Last week saw the release of Sorcery 4 [official site], the final part of what's technically Inkle Studios' conversion of the hit-80s books, but in practice is easily the most crazily advanced, ambitious CYOA ever put to page or screen. I won't go into too much detail here, because you can read John's WIT of the series as a whole, or maybe my own interview with the devs from the start of the year. Suffice it to say that it's been one hell of a ride, and I for one can't wait to see Inkle's next game - hopefully, like the masterful 80 Days, something else that breaks the mould harder and faster than Smash Mouth fleeing the Mystery Men in favour of the big green Shrek dollar.
But something I've been wondering about for a while. With all these choices... what if your choice is not to play? To refuse the adventure. Onwards! Reluctantly!
Now, obviously you can just sit in the village at the start of the game, but that's not what I mean. Sorcery offers a very non-linear path through its game, and most of the time you want to embrace that - to uncover secrets, to find lost loot, etc, on your quest to reach the dreaded citadel of Manpang and retrieve the Crown of Kings from the evil Archmage. A hero would embrace all of these things. I however am roleplaying as a regular Jane handed this ridiculous quest against their will, and really not looking forward to a single minute of it. As most of us would likely answer the Call.
Huh. That was surprisingly easy!
No, wait, wait. Dream sequence. Actually, I'm still in my village at the edge of the Shamutanti Hills, with four long maps to traverse. I dress, breakfast on bread and goat's milk, and collect the pack and sword from beside my bed. I pray for luck... I think I'll need it... and head out into the village, where all are aware of my mission. I greet them. The Sergeant of the Sightmaster Warriors gives me twenty four gold pieces. "All we can spare", the tight-arses. Do you want the Crown of Kings back or don't you?
Given the option to take it, take half, or refuse it, I of course pocket the lot. Next, spellbook. I make a point of screenshotting this, purely because the last time I complained about the spellbook system being ridiculous and it being much better if the game would just let you pick one from the damn list like a sensible game, I had many a pedant going 'Oh, but you don't GET the spellbook so it makes sense that it works like this, you non-RTFMing fool...' Well, you do. Moral of the day, I was, am and always will be right about this game's spellcasting system being complete garbage.
See? Here is the Mage pressing the book into my goddamn hands.
Apologies accepted at your earliest convenience. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, being smug. Well, I'm sure that'll soon fade as the journey goes. First up, rations. Rations in Sorcery restore your Stamina, Stamina is Health. Rations are important. I buy six - the most I can - and get a two gold discount. A bit of training later and it's time to head out into the hills proper, to seek adventure and Rincewind the hell out of it.
Goddamnit! Barely an hour outside and I just lost half my health to the environment. Well, never mind. I head off cross-country, stopping off to buy some equipment from the first shop - an axe, a flute, and a bag of teeth for use in spellcasting. Admittedly, the axe isn't quite the kind of thing I want to waste time fighting with, but I might possibly know from previous playthroughs that it has its uses. Likewise, the flute seems pretty pointless, until leaving the town and using it to cast the JIG spell - which causes lively dancing in enemies, humiliating them and leaving them wide open.
At this point, the map opens up. Time to start running. There's a village not far away, which probably means the safer path. Unfortunately to get to it means a bridge, and this part of Sorcery follows the 'fuck you' school of design where falling into the water means almost certainly losing all rations as well as dignity. In fact, this is what inspired this run - knowing that around here it's possible to die because you sat down for lunch, only to take a shot in the leg from an unseen enemy and promptly keel over and turn into a gravestone. Luckily, unlike the books of old, you don't need to stick your finger between pages to casually rewind time. Rewinding is built in and approved of.
But even so, sometimes...
Seriously, fuck you Steve Jackson. And fuck the 80s too. With their hair.
With no way around the traps, I reluctantly take the lesser of the various evils, which is to step back from the second trap and so fall back into the first. This results in being captured by Headhunters. Gah! What happened to not having an adventure?
Luckily, being thrown in one of those impossible to actually make pots isn't the end. I pray to my spirit deity. It makes it rain. The Headhunters drop me on the ground. Somehow... uh... landing on wet mud loosens my bonds. And I'm out of there, with posessions intact! I flee and promptly end up a target for some annoying little elves in the trees, but that's a better fate than being eaten alive. I let them do their worst and make it to the village of Kristatanti. Unfortunately, despite being dirt poor, the inn-keeper seems to think her guest-house is worth three gold pieces. Haha, no. What's the worst that could happen to you, sleeping outdoors? Waking up to find a Roach Pig has sunk its teeth into your leg and is sucking on your blood?
