CRPG, but in fact the transition between map and text is pretty seamless. The more visually enhanced and videogame-like a gamebook becomes, in theory, the less patience the player will have for prose. That's not to say that long sections of text can't work in digital gamebooks, just that you have to decide where to set the slider: book or game? Sorcery's specific balance is probably not the only right answer, but it's certainly one of them.

I didn't keep my copies of the original books, so it's hard to say how much of the text is Steve Jackson's and how much has been added by Jon Ingold, but the end result certainly feels fresh and vigorously fast-paced. There are also elegant turns of phrase and sophisticated storytelling techniques like the opening flashforward that I think must have come from Jon. Either way, it's a nice read with most of the traditional DnD campaign tropes given a shiny new trim thanks to the finer and more immediate writing style.

Quibbles there are a few. The map navigation occasionally leads you to expect more freedom than the original structure of the adventure allows. So, for example, you'll venture into a tavern only to find that the option to visit a nearby waterfall disappears for good. Now, if only this had been a Fabled Lands book instead of... Ah, but now I'm dreaming.

The monsters let the setting down a bit. Ratbears. Goblins. Manticores. Trolls. Giant bats. We certainly can't blame Inkle for that. They had to work with the books they were given, and I expect those were originally populated from a Monster Manual for the sake of an afternoon's gaming. The only reason I draw attention to it is that there's that little hint of something special in the world and the religion, and then we get the usual thudding parade of DnD creatures, which is a shame.

Oh, and another legacy from the books is the flip-of-a-coin flippancy with which you may get killed. A witch is casting a spell. Do you leap left or right? Make the wrong choice and you're fried. Gamebook readers of thirty years ago may have stood for that but, alongside all the genuine innovations Inkle has put into this, the old cavalier style of gamebook "GMing" is kind of fusty.

I don't want to make too much of the quibbles, though. Make no mistake, this is a revolutionary app that has for the most part completely rejuvenated its source material. In every sense - graphics, writing, animation, music - Sorcery is a deluxe product worth hours of entertainment for the absurdly low price of £2.99. No, I can't believe that either. Snap it up while you can and count the days until Inkle release the second book, Cityport of Traps. Me, I'm standing outside the walls of Khare even as we speak.


  1. I’ve had a quick look around at other reviews/comments. Some people are actually grumbling about the price – it shows how far the expectation has taken root, in certain quarters, that if something is downloadable then it should be free or nearly so. The Shamutanti Hills cost £1.95 when originally published in 1983; prices in the UK have trebled since then, so in “today’s money” it would be around £6. Therefore, yes, the Inkle app should be seen as a bargain.

    I didn’t find “instant death” paragraphs acceptable even thirty years ago. They are frustrating and exactly not how you would choose to end a story. Death in combat wasn’t *quite* so bad, however, because I could at least imagine that my character had gone down bravely, fighting to the bitter end, even if it was against, say, an orclet or an offended chef. Or a wheelie.

    My own taste would prefer electronic sophistication to come through greater flexibility of interaction with the written word, the characters within the story, and the environment, as my comments to previous posts probably suggest, but since I do read graphic novels I can’t really be too sniffy about the added value of artwork, and I did very much enjoy graphics-based strategy/adventure games like “The Lords of Midnight” for the ZX Spectrum.

    1. I'm going to discuss the graphics/words trade-off in a future post. Pricing is tricky. People grumble about paying more than 99c for an ebook, yet will pay $8.99 for the same book in print - that's seriously overvaluing paper. And they are missing the point anyway by focussing on the item itself. If I'm going to read a gamebook, I'm setting aside a couple of hours at least. Something like Sorcery can provide two or three hours of enjoyment for $4.99, and that's a pretty good deal compared to other ways you might fill your leisure time.

    2. I thought the £2.99 price tag was dirt cheap, and I still think that even though I became bored of it after half an hour (compared with the many hours I spent replaying the originals). I'm genuinely surprised at how cheap it is.

      I'd still rather be buying fresh and original gamebooks, though. It may be the content that matters most, but physical books have an aesthetic value of their own that I'm happy to pay more for. Also, files and apps get hidden and forgotten, but a book on a shelf sits there and reminds you to take it off once in a while. And with specific regard to gamebooks, flicking through the pages for the next chosen paragraph gives you glimpses of other paragraphs and pictures, creating a sense of anticipation for what you might discover as you keep playing. I think this is one reason why I've never been enthused by the gamebook apps with original stories - they just can't be experienced in the same way.

    3. Tin Man's Gamebook Adventures are $5.99 (£3.99 in Britain) and that seems pretty cheap to me. I was really annoyed that my Frankenstein book app was sold for $4.99 as many of my friends in the publishing industry said that made it look like a straight ebook version of the original Mary Shelley text (now in public domain, of course) rather than an original work.

