Your magic can change the world, but at what cost? Battle dragons, skyships, and evil Inquisitors, as you protect your homeland, conquer it, or destroy it forever. Choice of Magics is a 550,000-word interactive, post-apocalyptic fantasy novel by Kevin Gold, author of our best-selling game, Choice of Robots. I sat down with Kevin to talk about his latest game and experiences with interactive fiction. Choice of Magics releases this Thursday, August 9th.
MILD SPOILERS for CHOICE OF MAGICS FOLLOW.
Magics is one of the coolest games we’ve put out in terms of sheer power and ability the PC has to enact different things. Tell me about the five schools of magic.
Let’s see: Vivomancy, the magic of life, lets you do things like design your own critters, similar to the way you could design your robot in Choice of Robots. But it tends to have unpredictable side effects, like growing permanent feathers in your hair when you grow wings. Automation lets you build things like golems and airships, but drawing on the lightning you need tends to mess with the environment. Divination lets you learn something about somebody or something else, but then somebody gets to learn something about you. Negation blasts things, counters spells, and can be used as a power source, but leaves behind fallout. And glamor magic sort of gives you super-charisma.
Since this is a post-apocalyptic story with a fantasy twist, the schools of magic all started as fantasy takes on current technologies with drawbacks—bioengineering, mass production, the Internet, nuclear power, and the glitz of mass media. I thought that might help make the story feel relevant to today. But over time, they each got their own quirks that don’t have anything to do with their metaphorical origins.
You’re the author of what I believe is our all-time most popular game, Choice of Robots, as well as Choice of Alexandria. Magics is definitely on the scale of Robots, but quite a different fantasy setting. Tell me about how your approach to IF has changed or grown over the years.
Back in 2014, when Choice of Robots was released, its success had been explained to me in a few reductionist ways, like, “Oh, people just like long games,” or “Oh, people just like power fantasies.” I really didn’t think that was it; I thought people liked the branching and the heartfelt story. To me, that game was born of two things—a lifelong love of the choose-your-own-adventure, and pure rage at the Department of Defense and my history of interactions with it, directly and indirectly, as an A.I. researcher. Anyway, with Alexandria, I kind of wanted to see what would happen if I flouted all of that conventional wisdom about long games and power fantasies, and wrote a short game about a period of history that people ought to be more interested in (seeing as how Alexandria was an enlightened empire brought low by corruption and rampant self-interest, hint hint).
The answer, as it turns out, is that people don’t tend to buy things that are short and about obscure subjects, although they seem to like them fine if they do buy them (last I checked, Alexandria shares Robots‘ 97% approval on Steam but has fewer sales by a factor of 10). As a game writer, I find it’s more satisfying to be read and played than have a game that I think is good but languishes on the virtual shelves. So with Choice of Magics, I’m leaning extremely heavily in the opposite direction for those variables that seemed to drive sales—long games, familiar genre, power fantasies, check—but also leaning very heavily on the two things that I thought made Choice of Robots so special, namely the cool branchiness and having something personal to say (Magics is partly about how happiness and hope are possible even in the midst of catastrophe). The result, I hope, is kind of Richard Rodgers like—I’m trying to be accessible, heartfelt, and high quality all at the same time.
Like Robots, this is an especially long game with some very diverse branching at the end. Tell me a little bit about the structures there.
Many games drive endings with variables, but I drive which climax you get with variables! Each of the five magic schools has a big disaster associated with it, and each resolution of each disaster leads to a very different ending. The disasters aren’t entirely decided by your ability scores—it’s more like they’re decided by events that are themselves triggered by your decisions to use magic in particular ways. For a climax, I can gamble that the player has done a lot of things associated with that school, and therefore cram in a ton of callbacks. So, for example, if you trigger the Vivomancy climax, your creatures revolt (surprise!), but then I can also say, “Hey, I bet the player has pets because they have high Vivomancy,” and do some callbacks there. And I can gamble that when the mayor gave you a choice of how to help the town, you chose to do it with Vivomancy, and I can add a potential callback about that. The callbacks don’t actually trigger unless you really did those things, but it wouldn’t be worth coding all that conditional branching unless I had a good bet some of my references would pay off.
There’s then some orthogonal stuff going on about who wins a war, who’s now on the throne, and so on, plus some changes in tone depending on the player’s personality variables. Overall, there are five main climaxes (plus the ability to bypass them entirely), at least three approaches to each climax, and the possibility of success or failure for each of those approaches. There are about 100 different “the end” paragraphs, but some of them are only cosmetically different based on minor things like who’s sitting on the throne. But you still definitely have at least 30 or so extremely different endings, and then the distinction between “different ending” and not gets hazy between there and the 100 mark. Almost all of them are at the very end of the game, too; there are very few places to die early. (But if you charge into a room literally marked “Hell” and decide to fight what’s in there, well, good luck.)
One of my favorite bits in Magics is the Mayor and the PC playing a board game they’ve invented. What are your favorite tabletop games?
I’m a fan of most things made by Vlaada Chvatil, and my favorite of his is the Mage Knight board game, this lavish game that combines exploration of tiles on a hex grid with a Dominion-like deck-building mechanic, where each card can be used in several ways (similar to Gloomhaven, which was released later). The multiple uses for each card induce Vlaada Chvatil’s signature stare-at-everything-until-your-brain-is-on-fire-yes-what-you-want-is-possible gameplay. I also have deep respect for Richard Garfield’s King of Tokyo, which I love because it’s an extremely geeky game in its mechanics, but it manages to be super accessible to non-gamer types at the same time. But maybe the game I feel is most underrated is Castle of the Devil, known affectionately among my friends as “Guys with Stuff,” a 3 on 3 team game where you don’t know who is on your team at first, but you need to infer it from the other players’ behavior, along with who is holding what cards. You can win at the end by either declaring you know what’s going on and being right, or by declaring that your opponents *don’t* know what’s going on, and being right about that. Really cool game of observing other people’s behavior closely and trying to figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing.
What other IF sparks your fancy? Do you have any recent favorites from the Choice of Games catalogue?
The most recent IF-like game I’ve played and enjoyed is actually probably Oxenfree—although it has graphics, a lot of the central decisions in the game boil down to dialogue choices. Interestingly, all the choices are timed, and not saying anything is always treated as its own response, with the other characters feeling free to interpret your silence. I thought that was neat. My typical go-to recommendations for parser-based IF are Photopia, which does something really interesting with its playing with point of view and changing the colors of the text, and Spider and Web, an unreliable narrator game that I dropped a reference to in both Choice of Robots and Choice of Magics. For recent Choice-of stuff, I enjoyed the worldbuilding of Choice of Rebels and the humorous but admirable discretion of Tally Ho.
If you yourself could only specialize in one school of magic, which would it be?
Divination. Knowing someone’s life story in a flash, learning the answers to great scientific mysteries, figuring out where I parked in that damned Northeastern University parking structure. But hey, I’d settle for any arbitrary cantrip, whether snapping my fingers cleans a counter or creates the distant sound of bells. Any kind of magic at all would be pretty sweet.