Playing Sorcerer (1984)

Sorcerer is the sequel to Enchanter, and uses essentially the same mechanics: the only addition is potions, which function effectively the same as one-shot (non-transcribable) spells. This time your goal is to find and exorcise your mentor Belboz, who has been possessed by the demon Jeearr.

But does it surpass its predecessor?

The big difference between the games is one of tone. Enchanter, which was by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, has an impressively consistent and downbeat tone, conveying the decay of the world under the thumb of the evil warlock Krill. One would expect the stakes to rise in a sequel, but instead the game feels goofier — possibly because it’s the work of Steve Meretzky.

There is a brief interactive prologue that takes place in a dream; but the area you dream about is actually the main area of the game itself, so the time I spent exploring the dream world turned out to be time invested in mapping the “real” world. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but OK.

After you wake up, the game’s first chapter takes place in the Enchanter’s Guild, where you are an honoured member after your exploits in the previous game. The Guild is deserted — everyone is out for various reasons — which feels a little artificial. Once you leave the Guild, you can’t return. So that is a mini-game of its own, which must be satisfactorily solved in order for you to be able to win the main game. It’s easy to miss something that you’ll need later, when you won’t be able to go back for it.

But much worse than this mechanical wrinkle is the illogical terrain of the main area. For example: from a crossroads you can go down to a Snake Pit. You can go down again from there to reach a “slimy room”, then south from there to … a crater? Is it underground? How? South and southwest from there inexplicably takes you to the entrance of an amusement park — which, like the Enchanter’s Guild, is deserted but for the gnome who guards its entrance and a single hawker. Who builds and staffs an amusement park underground, reachable only via a crater, that has no visitors whatsoever?

This kind of thing is hard to overlook because it destroys immersion. On one level, you can view interactive fiction games as puzzles where you try to find the right combinations of words to effect state transitions that move the game towards the “solved” state. That level is obviously valid — a look at the source code will demonstrate this. But that’s not the level that matters. The reason why IF remains my favourite kind of computer game is because, like a good book, these games can invoke. They can make you feel that you’re involved in a story. And s0 non-sequiturs like the amusement park break suspension of disbelief just as surely in a game as they would in a novel.

The park is not alone, either: there are other inexplicable locations, including an intact but deserted fort, and a toll-road which leads basically nowhere (and which no-one travels on, naturally).

Setting that aside, though, how does it play? Pretty well. Most of the puzzles make sense. There’s a 3D maze that is fun to map, unlike most adventure-game mazes. There is time-travel sequence towards the end which is tremendously satisfying to play through (even though it’s not actually that difficult to solve). But throughout the game, there is a sense that you are trying to find the specific solution the author had in mind — rather than searching for a credible way that you might solve a problem in real life, as in Enchanter.

Also, the mandatory use of an “infotater” grates: this is a rotating wheel supplied with the original game which offers crucial pieces of text that you need to solve two puzzles in the game. It’s easy to find the relevant text online, but this still doesn’t feel right: a game should be self-contained.

A final criticism: the game overflows with red herrings, including three of the five amusement-park attractions (two of them rather elaborate), an abandoned store containing a floor-polisher, an uncrossable minefield, and so on. It’s fair that not everything in a game needs to be relevant to its solution; but to me this amount of padding felt lazy.

All of this sounds terribly negative, which is not really fair. Sorcerer remains a good game with some fine set-pieces. The conclusion is reasonably climactic (though not as impressive as that of Enchanter), and I found it enormously satisfying that I was able to finish the game without reference to invisiclues, maps or walkthroughs.

But for me, the overriding lesson of Sorcerer is that consistent atmosphere matters — that immersion is crucial. It’s what elevates interactive fiction above mere puzzle-solving.

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6 responses to “Playing Sorcerer (1984)

  1. Youi started and finished it in just a couple nights? Wow! Usually these things take a couple weeks of hacking around, in my experience.

    I think adding Steve definitely changes the flavour .. but you make me curious.. if we run down the list of games by author, what are the tones like? Do the authors tend to a certain tone, or do they transcend and apply to many genres and tones? Steve M<'s stuff does tend to silly and fun in many cases, but thats just the ones that come to mind. (Planetfall/StationFall, HHGttG of course).

  2. Jeff, I was as surprised as you. I’m not usually so good at these things, but somehow my mind just seemed to run long the right lines this time.

    I too have become curious about how much there are consistent tonal elements across the works of specific authors. It’s something I plan to keep track of as I make my way through various adventures. BTW., I think Steve Meretsky also wrote Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which I’ve not played but which I understand is pretty frivolous in tone.

  3. The Infotater was, of course, intended as copy protection, not that it would have been that hard to include a list of all the combinations along with a pirated copy.

  4. Right. That’s why information from it is required to solve the game. I understand the commercial reason for doing what they did, but I lament it nevertheless — particularly 33 years on, when there is no financial benefit from imposing this inconvenience.

  5. Pingback: Playing Spellbreaker (1985) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  6. I discover only now that Graham Nelson’s classic Bill of Player’s Rights says: “The very worst game I’ve played for red herrings is ‘Sorcerer’, which by my reckoning has 10”. So it’s not just me.

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