How Little Choices Make Sorcery! Feel Epic

This is The Mechanic, where Alex Wiltshire invites developers to discuss the inner workings of their games. This time, Sorcery! [official site].

From Warlock of Firetop Mountain on I was pretty much obsessed with the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Of course I was: they presented richly drawn fantasies in which I could play a part, my imagination spinning on their words and illustrations. (My favourite illustrator? Obviously Russ Nicholson.) Inkle’s Sorcery! series, four text-based games adapted from Fighting Fantasy co-creator Steve Jackson’s original gamebooks, capture all that made Fighting Fantasy special and add a magical extra: the dynamism of videogames.

In fact, Sorcery! often feels more dynamic and alive than videogames. As you progress through the books, your adventure keeps getting richer, the world more responsive to your passage. It’s partly down to the increasing freedom you have to explore, but more, it’s because each book is filled with choices that feel like they have consequence; that the game is watching and remembers your every move. Sorcery! is fluid and feels player-directed, and yet it’s strongly authored. It’s like Steve Jackson is writing it for you as you play, reacting to your every action.

There’s no AI here, though. Sorcery!’s magic is down to a system that’s far simpler, but yet results in at least as much intricacy. This fantasy epic is actually just a lot of:

THE MECHANIC: Little choices

I wrote a while back about the richness of text and choices in Kentucky Route Zero, how it conjures characters and situations through giving nuanced multiple choice selections during dialogue. Sorcery also runs on multiple choice, as you’d expect from a gamebook adaptation, but it works in a very different way. “The system is that there isn’t really a system,” narrative director Jon Ingold tells me brightly. But he’s being glib. There is one, and it’s built on a couple of philosophical standpoints that are Inkle’s response to the usual way videogame RPGs deal with giving you choices.

“The reality of most RPGs is that you totally min-max them, because there appears to be no choice,” Ingold says. He contends that you need the best stats to be good at combat and to get all the dialogue options, and also that most RPGs are anxious to pre-warn you of the results of any choice. For Ingold and co-founder Joe Humfrey, these two tendencies encourage min-maxing, something that’s counter to the pure RPG intent of embodying a character and going forth into a world. “So our idea was to provide lots of choice and lots of responsiveness and no pre-choice feedback at all.” The second standpoint lies in when the game should give you feedback on your choice. Often, it comes either far too long after you’ve made it, when you’ve forgotten the context, or far too soon, when the consequences won’t have had time to sink in and there’s too much temptation to backtrack.

These two ideas went on to inform the snappy feel of the pacing in Sorcery! So, for example, we might talk to a guard, and they say, “What’s your business?” And we say that we’re a merchant. “Oh really, what do you sell?” asks the guard. And we reply, “Fish,” and he says, “You don’t smell like a merchant selling fish.”

“And you realise it’s too late to backtrack because you’re two choices into this experience,” says Ingold. “That general pacing meant we had to do short bursts of text; we had to do lots of little choices, because if you do big choices you can’t stack them so easily. I think we were quite surprised by how effective it was.”

A great strength to this approach is that choices aren’t outlined before you make them, so you don’t necessarily know which choices were going to be important. “Ideally, every time you put a choice in front of a player, they go, ‘Oh God, this is really serious…’ At the same time, to the game it’s irrelevant. That’s the ideal situation. It means we can author thousands of choices without having to worry about branching, but the player has this incredibly tense experience.” But that’s the ideal. In practice, Inkle were careful to educate the player that their choices matter by presenting enough choices that really do matter, or get called back repeatedly, so the player learns that they cannot predict what’s going to end up significant.

There are a few different systems working to do this, but a major one is character tracking. You don’t ever become aware of this, but as you play, certain choices will accrue you positive and negative points against five different traits: honour, empathy, haste, confidence and brains. Your actual score for each trait isn’t the sum of positive and negative points but the percentage of times you were honourable against dishonourable, or clever against stupid. This is super smart. In numerical scales like Knights of the Old Republic’s alignment system, you might have +10 points, and that might be because you’ve done 12 honourable things and two dishonourable things, or it could be because you’ve done 190 honourable things and 180 dishonourable things. In the former case you’re very good, and in the latter you’re very ambivalent, but in both cases you have the same score.