      I agree there is still a decent market for print gamebooks. It's not particularly profitable but it's important to offer readers that option. That was why Fabled Lands wanted to team up with an established publisher in order to get print versions of our gamebooks back into bookstores. Publishers have the distribution network to do this. Unfortunately, the publisher decided not to do print editions - which seems to miss the point that print is their USP! Here's Barry Eisler on that subject:

  2. Re: pricing… I know the use and purpose of academic books is different, but, back in the days when I had to staff a publisher’s booth at academic conferences, if delegates complained about academic books costing £50+ (and sometimes much more), which *does* sound a lot, I would say, “Well how much would you spend in an evening at a restaurant?” That didn’t always work, of course, but it does point to something not entirely rational about how people perceive “value for money”.

  3. Efrem Orizzonte5 May 2013 at 22:55

    I played through Sorcery! and I liked it. It's interesting to see the original text expanded, though I think the barebone writing of Steve Jackson was one of the best things about the gamebooks.

    I must say, I'm still not entirely satisfied by any "gamebook" app I've tried so far. Gamebooks had a very rigid structure, and yet the paper medium allowed for a very flexible interaction. You could enjoy the thing at your own pace. You could bend the rules. You could cheat. In a way, you could beat the Game Master at his own game. And nothing will convince me that this wasn't one of the reasons gamebooks were so much loved, in spite of their obvious limits.

    Apps don't give you that freedom. They have their rules, and the computer won't allow you to make your own. You can feel the boundaries of the cage. It is still very much a book, but the way you interact with it makes it feel odd. With the books, when I was a kid, I would never worry too much about the mechanics. With the apps, I am reminded of them at all times.

    It may sound absurd, but I prefer my gamebook apps when they're as close as possible to the paper book experience. With engines such as Fabled Lands' or Sorcery's, I feel that the thing is trying so hard not to look like a gamebook, while in fact it still is. When the app becomes a mean to stretch the boundaries of the genre beyond what was reasonable on paper - like, say, putting in too many paragraphs, like in Tin Man Games' latest Gamebook Adventure - then it becomes... something that is no more a gamebook, but wants to feel and play like one. And that doesn't work too well for me.

    1. I'm glad to hear you say that, Efrem, as my approach with the Virtual Reality ebooks was to make them as close to the original books as possible. I just finished a post about this that I'll put up in a few days. I don't actually know if those ebooks will ever see the light of day, but it would be interesting to see if they could hold their own commercially alongside more "videogamey" gamebook apps.

  4. I'm terrible at 'logging in'...anyway.

    Total gamebook fiend in the 80s, loved the Sorcery series.

    It was really noticeable how (comparatively) easy Shamutanti Hills was compared with books 2-4 in the series. I've made it through
    (and enjoyed the atmospheric nature of many of the choices) and am waiting for Khare to open up before me.

  5. So are you saying there aren't going to be dead tree versions of the Infinite IF books? I don't have an iPhone or iPad, and I can't be the only one who prefers proper gamebooks.

    1. Cory Doctorow says that he makes about as much from print editions of his books as from digital. Admittedly, he's talking about beautiful hand-made hardcovers there, not POD paperbacks, but it shows that print can't be written off - though maybe we'll see more polarization between premium (deluxe hardcovers) and pile-'em-high (digital).

      To answer your question: I don't know about the VR and Way of the Tiger books. I think that print versions of those are highly unlikely for at least the next 5 years (ie until the rights revert to me). In the meantime, if you have an Underdogs PDF, you could always upload it to Lulu.

  6. Have to agree with people about wanting non-digital versions of gamebooks. I purchased House of Hell for my Android phone and it's a really nicely put together app but, you know what, I want out and bought a copy of the actual book and enjoyed (and played) it more.

    I've now come to the conclusion that, for me, gamebooks have to be real books.

    Shame about Way of the Tiger not being re-released as proper books - guess I'll never find out what happened to him in the Rift and whether he could escape.

    1. For contractual reasons, we'll probably be able to release WOTT books 3-6 in print form, just not books 1 & 2 - although that's still a long way off as Jamie and Mark would have to edit and typeset them, and new artwork would need to be commissioned too. (Unless anyone out there has Bob Harvey's email?) This could definitely be a candidate for Kickstarter. Email Jamie (addy in the sidebar) if you want to see it happen.

      As for how Avenger escapes from the Rift, David Walters told me and it's brilliant. So when you email Jamie with the Kickstarter idea, be sure to recommend WOTT book 7 as a stretch goal.