Unrelated, I later wake to find a Roach Pig has sunk its teeth in my leg.
And let that be the last combat for a while. From there, I take a lift with a cart driver that proves be, ooh, almost five centimeters of the map, and actively avoid both ruins and caves. Please. Like anything good ever came of poking around caves. I skip another village just in case it's a trap and then- no! Werewolf! Werewolf attack!
Fortunately, I wait it out and it, uh, gets bored and goes away.
That just leaves a suspicious looking bridge that is quite obviously going to be a Monty Python Bridge of Death reference, which I avoid for obvious reasons. Much easier just to climb down the side and climb up, and be spared any stupid questions about swallows. From there, the final town in Part 1 awaits - Birritanti. For once, I don't avoid it, but head right in. This is because I have... uh... a sacred vision that somewhere within is the owner of the axe that I bought at the start of the game. His name is Glandragor, and he provides some help for the rest of the trip to the city of Kharé, as well as warning that the peoples of the next village will be looking for an adventurer due to their chief's daughter being kidnapped by marauders.
"It's not my trouble," I tell him.
"It's not, but you have the adventurer look about you. I think you won't be able to resist."
Ha. We'll see about that, friend. But first, some sleeping and skinny-dipping...
...and fighting an assassin. Huh. But at least while well rested!
This is of course Flanker, whose honour is such that defeating but sparing him guarantees a favour, but who still likes randomly attacking people with a scimitar. Like most assassins codes of honour, it's probably better not looked into very deeply. Annoying, because fighting him costs me much of my precious Stamina.
I also have an odd meeting with a witch who overthinks things too much.
I don't know what her problem is. Lovely cup of tea! Was she expecting me to swap cups on her or something? That would be incredibly rude and suspicious! Almost as rude and suspicious as it would be to use a poison you wouldn't see coming...
Anyway, the final part of the quest is to rescue the Chieftain's daughter from its last village. I promise to do it, follow them to a hole in the ground, and then bravely, bravely, bravely leg it. It doesn't work, sadly, the plan not helped by the fact that I've acquired an annoying little partner called Jann who cancels out my magical abilities, but at least I tried! Almost as hard as I tried to murder Jann and even now curse his name.
More 80s gamebook bullshit of course follows, including rolling rocks and snake pits. Jann serves up the biggest plate of the aforementioned poo pie though, by not just making everything harder, but completely undercutting about 80% of the things I could theoretically do to solve problems. I dub him the most annoying creature in the universe and pray to my Spirit Guide that he be imminently sodomised by an angry wolf. This is especially pointed when I finally reach the effective boss of the chapter, a Manticore who is a complete breeze to take out with the help of a couple of spells, but a brutal fight for someone armed with starting gear and a winning smile.
And I'm very soon all out of smiles. This is far too much like an adventure. I disapprove.
Uh. Good kitty? Nice kitty?
Fortunately, via judicious reloading, I'm soon done. Ignoring the victory celebrations, I tumble into Kharé battered, bruised, and annoyed. This, I know from experience, isn't going to get much better in a hurry. Kharé is the City of Trolls. Not giant rock monsters with clubs. I mean that its city flag is a farting anus against a cross-pattern of LOLCats, and its national anthem is Ten Hours of the Trololololo Song.
Also, it turns out that if you don't do things like adventuring, you quickly run out of things like money and stamina, especially after being forced to fight with a giant manticore. It's time for serious, serious cheesing. Also, while I'm at it, asking why I have to go through this ghastly place when there absolutely has to be some bridge or something further down the river that would be safer. Hell, let's swim the damn thing. It hardly matters! That's how you get across it when you get to the bloody docks anyway!
Anyway. The good thing about Kharé is its gimmick. Basically, you're not meant to get everything you need in a single run, with a time-loop system being introduced later in the episode so that you can go back and get the essentials - the essentials, supposedly, being the codes that you need to open the Gate to the Baklands, and Sorcery episode 3, as well as some top tips from much more powerful Sorcerers.
First though, beating up a beggar for the hell of it.
