Originally released in the ’80s as a series of gamebooks, Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! has since made the transition to an interactive fiction game series for iOS devices. With the first installment, “The Shamutani Hills,” now coming to Android, and part 2, “Kharé: Cityport Of Traps,” slated for Spring, Inkle Studios’ Creative Director Jon Ingold discusses what this series is all about, why it’s only now coming to Android devices, and why it won’t be available on the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One anytime soon.
For those who didn’t play it on iOS devices, what kind of game is Sorcery! and how do you play it?
The games are adapted from a series of gamebooks published in the 1980s, but we’ve done so much revision and iteration on everything from the way the combat works to the way the story itself is told that it isn’t really a gamebook any more at all.
For want of a better description, we call it a “interactive narrative adventure.” You take the part of an adventurer, setting off alone across a harsh and cruel wilderness, armed with a sword and a spellbook. The adventure you have is based on what you decide to do. Every action your character takes in the story, every place they visit, everything they say, is your choice, and every choice you make is remembered and shapes the rest of the story that follows.
Along the way, you’ll cast spells with huge and varied effects on the story, and you’ll fight monsters using our unique sword-dueling mechanic. And when you finish each game, you can carry your character over into the next part in the series, or you can jump in and start a new game at any point in the adventure.
What other games do you think it’s similar to and why?
In that it’s a story told in text, with text options, it’s a bit like an old-school text adventure. It’s more like Zork than any gamebook because the sheer number of options available at every turn means you can almost do anything you want to in the story, but without the frustration of the game not understanding what you mean. It’s also a lot like adventure games, and for the second one we really built on that, with sequences that feel like they’re straight out of Broken Sword.
In the way the story branches and different outcomes change what happens, it’s a little bit like The Walking Dead, but not very much. Those choices tended to be occasional, big issues of life, death and trust; our game is instead stuffed with smaller, more incidental choices which spin out into big effects.
Would you say those games were an influence on Sorcery!?
Adventure games and text games, definitely. Both those genres want to capture the sense of getting lost inside a fascinating, living, breathing world, and they try to mix the exploration of an open-world game like Skyrim with the plotting and drama of a TV show. But people often find text games hard to play, and adventure games have this reputation for being filled with nonsense puzzles or tedious dialogue.
We wanted to make something that was way more streamlined: that grabbed you by the hand and whipped you along through the adventure.
The games are based on a series of four adventure gamebooks by writer Steve Jackson. How close is your game to what you do in those books?
Everything in the original books is in the games, somewhere; but there’s a lot more there besides. Steve created this wonderful, weird world full of traps and nasty surprises, and we’ve taken it to pieces, filled out the back story, given all the characters names and histories, and then put the whole lot back together again. So much so, that when Steve plays the games himself, he’s discovering new things about his world. So this is really Sorcery! rebooted.
In the mechanics, we’ve taken his original ideas and developed them. We changed the combat system from a dice-based game to one that takes advantage of the tablet, and has you trying to read the attacks and manner of different creatures, who play in different styles and have different A.I. And we’ve fleshed out the spell-casting. In the original book, when you had the opportunity to cast a spell, there was a choice of five each time. We don’t ever let you cast just anything, but there’s often ten or more possible spells available, some of which will help, and some of which will make things a lot worse….
The books were originally published in the ’80s. Did you change anything in your game so this wouldn’t be so ’80s-ish?
Definitely. Though we’re great fans of the books, and I do feel nostalgic for them, we didn’t want to make a nostalgic product. We wanted new players to feel welcome and like they could get stuck into playing without needing to know anything; and we hoped that old fans would be thrilled to see something they love getting a new lease of life. And overall, we think that approach has been pretty successful. The games have sold well, and the fans are pretty excited. In fact, the response we get most often is from fans who are really pleased to see that they thought they knew how to solve the book, they tried it, and then the game turned things about and punished them for being so confident.
But we’ve definitely tried to nail the spirit and the flavor of the books. The world Steve Jackson created at the time, alongside his Fighting Fantasy co-creator Ian Livingstone, has a really unique feel and flavor to it. It’s not classic D&D, it’s not Tolkien, it’s not Discworld or Game Of Thrones, but it’s somewhere in between all those things. And we wanted to stay true to that because it’s so unique.
