Saturday, 4 May 2013
What sorcery is this?
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.