Sorcery! is a game you play on your phone. It’s actually a really, really good game you play on your phone. So good in fact, that I’d happily play it over many other, much more elaborate games - on a phone or otherwise. Its simplicity and focus are things to be celebrated. Here I will do just that.
I self-consciously balked at the stuff deemed goofy by my peers. As a kid you listened to Papa Roach, talked about football, watched the late night softcore on Channel 5, ate your end of term lunch at McDonald’s, played football, chased girls, skipped homework, watched football and stole booze from your parents. I only actually liked two of those things - the nu metal and the blueys, obviously - and so spent a fair bit of my time pretending to be into the others outside of school, where, conveniently, no one could see me not doing them. I don’t think I fooled anyone, but at the time it seemed I just about passed the societal conditions necessary to be a cool kid. For one to maintain this status you couldn’t really like more fringe pastimes. Magic cards? Not a chance. Dungeons & Dragons? Ha! Warhammer (40K or otherwise)? The only little figures you were allowed to play with were of the Subbuteo variety (football again). Acknowledging the other kids who liked these things? Big no no. By the age of about fifteen I’d had enough of this sham personality and jumped ship (let’s be honest: I was pushed), but I’d already missed out on many an enlightening formative year. It is for this collection of customarily awkward adolescent reasons that I have never sampled a Fighting Fantasy book.
I’ve still not, to be honest, but I understand they’re like the Choose Your Own Adventure books I borrowed from the library in the years before concepts of social standing afflicted my developing brain. Essentially, they are non-linear works of fiction where you pick the narrative progression from a set number of options, creating a quasi-bespoke tale of adventure, intrigue and exploration for yourself.
“Brave adventurer, you are presented with a choice: two - equally ominous - doorways stand before your weary body. The one straight ahead is shrouded in darkness, but might that be the cool wind of freedom emanating from it? The one to your left, while being paved with gold and lit brightly by unflickering torches, looks weird, as if its silent promise were too good to be true. A trap perhaps? Make your final choice, o ballsy cartographer. Go straight ahead [turn to 375]. Go left [turn to 109]. Turn right and face the wall for an eternity of sorry contemplation [turn to 26].”
That sort of thing.
I’m told Fighting Fantasy took it a tad further and made you roll a die to decide the outcomes of certain choices, but structurally it was pretty similar to the stuff I played. Just as Fighting Fantasy took the Choose Your Own Adventure and altered it, making it something entirely new and exciting, so too does a digital reimagining of one of those very game books. Sorcery! for your phone is just that: a game book you play on your phone (or tablet device). But it isn’t just on your phone, oh no, it’s been designed expressly for your phone. In this respect it’s a flawless accomplishment.
[I realise that a Twine write-up here would be super fitting, but they’ve been done to death so we’ll go with the linear option. But please feel free to skip about the page and pretend it’s one if you wish.]
Apple don’t like making digital things with the characteristics of their physical counterparts anymore, but Sorcery! is certainly still into the concept. The first really striking thing about it is its appearance. Everything looks like a real-world object. Its text is voluptuous, resembling the elegant handwriting of official documents from yesteryear. It’s all displayed on sheets of digital parchment that look thick and handmade. There’s a weathered, grey look to it all, as if you’re playing with something that’s significantly older than any actual game book. Physically, a book is a book, and unless you endeavour to make a more expensive publication or collection of works, you’re stuck with the properties of a single, standard, cheap paperback. Digital Sorcery! isn’t constrained by the limitations of a delivery medium in such a way, and it wholly embraces this freedom. The choices you face are displayed as separate pieces of paper all stacked upon each other, as if you were flipping through pages and picking from truly disparate outcomes to each quandary. Once you make a decision it is then stitched to the ongoing narrative with thread. This is visually striking and lends each new event a sense of permanence, as if you are now literally bound to your decisions. While you can rewind at any time and pick again, this visual cue implicitly tells you not to, just without wholly enforcing draconian permanence. If you cock something up you can have another go, but all the stitching is undone and the pages cast aside. It creates a real sense that you are throwing part of your story away if you attempt to rewrite it.
