Gamebooks are back, baby! Those choose your own adventure-styled stories of yesteryear have gotten a digital makeover, courtesy of the introduction of tablets and touchscreens, allowing for more interactive, immersive story telling than their papery predecessors without losing any of their nostalgic charm. There are several high quality gamebooks currently on offer through the App Store, from Bulkypix’s Joe Denver’s Lone Wolf to Tin Man Games’ The Forest of Doom. But the best of the bunch is Inkle’s Scorcery! series, based on the gamebook of the same name by the genre’s founding fathers. Just as British writers Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, co-founders of Games Workshop an co-creators of the Final Fantasy series, set the the gamebook standard in the early 80s, Inkle has proven themselves the studio to beat when it comes to gamebook adaptations. The Scorcery! series’ controls, interface and above all brilliantly crafted narrative make for a truly elegant, engaging experience. I talked to Jon Ingold, Inkle’s Creative Director, to learn how they turned Inklewriter – their free tool designed to allow anyone to write and publish interactive stories – into the best modern take on the classic gamebook.
Kristen Spencer: It’s been more than two decades since the golden age of gamebooks, so what inspired you to adapt Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! series now?
Jon Ingold: Right place, right time, I think! We were looking for work to adapt to our text-based platform [Inklewriter] – adapting is easier than creating new material because you’ve got something to bounce off, especially when you’re writing the quantity and detail of content that we are. And we met Steve, and we got along, and he liked our ideas.
It’s been interesting to see how much interactive fiction is being produced these days – in particular, interactive fiction blended with more classic gameplay. Each title has a different balance of elements, but from FTL to the Banner Saga to Out There to the Walking Dead, it seems like there’s suddenly interest in mixing good writing, interactive choices and gameplay.
How close are the games to the gamebooks?
The first game is a pretty close match, with all the expanded material being a case of “going deeper” – so in the book, it’ll describe you walking into a tavern and talking to a few locals about various things in a paragraph or two; and in the game, that scene becomes fully interactive, with you choosing who to talk to, what to say, how to respond, what to reveal about yourself.
Often that means we have to write a few new endings to every sequence, because you might make a friend – or an enemy – from how you interact. We then have to do some more work to stitch that new ending back into the flow of the story and make sure what happens next flows on from that.
In the second game, we did all that; but we still only have about a quarter of the map Mike Schley had drawn for us covered. So we started drawing out references from the text – little asides from characters, details, mentions, back-story, and creating scenes around those. So in the original book, the Nobles of the City are hidden and the First Noble has gone – in our version, we can visit the council chamber, uncovered why they’ve scattered, track down and confront the First Noble, and so forth.
Obviously, you’ve expanded and updated the universe to bring it into the digital age, and with a simple, streamlined interface that even those who weren’t around when Charles was in charge can enjoy. How did you make something so nostalgic feel so fresh?
Nostalgia is a weird thing, isn’t it? It makes you want to love something before you start – but then as soon as you start, it kinda turns to hate, and it makes you start looking for things to dislike.
I’ve got a really strong memory of reading these books and how they felt when I was about ten or eleven; but the thing I noticed coming back to them as an adult was I that don’t have as much imagination as I did. So throughout the design process I wanted to create something that felt like I remembered the books feeling, rather than something that was close to what the book is. And Steve was really happy with that direction – he told us to stay true to the spirit of Sorcery, rather than the words or the mechanics.
So we broke the text up because it was easier to read; we made the choices dynamic and in-the-moment to make the action feel riskier and more exciting; we added the map to give context to your journey (and because I know I would have loved that aged ten).
We took away dice combat because when I was young, I believed in dice – they were magic, they had agency. But as an adult I know dice are random — but, I *do* believe in AI. AI is magic, it has agency, even AIs I’ve helped to design.
Did you feel limited by having to stick to the source material or liberated by not having to worry about plotting, focusing instead on execution?
It’s great adapting material because, even if you’re creating a huge amount more, you’ve always got something to ground it in. The original books are very detailed, in a way, and very brisk in other ways – like Sherlock Holmes stories, they mention a lot of incidental characters and places without filling in the details, and that gives us a great place to start our expansion from.
And its a wonderful feeling to create a whole new sub-plot – Vik’s rebellion in Part 2, for instance – and then go back to the book and feel like, yes, the hints were there all along.
Steve Jackson isn’t just the co-founder of the Final Fantasy gamebook series with Ian Livingstone, he’s also the co-founder of Lionhead Studios with Peter Molyneux – in other words, a bonafide game and gamebook icon! What has it been like working with him? How involved has he been in the adaptation process?
Steve’s been fantastic to work with: providing a lot of insight and context to how the original stories were written and the kind of world-building and mechanics that interest him. His books were always full of cunning tricks, traps, and he’s always inventing new ideas and new twists. It’s been really inspiring talking with about ideas for new elements and ways to develop the series.
The other great thing about Steve is he’s not precious: he put a lot of trust in us, and after our initial meetings he’s happy to step back and let us get on and “do our thing”. All that experience means he knows game design is highly iterative and it’s often not very helpful to have an observer watching every step of the process. There were times in the development of Sorcery! when one element or another wasn’t really working – but Steve was happy to let us work through those problems and present something we were happy with.
Even though the first installment, The Shumanti Hills, had you roaming across the countryside, the second installment, The Cityport of Traps, manages to feel even bigger and deeper, despite taking place entirely inside a the city of Khare. How did you achieve that “Mary Poppins Purse” effect?
Content. Tons and tons of content. Most of the negative reviews of Part 1 complained the game was short, which perhaps it is if you nail straight forwards ignoring everything and everyone to meet. After all, if you simply walk across the hills, there’s not much to stop you (though you’ll be in a pretty bad state come Part 2.) But I think those people don’t realise quite how much they missed.
