Bertie: Do you remember the first time you realised magical potions weren’t real? I was so surprised I had to take yesterday off work!
I believe potions are a staple of any fantasy game experience. Try thinking of one without them – I can’t (don’t think too hard just in case you do). Find a potion and you know exactly what experience you’re in for. But how much time do you spend actually thinking about them, about their composition, about their cost? I don’t expect it matters to you as long as you’ve got some healing potions sloshing around in your bag. How arrogant of you. Don’t you ever stop to think about the stresses and strains of being the potion seller in town?
Now you can, in Potion Craft: Alchemist Simulator, a game about being the alchemist in town, and running your own shop. Every day, a collection of fantasy characters pop in hoping to find a concoction to help them out. Oh dear they’ve hurt their foot – I don’t suppose you’ve got something to heal it? And oh gosh, rats – have you got any poison back there?
Whether or not you do depends on what you’ve made. And what you can make depends on ingredients, but not in the way you might expect. You see, mixing potions in Potion Craft is a bit like exploring a map. Yes, you put ingredients into a pestle and mortar to grind them, then plonk them in a cauldron and mix them together, pumping fire with the bellows, but what you’re doing depends on moving to a position on a kind of potion map.
Each ingredient you use creates a trail. Some go left, some go up, some go right, you get the idea, but they all squiggle around in different ways. Some create a dotted line that looks like a jagged mountain range, while others swirl around like a drunken snail. This movement is important because it can make the difference between reaching a point on the map and not. And this somewhere you’re trying to reach, nine times out of ten, is a potion.
Potions are smallish circles and they are demystified when you reach them for the first time. When you do, you can mix them. And then every time you want to mix them thereafter, you need to navigate back there again. Automatically recording successful recipes, so you can see the exact ingredients, saves time.
Complicating this navigation are obstacles on the map, things like piles of bones and swirling vortexes that, if you get too close to them, will ruin your potion attempt completely and force you to start again. But, as the only way to discover new potions is to explore further into the dangerous parts of the map, it’s a risk you’ll have to take.
It’s an interesting way to interpret the potion-making idea, and it’s beautifully presented. There’s a soft parchmenty feel to everything and a sense of humour running through it. It’s also a calm game to play, which I value highly, and clearly there’s a lot more to unlock in it than I have, judging by the broken-down alchemical apparatus in the basement, which I haven’t even touched yet. I wonder how big that alchemical map gets?
Chris: There are plenty of lovely moments in Potion Craft’s first hour or so, but the one that really stayed with me was the frost potion moment.
I had already learned how to make a fire potion, and to do that I had ended up exploring a region to the left of the potion map. I saw, almost sensed, a faint line leading from the centre of the map and going in the opposite direction to fire. I bet that’s frost! I thought. I tested out various ingredients, which are really just directions to travel across the map, pieces of code for the cursor, really, and I eventually got myself to roughly the area where I expected the opposite of the fire potion might lurk. I committed! Fired the potion! And it worked! Frost!
Big moment for me. Primarily because I feel like I have glimpsed, in that instance, what the whole game is getting at. I’ve been reading a bit about Western medical history recently, and it’s pretty wild going. Stuff like humoral theory, which suggested that health was a matter of balance in four basic humors, was a bad idea that survived from the days of Hippocrates – I think – until the 19th century, and you can see it still in words like bilious and phlegmatic.
Then there’s the whole notion of sympathies you get – again, I think – around the 17th century. Walnuts, right, look like brains, so maybe they’re good for brains? These things thrived, I suspect, for a simple reason: they imposed an order on the wildness of illness and the mysteries of the human body. They allowed people to find a form of sense in chaos. It didn’t matter that the sense they were finding didn’t really get results.
This is the kind of thinking I see very clearly laid out on the potion map in Potion Craft: that map represents a world that makes sense. You head left for fire, so you should head right for frost. There is a geography of alchemy here which can be followed, internalised, deduced from and relied upon when making potions and, by extension, making bank.
It’s a fascinating game, in other words: a sort of exploration, puzzle, strategy, cooking business game. But it’s also a chance to see the pre-20th century Western medical mind arranged in front of you.