I recently reviewed a game, Sorcery!, that I enjoyed very much and it was also unique in terms of its game play mechanics. It was reminiscent of the adventure game books from the 80s, which I used to read, and it instantly brought me back to those times. And with Sorcery! Pt 2 recently released, which I will have a review for this week, I’ve been enjoying it as well. Seeing as how this was a unique experience and a game that I enjoyed I had to get in contact with Jon Ingold and Joseph Humfrey, the founders of Inkle and developers of Sorcery!. Here’s part 1 of that interview where we discussed Inkle and Sorcery! Pt 1
Me: Tell me about Inkle and the motivation behind starting your own studio?
Jon: So we’re about 2 years old now, we had our 2-year birthday on the day that Sorcery! was released. And before that we both worked for Sony PlayStation developing games for one of the studios. And it was about the time when iPads were sort of becoming popular, everyone had a kindle. And we actually started thinking about books…and started talking to publishers, and thinking what is the way to take what we know about interactive stories from working in the video game industry and apply that to books. And make books kind of dynamic and interactive in some ways. And our first project was done with a publisher and an author and it was an interactive telling of Frankenstein (available in app store). So we did that and that was quite fun. And it was really interesting and we developed our Inklewriter platform, which is the technology we use to write really branchy stories. But we kinda played around with it and we thought well there are some problems with it. Partly people who like reading books like reading books and they don’t want to play games or anything that looks like a game. And also we wanted to bring out more of the game element. We didn’t feel the book format was quite interact enough. It was a bit confusing. Was it a book or wasn’t it a book? So we met Steve Jackson who wrote the Sorcery! game books in the 80s and we got chatting with him and he was quite impressed with what we’d done so far. So we took up the Sorcery! project kind of as an idea to sort of say if game books were invented now what would they be? Like how could we bring this thing to life. And just started iterating on the basic idea of a paper game book where you just read the pages and make choices, and we thought, ok let’s take that and make that as dynamic as it can possibly be.
Joseph: (In terms of categorizing Sorcery!) I think my favorite one is it’s a tabletop RPG where the iPad is the games master. That’s a really nice one because it kind of describes that feeling of a having a big open map and this personal experience with you sitting there with this story-teller and playing a game at the same time
Jon: And that kind of conversation with the iPad is a really important part of the story where you tell it something and it tells you something back and that just keeps going round. But I think for us it was really how far we could push that concept of a story that has choices in it. When people think about all these adventures books they kind of imagine you read three or four pages and you make one little choice…and we thought there’s no reason you can’t have thousands of choices. This is a computer. And 10,000 more choices and like 500 things that it’s tracking in the background and it remembers everything you do and it rewrites the story on the fly. It’s just super-duper interactive and it’s been really great putting the sorcery games out there because people have been buying them. Where we started off with is not where we are now
Me: There have been more games that promote as part of the game play, choices that drastically affect story lines and endings. How much has the success of these type of games influenced your decision to focus on non linear story telling?
Jon: It’s interesting the famous example with that kind of choice based narrative is Spec Ops the Line on the console side, and you got Telltale Games on the Indie side, but they’re all about really big choices. And most of Sorcery isn’t really big choices that affect the outcome at all. It’s more, what we’re doing is much more like trying to fix it from the bottom up. How do you make a game that has no cutscenes in it whatsoever. So the thing that Sorcery! does is it says there’s never any point in the narrative at all where you’re not in control of your character. And we’re not gonna limit the choices that you get, you’re always gonna have choices. And the fact that changes the ending or it changes the way the story branches…it’s not like something we couldn’t avoid doing, it ‘s something that we actively wanted to do. And it’s less about everyone having a different ending and it’s more about everyone having completely different experiences because they’re just there every moment. And I don’t quite feel that other choice based games are doing that and we can get away with it because we’re working with text, which is really flexible. And in a graphical environment, even a quite simple one like the Walking Dead, there’s a limit to what they can do so they tend to go for big bang for the buck type choices, who lives who dies, that sort of stuff. Which is cool and it’s interesting. We definitely have our eye on that and what works and what doesn’t. But most of what we’re experimenting with is somewhere else completely. I feel it’s a bit more like kind of trying to making Half-Life when everyone else is making adventures and trying to get the storytelling into the world and into the game in a natural way. That’s the goal and less about the kind of big branching that’s just something that happens as a side-effect
Me: What was it about the Sorcery! series that made you want to turn it into an interactive video game?