Instead, with Sorcery! you simply have a percentage which scales with the number of actions you take. With KOTOR’s approach, the game needs balance the numbers of events that allow players to be good and evil across the game so they have equal opportunity express themselves, but Sorcery! doesn’t need to do that at all. “The interesting thing about the character stats is that they’re robust in an environment in which we have no idea what content the player has seen and what they haven’t seen, and if they’ve been on a quick or long journey. It always works.”

These traits directly affect your game. In every scene the game checks against them and switches on and off options for actions accordingly, so if you’re a hasty character you might have an option that others would not. Although the game looks like it’s responding to your specific actions, it’s usually as a result of the accumulated actions you’ve taken over the course of the game.

This system of switching on and off options has steadily become more important to the series. The first book was a pretty straight adaptation of the first Sorcery! gamebook, in that it’s a linear progression from start to end. Book two is set in a city, and it allows you to make circuits of locations as you hunt for four clues that will lead to the book’s end. It used the same essential linear design as the first, but because some locations could be accessed seven different ways, it became very unwieldy to test and led to Inkle dropping linear progression completely for the third book. With the task to defeat seven serpents, Inkle wanted to give total freedom to move around the map. “Every scene in the game at the start will just say what sorts of things need to be true for the scene to run,” says Ingold. “Certain characters won’t appear if it’s night, or if you’ve been walking through the desert for 15 days, or if you’re too hungry to deal with them, or they will appear if you’ve burned down Kharé, blah blah blah.

“At that point we had a game we could shuffle pretty much at will with no real checks on whether the plot made any sense, no assumptions for what order players would do anything, and then we just beta tested it a lot. Every scene guards against errors itself, and nothing is baked into the system at all. It means you end up with the ability to make your game incredibly flexible because every scene is just checking to make sure that it makes sense. We have players with all sorts of character arcs and plotlines building strategies that I’ll read and realise you could play it that way, but I’ll have no idea they existed.”

The rest is just words. Inkle have a process they call ‘barnacling’, where a plotline is written and then they add barnacles every time they think of something interesting. “What happens if they put the beard on when they try and go through the gate?” suggests Ingold. “What if we let them talk to the snattercats and find out something there?” They add no load to the game, but create so much life. You’re left with little idea of how much of the game you’ve seen and feel sure that if you play again you’re sure to find something new. “It’s text, it’s very stable, very robust. If it breaks the balance, well, the balance is quite ad hoc anyway. The worst thing any bit of content can be is boring, so you just don’t write it if it’s boring.”

The game isn’t only made of lots of small choices. There are grander ones, but they tend to work in subtler ways than you might think. Spoiler alerts from here on since we’re going to focus on a couple of events in books three and four.

As an illustration of the flexibility of the system, at the end of book one you meet an assassin called Flanker, who you can kill. But if you don’t kill him, he appears at the end of the fourth book to play a role in the denouement and provide an extra challenge. He seems so significant that it’s hard to see how the game can end without him, but if you did kill him, he’s simply not there. There’s no replacement character; you simply walk directly to the room before the encounter with the Archmage. “Joe was saying what are we going to do for players who kill him early on? And my answer for that was to make sure the rest of the game is so good that they don’t notice there’s a gap.”

A larger scale choice concerns what happens in book four if you kill – or don’t – all seven serpents in the previous book. As much as the storyline impresses on you the importance of the quest, Inkle wanted the effect to be analogue, and for players to not have to kill all seven. Book four therefore starts in one of five states, calculated according to how long it took you to complete book three, how many serpents you killed, and other factors, such as whether you tell a little black elf that they’re the Analander. The states affect the likelihood that the Archmage has heard of the player, and the awareness of the Archmage affects the alert status of guards on the map. If they’re not alerted you can trick them into thinking you’re a merchant or some such, but if they are alerted, trivial approaches fail more frequently. “You’ll need to go for tougher, more intricate or more magic-focused approaches. [Take a look a the next page for some insight into how such an encounter is structured.] Tonally it should feel quite different, but I don’t think there are any massive scenes which exist or don’t depending on that stat. It’s mostly little things, like a guard here or there. We try to make it a thing which is significant in small ways in a lot of places, rather than big ways in a few places.”