The map. Oh my, Sorcery!’s map is beautiful. At first glance it looks to be a fairly standard - though wonderfully expressive and colourful - document. Its place names are drawn in thick calligraphy. Little stylised hamlets comprising a few buildings dot the landscape. Its winding paths, wooded areas and escarpments just beg to be explored. It’s lovely. But, as you zoom in with a pinch and move it about with a tactile little swipe, it reveals more of itself. The whole thing it subtly contoured. It’s bumpy! Every hill, copse, valley and slope has its own elevation on the map. As you drag it around you get a real glimpse of the places you’re visiting. Given that the majority of the locations you travel through are simply described in the text, the addition of this topographic map adds a great amount of depth to the world. Much of the narrative is concerned with specific locations, with the long stretches in between only given little snippets of flavour text. In allowing the player a larger view of the whole world of the game, and showing you where you are in relation to everything else at all times, Sorcery! neatly connects these points together in a simple and terribly satisfying way. The map doesn’t just give you an overview of where you’ve been and have yet to go; it also ties the whole story together in a cohesive way that flipping between pages of a book simply can’t match.
The bloody combat
Combat in the role playing games on your phone is handled in loads of different ways. Commonly though, you end up with either Final Fantasy-like turn-based affairs or Zelda-esque real-time hacking. The former works just fine - if that’s what you’re into. The latter however, well, it just doesn’t at all. This is mainly because there aren’t any buttons on a phone screen, so it always tends to be a bit slippy and accident-prone. Say what you will, but sliding your fingers about a screen trying to hit virtual buttons isn’t the most accurate of input methods. But, y’know, loads of mobile games choose to work that way so someone must think it’s okay. Again though, Sorcery! isn’t happy with just being pedestrian, so its combat is a bit more elegant.
When you enter combat you’re presented with a screen that looks a lot like a fighting game. Your character is on the left and your opponent on the right. Each is presented as a lovely little cutout drawing, and everyone is imbued with the loving care that projects from every aesthetic aspect of the game. Encounters play out as a game of oneupmanship, where your aim is to attack harder than your opponent or block them outright. The rules are simple. Each combatant can choose to attack or defend each round. If both parties attack, the stronger of the two wins and the loser takes damage. If one attacks and the other defends, the defender receives a glancing blow which inflicts only a small amount of damage, regardless of the assault’s actual strength. The veracity of attacks is governed by a stamina meter that can only be replenished when blocking, and so a rhythm of attacking and defending emerges as you expend and regain energy.
You choose how strong a beating you’ll hand out by dragging your character closer to the enemy, in yet another example of the game’s simple yet rewardingly tactile input. As you approach closer your stamina bar depletes accordingly, and you can make adjustments to deal out more or less aggression. A running commentary accompanies each flight, giving you clues as to what you should do next. “The troll raises its mighty club into the air” suggests you should either block or go in hard and hope you’ll be stronger than the attack you are facing. “The assassin, wounded from a deep slash, reels backwards, shifting her weight and protecting herself from your blade” infers that she’ll defend, so it’s a good time to do the same or strike small, as anything stronger here would be a waste of stamina.
Essentially, what you’re being asked to do is a literary version of the real thing. You’re reading your duelling partner; their movements, facial expressions and stance, and have to decide upon your response accordingly. It’s excitingly fast-paced for something that doesn’t take place in real-time, as you hurriedly read through the descriptions and pick your actions. Interpreting the clues correctly and delivering a strong, finishing blow to your adversary is incredibly rewarding, as you feel as though you are truly mastering your environment and developing acute combat awareness. For a pair of jittery cardboard cutouts, shifting about like early South Park characters and being narrated by simple text (of all things (!)), it is all really - genuinely - engrossing.
Games get a big fat rap on the knuckles for hitting the player with too much of this old fashioned text. It’s as if, because games are shiny, colourful and fun, people don’t see the value in a good bit of prose anymore. It’s often seen as lazy for a game to put extraneous narrative into in-world books, or posted bills, or journals. But what happens when your entire game is predominantly text? If it’s well written it’s a boon, to be honest.
Sorcery! is a great read. Its paragraphs are dense, descriptive and enthralling. It has a knack of conveying both gameplay-specific and narrative information in the space of a single sentence. It is concise, but also lovingly, wonderfully rich. As I’ve already said, aside from the map and the odd accompanying illustration, the whole world is conveyed through text alone. In an age of hyperrealistic graphics, even on your phone, it is refreshing and heartening to see a game stand by older means of storytelling - and flourishing for it.