Oh, I know. But it's only fair. Basically, everyone in Kharé wants you dead. If you ask someone to be a guide, they'll find a way to set a golem on you or drop you into the sewers. If you go to someone for help, they're as likely to smite you with magic as help out. It's an impossible economy of absolute beeep beep beeeep beeeeeping beep-beep beep-weasel beeeeeep!s that's only tolerable because you can rewind time on a whim.
But knowing that is important. And knowing is half the battle.
Not that it keeps you out of jail. Some crooks learn the real art of crime while banged up. I just learn how to play bloody Swindlestones. Swindlestones is basically Strip Liar's Dice with more talking to old men about lore and thankfully less stripping on any side of the table. Its a perfectly fine mini-game though, and one I can definitely play without fearing too much of a shift towards adventuring. In fact, having a nice evening's rest in a prison is a refreshing start to exploring Kharé, spoiled only by the fact that I now have... no gold, and no rations. And of course, the prison doesn't put on a nice Continental breakfast or anything. Not even a bowl of gruel to get the day off well.
Skipping through most of Kharé proves surprisingly easy. Lots of people try to get my attention, and more or less I go 'LA LA LA LA LA!' and run out without listening. If they're a guard, I pretend not to notice. If they're apparently a corpse, I cross the road to avoid them. If they're a friendly face, I scream, and commence Operation: Leg It. Oh, this might sound like overkill, but in Kharé, I know from a previous trip that it is in fact exactly enough kill. Just about every decision point offers the words 'Keep Moving'.
'Keep Moving' becomes my mantra, through the market, down the main road, all the way from the nice bit of town to... literally everywhere else in town. Everywhere. Kharé is a place where if you stop for a drink, you'll drink it, then the friendly guy who was giving you advice a second ago will suddenly cheer "Vangorn the Murderer has claimed another victim!" and watch you die of poison. Fuck Kharé.
By the end of the day, I've reached the river and proven that you can indeed swim across it, making this whole adventure somewhat pointless. However, be that as it may, the only route is through the other side of town, past its muggers and underground monster hives, and the Necropolis, which doesn't sound intimidating at all!
Nope! Nope! Nope!
And so, with pleasant swiftness, I find myself at the North Gate out of town. So, that went well. Also, I get mugged by werewolves who take all my money. That... didn't go so well. No food, none of the tiny amount of money I'd picked up on the way, and still two chapters to go! Somehow I doubt the Archmage is too impressed.
But it's worth it for what happens next, which I've been looking forward to ever since the start of the chapter. Opening the Gate, I'm met by a booming voice who demands to know if I've learned the spell that controls the gate, and the answer is of course "Haha, no." That's adventure talk, bucko. And you might think that this would be a problem. Ordinarily, it would be. The gate would remain locked. But today, I've lucked into being here right on the edge of a full-on goblin invasion. Hundreds of them! Pouring into the city! And though I can't force the gate, their army effortlessly barges through. And-
And then a mysterious voice from the past, Lorag, appears to tell me that my quest all along wasn't to get through Kharé, but to save it. To somehow prevent its destruction at the hands of goblins and werewolves and goodness knows what else that lurks in the alleys and corridors. And for some reason, he acts like this is a sensible thing for a sane person to do. Hell, if I was an adventurer, this would be an unappealing prospect. As a lazy travelling hobo who still unaccountably has a quest, it's verging on complete idiocy. At the very least you could have stepped in to prevent me getting mugged.
I mean... save Kharé? Really? I would rather eat Johnny Vegas' underpants. If I had the option "Leave, dancing," then I would choose it. Too bad Lorag doesn't see things my way. At all. "If my city burns today, because of you, then your journey will continue," he warns, "But it will be under a dark cloud. I will curse every further step you take."
I'm sure he'll get over it.
...eventually. Anyhoo, to Chapter 3! Just check out these stats...
Sadly, as of the third game... well, things quickly went downhill. Your goal is to track down the Seven Serpents who serve the evil Archmage, and there's not much scope for doing that while keeping your nose clean. At least until you meet them, and they eat your face off. "That's right," sneers Lorag, "Prepare yourself for your doom."