So even the big choices ultimately comprise little choices, but the player’s experience is transformed nonetheless. “When you start to build a game out of lots of those choices you get a very small accretion effect of things building up. Individual choices don’t matter but there’s escalation and scale. I think the way Sorcery works is that players look back on it and feel they made too many decisions to be able to imagine how they could do things differently.”

The result is a game of choices where you’re not compelled to go only for the very best results. You play a story instead, and that story is yours.

On the next page, you can see an example of the markup text that Ingold wrote for a scene in Sorcery! 4. It concerns grumpy guards.

From this site

8 Comments

  1. CartonofMilk says:

    let it be said as a gamebook fanatic and collector and owner of over 250 of them that while Jackson and Livingstone paved the way and invented the genre and deserve praise (although kinda F you Livingstone for your ridiculously difficult one-true-paths), there are a lot of series better than FF or Sorcery. My favorite gamebook author of all time is Dave Morris. Blood Sword is my favorite series although he didn’t write this alone, Jamie Thompson and Oliver johnson also wrote some. It’s a great series because its way better written than jackson and livingstone wrote, it’s a 6 books epic in which you can use the same character, leveling after every book (a la Lone Wolf, also a great series but that eventually jumped the shark a dozen books in) , you can have anything between 1 to 4 party members (the less you have the stronger they are to make up for it) and objects you found in a book might have a use in a further one. There’s inventory continuity.

    Dave Morris and Thomspon also made the Fabled lands books which were endless (well unless you died but there was no end otherwise) open worlds adventure where each book represents a part of a map. So say you keep going east, eventually you’ll find yourself having to open another book at whatever paragraph the first book just told you to open it. It’s genius. But it was also the 90s and vieeo games were getting so complex that it didn’t really have a chance. You can find all Morris (and his buddy Jamie Thomspon) bookw easily now because they’ve had them republished (through their own efforts) in the last few years (mind you personally i’m a fanatic who will only buy the first printings…one of THOSE people but anyone else not crazy can easily get them for a decent price)

    They also actually wrote two books in the FF series and theyre also responsible for Golden Dragon, a very good series but with fighting rules even more simplistic than FF, perfect for beginners (and still enjoyable for veterans)

    And yeah i digressed. I just…if anyone talks gamebooks i come alive.

    So….Sorcery! then….

    • Rizlar says:

      Fabled Lands is brilliant! Looks like they might finally release more of the previously unfinished, unpublished books, at least one is coming out thanks to kickstarter! Fingers crossed they manage to include the same wonderful illustrations and complete the series with (cue scary music)… Book 10: Into the Underworld.

      Over the Blood Dark Seas was probably my fav. Pretty sure you can download and play them all for free in digital form as well. Now I should probably stop reading these articles and actually play Sorcery! part 1, which I already own…

  2. acoff001 says:

    I love these games so much, I was instantly hooked. Inkle should be commended for doing such a fantastic job with this series!

  3. shevtsov200 says:

    Great article about awesome game. Do we know what Inkle’s gonna do next?
    By the way, the second and fourth screenshots are the same.

  4. mactier says:

    I think choices have become a bad habit of RPGs. It’s not just about consequences to your actions anymore (which makes things more alive and interesting), but about halting you at every step and you presenting you with choices that are all equally unsatisfying, or where you miss out on something each way (which are otherwise equal to you), and making you properly consider at each turn, and then be really impressed by how “unsatisfied” the game can make you feel.

    It’s often noticeably construed, and sometimes I’m just glad when I can just DO something for a change.

  5. chuckieegg says:

    I remember the fat statue well from book 2. There was a paragraph on pretty much every page about which part of the statue to kiss next.

  6. Rizlar says:

    these two tendencies encourage min-maxing, something that’s counter to the pure RPG intent of embodying a character and going forth into a world.

    Funnily enough I have recently had a lot of fun in Fallout 4 attempting persuade checks with a charisma 1 character. The pissed off responses of villagers as I constantly ask for more money or fail to sweet talk my way through conversations is priceless. So much more interesting, characterful, narratively satisfying than min-maxing!

  7. Xander77 says:

    Snattercats is a snazzy name, but the game only ever refers to them as Snattacats.

    “as whether you tell a little black elf that they’re the Analander”. By Courga, you can convince other people that they’re the Analander? Will they finish your quest for you?

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