I don’t enjoy games like Knights of the Old Republic much - despite their often better-than-average world, character and narrative design - because playing them is so super boring. I’ve never liked clicking on things and seeing something happen, unless, of course, I’m clicking on a head and watching it explode (games, int it?). I’ve played and enjoyed later, more action-orientated “epic role-playing games” though, and have been, like many people, grabbed by the concept of making far-reaching decisions. The problem with offering anything on a supposedly grand scale, however, is actually meeting expectations. People are extremely narcissistic, especially when placed in positions of power. If you tell a player that they are a badass with the power to decide the fate of entire races, then you kind of need to let them recognisably commit genocide on a suitably fitting level. You can’t boil a species down to a single Queen monster or a robot companion and have them stand in as a proxy for their kin. Games on this scale exist to let you play as a gun-toting Jesus figure, not to mete out your judgement on one. They are, at the end of the day, all about spectacle. If you - o game designer - are allowing people to wipe out the hive-mind of a species, then they understandably want to see a load of its underlings exploding in clouds of innards and bile. And then to see that death-wave ripple around the galaxy through a contrived montage of news footage, security camera tapes and phone videos. You’ve let them take the cruel choice after all, so they are clearly in the market for some power tripping. Let them see how depraved they really are, don’t just tell them. This is often the problem when hyped-up decisions come to bear: their consequences just aren’t satisfyingly grandiose enough.
Sorcery! deftly avoids offering up damp squibs by making itself a much more personal affair. Decisions are rarely more exciting than picking a fork in the road, choosing whether to drink a suspicious-smelling pint or crossing a bridge versus taking the long way round. But you know what? At least you feel the full brunt of their trivial consequences. Go left and you might run into a shack full of coins, or a goblin, or a rejuvenating fountain, or an untimely death. But what if you went right instead? You’ll simply never know. Just like everything else about Sorcery!, its level of player choice is smartly concise. It, I think, understands better than most games that it isn’t the scale of decisions which excites players, but how meaningful their actions prove to be upon making them. While picking a door mightn’t be the most exciting choice you’ve ever made, its consequences are instantly felt and often continue to be so right through the game.
I chose to cross the bridge, by the way, and it turned out to be a magical construct. I was asked a riddle by its keeper - to simply name a witch. He gave me a dozen options, none of which I could remember hearing before, so I answered honestly and said I was clueless, hoping he might appreciate the candour. No such luck. As the bridge began to disintegrate beneath my feet I ran back the way I’d come, just managing to get onto solid ground before it disappeared completely. Somewhere on my travels there was a person, or perhaps a scrap of paper or a book, that could have told me the answer. But I didn’t come across it, and so I was helpless. For me, knowing that little choices like this can have such a far reaching consequence to my journey, makes them far more impressive than me choosing to do something super, super grand and then hearing that “it happened somewhere really far away, honest”.
Sorcery! is a smartly designed game that suits its platform to a tee. It understands exactly what it is and presents itself accordingly - and often exquisitely. It never overreaches its grasp, and is consequently one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had with a game on my phone. All too often mobile titles seem ashamed to be just that, choosing to layer on complexities from consoles or computers as if it will somehow atone for the perceived shallowness of the phone as a place to play games. You can never replicate the nuance of physical buttons on a touch screen. Swiping can’t possibly be as accurate as an analogue stick. Your four and a half inch screen, with your fingers covering up a good portion of it, will never be able to accommodate as much information as a television. None of these limitations need matter if we accept them - if we design to each device’s strengths. Sorcery! understands this. It courses through its very being, its chest puffed out with pride. “I am a game for your phone”, it says, “and I am super proud to be one.” So, in keeping with Sorcery!’s unwavering conviction, I’d just like to say that yes, you mightn’t like this type of thing, but I do. And I’m not ashamed to say so.
Sorcery! 3: The Seven Serpents was totally free on Saturday the 16th of May. And I totally didn’t download it in time. Now it’s going to cost me four quid (that’s more than six USD) to continue the adventure wot inspired this writing. OMG. FML. ETC. Or if you’re thankful in any way for my free written gift to you, maybe consider making it ever so slightly less free by donating to my lovely Patreon, it resides here: patreon.com/ashouses. Chrz.