Sorcery 3 is the open-world game of the series, and easily my favourite. But that's when you want to do stuff like control time with the help of magical lighthouses, and collect loot, and go after the Serpents. Just blitzing through is less fun, though having Lorag on hand being a bitchy presence who can't help but show off his knowledge adds a definite spice to things. Also, despite the whole thing about 'cursing your every step', he's actually okay about taking pity on me and providing the occasional heal. Basically, I think we'll be besties, just as soon as he realises how much Kharé sucked.
I'm basically the king of priorities.
But in this chapter, the lack of preparation really bites down. The enemies are tougher. Life doesn't last long. The blocking enemies are everywhere (with many items and encounters randomised rather than in specific positions, as before. Even so, a little knowledge goes a long way. Learning the Serpent's weaknesses makes them relatively easy to take out. I have to burn my spellbook to take out the first without dying, which sucks... or would do if I couldn't just Google a list of the spells.
Still. Fighting one of the unstoppable serpents? That's a bit... adventurous, isn't it? Very poor show. While this part of the adventure is very exploratory, I make a note to continue half-assing it as much as humanly possible and leave still using my original sword, with no rations, only three gold pieces, and only two of the Seven Serpents killed. I'm pretty sure this is about as non-adventurous as you can get and still make it across the otherwise guarded encounters. That said, the first time I played this game, I know I didn't kill one of them, and I'm pretty sure there's a way past the second. I really did hope to get through the chapter without a single accomplishment.
In my success, I find such bitter failure...
At the very least, I impress Lorag, who finally gives up his cursing and spluttering to accept that just maybe... maybe... I had a reason to let Kharé burn.
"Indeed," I tell him. "I despised your city."
I suspect we may never be friends again.
Also, somehow I think I managed to become the baddie. Something about misusing the power of time-travel, somehow destroying several villages, turning the Baklands into a poisoned wasteland... yadda yadda. Well, you can't make an omelette, and all that. Not that I'd try, if there was any way I could just run away from the eggs and the frying pan like a sensible non-adventurer.
Now, I'm not going to go into how things went in Part 4, for the simple reason that it's only just out, and definitely not because when I went to get my screenshots, they were all blank. Grr. (Spoiler though: It... could have gone better. Turns out that showing up at your nemesis' house with a broken sword, little stamina, no rations, no resources, and five of his toughest goons wanting to kill you should typically be saved for Plan B.
But as an experiment, I think this non-adventure adventure did its work - of showing the power of Sorcery's storylet form to tell a sprawling RPG that actually responds and weaves in and out of your decisions. Honestly, I didn't think it would be possible to get this far while completely ignoring everything, even with a little advance knowledge about the terrain. You can argue that being able to do it means that Sorcery is too easy, but really, even willfully refusing to have an adventure turned out to be a surprisingly fun adventure. Playing it properly, with four games worth of choices running into each other and rippling against each other is of course even better.
And that's largely why this is one of my favourite RPGs of recent years, despite it having as much conventional adventure DNA in its system. The first chapter is a touch frustrating with its 'haha, you die now' traps everywhere, but after that it really finds its feet as a game that tells a story along with you rather than trying to fight against you. The Seven Serpents in particular offers not just the inspired dragon-Hitman approach of giving you the targets, but encourages you to get the job quickly lest the evil Archmage cotton onto your presence. Completely skipping the adventure in Kharé added one of my favourite characters to the mix, both for Lorag's ineffective snark during mosts of the game, and the amusing way he actually does come around.
Sorry, I couldn't bring myself to be nice to him, even for a screenshot.
There's just so much in this series to find, to explore, and with the power of storylets, to enjoy as your story regardless of what everyone else is doing. 80 Days of course offers something similar, but in that game you're still typically at the whim of travel schedules and the like, whereas Sorcery really does let you control almost every step of your journey. The rewinding system in particular is a masterstroke (until Part 4 turns it off, to show that now, things be getting serious), feeling less like a cheat mode than a way of exploring a situation in more depth. Was there another, possibly better way? Sure. But unlike most RPGs, it'll be based on something you may or may not have done up to three games earlier, from sparing a character's life to having found a crucial reagant for a spell that previously seemed to just be filling space in your spellbook. Designing on such a small scale but against such a wide canvas demands a whole new way of thinking about RPGs, but Sorcery! proves that it's well worth taking the time to do it.
Fingers crossed that some of the big boys have been taking notes during the series.
And once again, I really can't wait to see what Inkle does next.