How involved was Jackson in the making of the game?
Steve’s been involved at every step, advising us, making sure we don’t go too far off track, and suggesting ideas to develop and extend the books. He put us on the track of developing a gambling game for Part 2, which became Swindlestones, a betting/conversation game hybrid that’s a key part of the story as well as a good way to gamble away your fortune. But he’s also enjoying taking a bit of a back-seat, I think; when each app is finished he gets to play it and enjoy it for himself.
The first two parts of the series — “The Shamutani Hills” and “Kharé: Cityport Of Traps” — are already available for iOS devices but are just now coming to Android. Why the delay?
We develop everything in native code — not in an engine like Unity — because that way we can make sure the game runs perfectly on every device. As you can probably tell from the app, we’re massive UI fanatics and like everything to look perfect. So developing cross-platform is hard.
It’s also pretty expensive and quite a risk. Back in May, when we released Part 1, we had no idea what the response would be like, and there was every chance that releasing a text-based game was going to lose us quite a lot of money. So we went iOS only rather than doing a port straight away.
Of course, the first game did really well. People loved the concept, got into the world quickly, and weren’t bothered by the text. So that gave us enough of a boost to start the port to Android.
Is there also a reason why Android are only getting the first part, “The Shamutani Hills,” and not the second one as well right away?
The second one should follow pretty quickly, but we want to get that first part out as fast as we can and get people involved with the game. But there’s quite a lot of extra work to do from Part 1 to Part 2. The second game isn’t just more of the same but has four or five massive new features: interior maps of buildings you can explore, which zoom in and out seamlessly; the dice game mechanics; and a lot of under-the-hood stuff to cope with the fact the story itself is nearly 10Mb of data.
Are there any differences between the version of “The Shamutani Hills” that’s already out for iOS and this new Android version?
The Android port should be a 1-1 copy, with the only adjustments being made to fit it onto the screen nicely, and integrating the Android “back” button. We don’t want to change anything because we designed the iOS version really carefully. If anything needed changing, we would change it on all platforms, like we did back when we added the option for a female avatar to Part 1 earlier this year. The Android port will have all the features that the current release of Sorcery! has. Those tweaks we made to Part 1 were really improvements we wanted to make originally but we ran out of time for the first release. But the new 3D spell-casting is better and everyone should get that, and having the female and male option for your character is really important too.
Aside from Android devices, are there plans to bring the games to any other mobile platforms?
Probably not in the short term. If the game continues to be popular, we might look at desktop versions next, that’s quite an interesting space. But the other mobile platforms feel pretty small right now.
Though Vita would be cool.
What about consoles or PCs, any plans to do the game for them?
The audience on PC is, we think, quite different. People like to lean forward and control stuff on their PCs, and their consoles, whereas with tablets and phones we lean back and can absorb a world in a more relaxed way. But we’re not sure about that. A PC version might be possible.
A console version would be awful, though, wouldn’t it? All that moving up and down between options with a game-pad, it’d feel terrible. We’d have to change things a lot to make it work on a PS4, I think.
Lastly, what other books — adventure gamebooks or otherwise — do you think would work for this kind of game and why? Assuming that getting the rights were not an issue. And I’m looking more for ones you’d actually like to do. Obviously, the original Choose Your Own Adventure books would work, but that doesn’t mean you’d want to do games based on them.
Actually, I don’t think the original Choose Your Own Adventure books would work at all, to be honest. The Sorcery! books have a world behind them, they have mechanics, and puzzles, and rules, and characters. But a lot of the Choose Your Own Adventure series are actually pretty random, with only occasional choices, that do strange and quite unpredictable things, and often just kill you without warning. I think adapting one of those to really flow in the way that Sorcery! flows would be almost impossible. Our rule is “the character does and says nothing that isn’t directly chosen by the player,” and the Choose Your Own Adventure books would break that one every page.
There are lots of other series’ out there, of course. The Fabled Lands books are great. We’ve worked with their co-author Dave Morris before on his interactive Frankenstein app, and we’ve played around with adapting one of his titles, a pirate adventure, which I’d still love to finish up. But I think for our next projects we might try to do something original. There are lots of other genres to try and stories to tell, and not all of them have been tackled…yet!