Jon: Well this is a difficult one. I think for Joe it’s because I raved about it. For me it’s because I played them when I was like 12, the original game books, and I loved them. And I think when I look back on why I think it’s because they’re really clever. They’re really full of different ideas and they’re constantly trying to trick you and trap you and wrong foot you. And I just love the world, it’s really kind of Machiavellian and cruel, that just fits really well with a choice based structure. We just constantly have no idea whats next or what’s just around the corner but it always feels kind of fair and consistent at the same time. And I loved the magic system as a kid and it’s been really fun bringing it to life
Joe: I guess we’re also quite keen on making sure that the things we make are kind of not too obscure or too avert garde. We kind of like the idea of going mainstream, kind of pop fantasy kind of genre, even though Sorcery! has its own unique flair from the Himalayas. So it has some slightly weird British humor as well and things like that. But we also like the fact that it’s a fantasy epic quest… a lot of people are experimenting with genres and they feel they have to do something that’s really out there with the genre. And with the material itself they have to do something that’s really crazy. We like playing with one of those things at a time. We like the fact that we can expand our audience
Jon: What’s nice is being able to make something that’s instantly recognizable even though it works in a weird way. So everyone can pick it up and go it’s a fantasy story, I get it…but it’s a really good one.
Me: I do remember playing some of those adventure games when I was really young too and it definitely brought me back to a place where it was familiar to me too but it’s been a long time so I can’t say I remember every thing about the story line. How closely will the story line and game play mechanics follow the Sorcery! adventure game book?
Jon: In terms of the game play mechanics a lot has changed because it’s an iPad, it doesn’t work the same as a book. So the combat system in the book was you rolled some dice, you do some calculations. And on an iPad, dice just feel really unfair. If you win it’s not like you did anything clever and if you lose, the game is rigged against you. So we changed the combat completely. It still has a turn-based feel to it. It’s a blind batting system. It’s a little more psychological. It’s about outwitting the AI. The magic system is a bit closer. The original had a book of spells and you was supposed to memorize the spells by name. So we kept that. But you don’t have to memorize them, you can kind of look them up as you go. The choice-based structure is the same except we have a lot more choices. There are thousands as opposed to a couple hundred. In terms of the storyline it’s been really fun because going back to the books you kind of find that the story tends to be kind of brisk, described as quite quick. And so we really enjoyed ourselves taking it apart and…there are no side characters, but one sentence in the book. Let’s kind of talk to him, let’s make him significant and let’s work out where he comes from and how he fits into the world and let’s make him come back and have a climax at the end of the story. Constantly just sort of fleshing it out and broadening the scope of it from the original and that’s been really entertaining. And the way Steve wrote them you can tell there was a lot in his head when he was writing that didn’t quite make it to the page. So this is our guess on what it might have been. So it’s not a carbon copy of what we started with
Me: I completed Sorcery! Part 1 and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the combat system and I did wish there was a little more fighting without having to be belligerent in your choices. Will there be more combat opportunities in future installments for those who choose to make allies instead of enemies?
Joseph: I kind of agree. I remember finding that when I played through sorcery 1 for the first time. Although I did all of the programming, Jon did all of the writing so I was able to appreciate the game as a player which was quite fun for me. So yea when I went through both games I definitely got the impression that the combat could be utilized a bit more because it is a really fun mechanic.
Jon: It’s sort of the funny thing about the branching story. There are like 25 monsters in book 1 and book 2 has about 36 fights you can get into. And you’re right, some of them are only if you walk into every inn and start throwing your weight around. And some of them are kind of fixed into the plot. You really have to fight them. But I want to avoid that thing where you get into Uncharted games or Assassin’s Creed games where you’re set upon by 100s and 100s of identical dudes. In book 1 there are a couple of fights you must have. Those 3 fights are the best fights we can make. And I kind of feel like I rather have 3 great fights. Maybe next book we have about 5. And it’s funny because other people played the same combat system and they didn’t get it, they said it felt kind of random.
To be continued…..