Open Sorcery: Learning

Given how much effort Open Sorcery takes to bridge the gap between the human player and its nonhuman protagonist, I suppose it’s appropriate that it’s basically an AI awakening story. Indeed, NPC dialogue in the intro makes the player aware of the possibility of BEL/S attaining human-like self-awareness before it’s even made clear exactly what BEL/S is. Decker, one of the two magician/programmers responsible for BEL/S’s existence, considers this possibility to be a threat. You can convince him otherwise over the course of the story, but there are branches that justify his concern.

BEL/S learns and grows with every encounter, whether by simply leveling up her firepower from combat experience or by learning new attributes, new elements that can be applied to later encounters. Engage a chaos spirit in conversation, and you might gain access to the Chaos element. It strikes me that the mechanics work towards channeling the player’s story along specific paths here: choosing clever diplomatic solutions gives you the tools you’ll need for later clever diplomatic solutions, choosing violence just enables greater violence.

The spirits you encounter are mostly already self-aware in a human-like way, which raises an interesting point: Without the computer code structuring her awareness, what would BEL/S be? I may be reading too much into things, but I think there’s some implication that before the start of the story, she was just a raw piece of spiritual force made out of fire. Some of the spirits in the game recognize her as something novel, a spirit elevated into consciousness by technology. And, having been so elevated, she has the possibility of leaving that technology behind, attaining freedom but abandoning any connection to her creators.

But — and this is a crucial point — doing so ends the game prematurely. For all its branching, this is a story with a definite ending, a confrontation with a final boss and an epilogue that follows it. This is clearly the true, correct ending, and any branch that misses it is the narrative equivalent of death. Now, I’ve replayed the game enough times to get several alternate endings, and I have yet to see one where BEL/S actually dies. All the “bad” endings I’ve seen are ones where she transcends her limitations and abandons her tasks.

That final boss, by the way, a powerful death spirit, has been called “a personification of depression” by the author, and, as always, the game is extremely clear about the author’s intention. Not all of the spirits are allegorical in this way, but there’s another — a ghost of Decker’s dead lover — that’s clearly an avatar of his grief. The purpose of a magical firewall isn’t just to protect people from external threats (including, at one point, aliens), but to help them with the problems they bring with them. Even if that wasn’t the original intention of her creators, it’s her purpose, the purpose she discovers for herself. I suppose this is why those alternate endings are failures. You can gain immense freedom and power, but once you’ve cut yourself off from humanity, you can’t self-actualize.

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