Come Part 2, it was a little easier on us: cities are naturally dense, and can be full of different people – and people bring problems, and opportunities, and trust issues, and jokes, and all the gameplay that arises from that. So it was a little easier to stuff a city with incident than an empty hillside.
Part 3 is presenting an interesting challenge right now, because it’s supposed to be this desolate, weird wilderness – but it’s also pretty populated and filled with people. And we’re looking at ways to make the most of both aspects of that – the High Plains Drifter feel of “wandering the badlands”, while also getting the benefits of lots of character to meet.
Each of these games stands alone, even though they’re part of a single overarching story. So how important is the overarching story, really?
The story is a journey, and so its naturally very episodic. But because our text engine supports branching at a really, really deep level, we can afford to make the story about as important as players want. If you just play Part 4, for instance, nothing that happened earlier will figure in your story. If you’ve played all the Parts, you’ll find people, decisions and consequences from all the previous books coming back in interesting and unusual ways. So there’s a flexible amount of story depending on how much you play – and also, how much you engaged with the story anyway.
Certainly, there are endings to Part 2 which will have an impact on later episodes. If you’ve played, you’ll know what we mean!
The Cityport of Traps has a game within the game, a combination of dice and poker (well, the bluffing part of poker anyway) known as Swindlestones. How did you come up with this and can we expect similar mini-games in the next two installments?
We knew we wanted to add something different for Part 2, to keep things feeling fresh. And we’re interested in characters, and narrative, and were really attracted towards the idea of a bluffing game that’s a mix of betting and dialogue.
So as you play Swindlestones you’re also talking to characters, and you might just find yourself playing worse moves in the game because there’s something interesting you want to find out about, and we loved that trade-off between “staying in the game to talk” and winning.
The actual game is a simple twist on Liar’s Dice, which is a classic bar game. In traditional Liar’s Dice you need three or more players for it to really work, because it’s a game that’s all about the overlap between what I’ve got and what you’ve got, and when you play with 6-sided dice and with two players, what you roll and what I roll are usually different. So we played around with various ideas, and hit upon the two-player, 4-sided dice version, which we think works pretty tightly.
So the game design part wasn’t too difficult. Writing an AI for the game – now that was tricky! We tried some “proper” AI routines but they all felt like playing against a robot – and we wanted something that felt characterful and human. So that took a while to get right.
We’ve got quite different ideas on how to extend the gameplay for Part 3, but there probably won’t be any new mini-games as such – we’ve got something a little bit more ambitious up our sleeve, that’s more like something from an adventure game.
As for Part 4 – we’ve got some *really cool* ideas for Part 4. But it’s a little way off still!
Now that’s you’ve blazed the trail, there are other developers hoping to follow in your critically acclaimed footsteps, for instance Bulkypix with their adaptation of Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series. What do you think sets Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! series, and specifically Inkle’s handling of its journey from book to bytes, apart from the rest?
It’s great to see so many other gamebook adaptations around – and interactive stories like the ones I mentioned before. It’s a vibrant, interesting space, and everyone has a different take on how it should be done.
I like to think what sets us out is obvious to anyone who plays – we love the interface, which has got to be beautiful; we love the text, which has got to be tightly written and entertaining, but also quick to read – no longer pages of text; and we love the interactivity – I think our stories are the most interactive stories that have ever been created: Sorcery! 2 has over 10,000 unique choices in its script and half a million words of content, and every choice you make is remembered, and every one has the power to alter the flow of the story right down to the words themselves.
You seem to have found the perfect sweet spot between game and gamebook – just the right reading to adventuring ratio. How difficult was it to strike that balance?
I think it’s not a balance, it’s a marriage of form and content. The thing is: the reading is the adventuring. The story you read is the game you play and vice versa. There are some stats and an inventory to help, and the map, to help you keep track of what’s going on, but all the gameplay happens between one decision and the next.
I think the secret to that feeling so natural is partly we keep the text pretty simple – fact is, everyone with a smartphone reads all the time, but reading something quick doesn’t feel like that concentration-heavy “reading” experience people associate with books.
What can we look forward to in the third installment, The Seven Serpents? And don’t skimp on the secrets!
You’ll set off across an uncharted wasteland whose very rocks and soil are cursed, causing the land to be less than reliable. Things will shift and change around you. You will be stalked by seven deadly serpents who will kill you unless you can figure out how to kill them first. You will lose your way and change the shape of the world.
You can complete your complement of magical artefacts in this one; you’ll be able to see a lot more of the content on one run-through without the game becoming linear (how do we do that? You’ll see.) Oh, and if you play right, you can get married: but it won’t end well.
Any plans to adapt other gamebooks in the Final Fantasy series?
Short answer – no; we don’t have the rights. But I think we’ll be looking at other concepts and worlds once Sorcery! is done. We might like to try something that isn’t fantasy, for instance — and in fact we are doing so; as our next game isn’t Sorcery! 3 but 80 Days.
80 Days is a futuristic Victorian adventure in which you guide Phileas Fogg’s route around the world. That’ll be out in June, and is right now the biggest thing we’ve ever done. You can go anywhere in the world – Africa, China, Siberia – anywhere. It’s insane how much content that requires.
And finally, you are walking through the forest when you stumble upon a perfectly circular clearing. The ground is carpeted with shoes. In the middle of the pile of forgotten footwear sits a small wooden chest, filled with strangely shimmering coins. What do you do?
This sounds like a description of making money on the App Store, so the answer’s easy: we walk in as confidently as we can and if it turns out there are some coins there to take, we take them – and give 30% to Apple.