By Kieron Gillen on April 20th, 2012 at 5:00 pm.
Let’s be prosaic to begin with. Sword & Sworcery EP is the result of a collaboration between Superbrothers, CAPY and musician Jim Guthrie. It’s converted lovingly from its initial Apple phoney-paddy-thing format last year, where it was very well thought of. It’s a graphic adventure which stresses atmosphere and style over traditional puzzles. I like it. You probably will too.
I’m being prosaic, because I’m just about to go off on a 500-word micro-essay tangent. I’ll get back to Sword & Sworcery EP eventually. Trust me. And if you’re interested in the game, you better get used to that. You’re in journey-over-destination territory.
I first really started paying attention to Superbrothers with their Less Talk, More Rock manifesto, because I’m an easy dupe for anyone who drops a charming manifesto and looks like they’re going to try and walk it like they talk it. In short – less overthink, more doing and learning. By doing, a well chosen less is almost always more than a over-produced over-focus-grouped more. Really, go read. It’s beautifully illustrated and as delightfully pop as a balloon going supernova.
Now, while I’m not entirely convinced by about how its production approach leads to the sort of games it’s trying to hail (which seems to be a bit of a leap of faith), I do appreciate its belief in the power of a unique grammar of gaming. As in how limited text, limited image and direct interaction can lead to something more evocative than something which explicitly holds your hands with extensive, expensive cut scenes, awkward tutorials and whatever. A single well-placed BLAST OFF AND STRIKE THE EVIL BYDO EMPIRE before you enter play can do as much as millions of dollars poured into whatever Hollywood rendering house you’ve got to return your calls. Fuck you, Bydo Empire. You guys are total fuckers.
For me, though, it’s most audacious move is the one I didn’t see particularly discussed. As in, by creating its Rock hall of fame, it’s entirely rewritten the history of gaming. The Jordan Mechner original Prince Of Persia choosing to increase the amount of style, animation detail and whatever, was (correctly) analysed at bringing a cinematic quality to games. Another World (aka Out Of This World) picked up where Prince left off, with the iconic, vector drawn scenes interjected directly into the action. Those not as elderly as yours truly may have trouble understanding how this took the top of people’s heads off, but I recall the “when you pick up the gun YOU GET A CLOSE UP OF A HAND PICKING UP THE GUN” conversations in playgrounds. So, historically speaking, it’s arguable that the Prince of Persia/Another World actually gave birth to the anti-rock cutscene-getting-in-the-way world it specifically decries.
The Superbrothers manifesto says “Fuck That”. It looks not at trends of history but individual elements of a game in a specific moments. It is a manifesto of taste and, as such, evidences a certain aesthetic fascism. It’s not about where games lead to – it’s about where an individual game is at an individual moment. It’s about what works, right there. As in, it’s not that cut-scenes or text or anything is bad per se – but it needs discretion to make sure it’s the exact right amount to be properly evocative. And if it ends up like anything on that Another World to Shadow of the Colossus kind of axis, you’re probably sorted. Which also makes me think, in the long term, there’s going to eventually be diminishing returns there. It’s telling that the majority of games in their canon basically have a similar minor-key deeply ingrained sadness that, equally tellingly, the EP shares.
Perhaps that’s first thing to note is that this sense of mood is the main thing it shares with their own rock hall of fame. It’s mostly a downbeat, hyper-self-aware adventure game, complete with primarily indirect control of the protagonist (i.e. you click where you want to move). But rather than resting on inventory puzzles, it trims it down to a tiny handful of relevant objects. It’s more likely to be about acting in an appropriately mythopoetic manner (this is where it most reminds me of Shadow of Colossus. As in, when you succeed, you feel as if it’s a myth. (“Perseus’ polished shield reflected the medusa’s gaze”)). Puzzles are mostly confined to a single screen, with its solution often about being able to see what’s going on and manipulating it with your powers of pointer-wavy-clicky-glowy “Sworcery”. Which – and here’s a comparison which will raise everyone bar Walker’s eyebrows – is most akin to a hidden object game. What in the room can you interact with? Sometimes it’s as simple as finding them. Others, it’s a case of working out the logic of what’s going on by reason (if you’re good) or trial and error (if you’re shit). You work out what’s going on, and get a magical moment as pay off.
Other times it leans on a streamlined combat, cut down to an attack and defence button. We talked in a recent podcast that the reason why “solution” finding boss combat always feels so out of place in a Deus Ex-like immersive sim, because the entire rest of the game is based around free expression. Conversely, embedded in this genre, it works. It’s a puzzle, like everything else. If you’re going to do combat in an arcade adventure, this working of pattern and meaning is how you should do it.
Dissecting the butterfly here doesn’t really serve it. So much of what makes the game interesting are the immaterial elements or the individual surprises. It’s a game which tries to keep a sense of wonder intact, and all the while undermining it with the cast’s world-weary, urbane cool. To state the obvious, the player-character The Scythian’s doomed quest is cheerfully described as a “woeful errand”. The whole thing is narrated dryly by “The Archetype”. Characters are deconstructed and mocked even as they’re introduced. It’s all irony as a way of life, implicitly understanding that the people you’re talking to will recognise the multiple layers you’re communicating on.
That’s the odd thing about a game which poses so don’t-give-a-fuck-and-nothing-has-ever-made-me-give-a-fuck. Its insincerity is a mask. It’s the most sincere, unironic game I’ve played in ages. If its princess is in another castle, its princess is actually in another castle. It covers it with layers of irony, but it’s based on a sincere belief that this shit means something. It could come across as being embarrassed of what it is, except its more like shyness. As in, what it’s talking about is too important to be approached directly and crassly. You have to joke about it, because if you took it seriously, it’ll shatter.
This is achieved in everything else other than the tiny snippets of dialogue. It’s genuinely beautiful, with moments of stark evocative beauty, sharp with strangeness.
The soundtrack by Guthrie is wonderful in and of itself but its integration is the key thing. The “EP” title makes sense, both in its four-parted structure, its small-yet-singular artistic statement and how the music is percolates throughout – both in sound and image. It’s a game which integrates all its aesthetic elements. For example, in the fights where a character beats their shield, with the DUM! DUM! is modern and eternal, retro both in terms of calling back to the primal prehistory of videogames and beating feat around a fighting circle, and modern as a club so cool they won’t let me in any more because I am so old and haggard that my testicles drag along the ground.
The mood, the stance: that’s what you’re here for. I don’t want to say dreamlike, but rather disassociated. Alec said it was an adventure game for stoners, which is a good shorthand for what I’m failing to wrestle down more precisely. It’s a game that comes at you at its own speed. You sort of roll with it, or you get frustrated. Divided into four parts, it explicitly takes you to the menu, quietly encouraging you to perhaps go off and do something else each element. One of the sections – and this is a controversial part of the game – adds an element which means it’ll probably take 28 days to complete without some magical jiggerypokery. There’s ways around it, both in and out the game, but my initial urge was to just fall into its rhythms. Why not take your time when it’s so considered? If someone’s thought about creating something aesthetically coherent like this, it’d be rude not to play along.
Of course, the sections where it fails in its aims end up bemusing the player. For example, the twitter integration lets you lob up any piece of game text online, and often suggests you to do so. It’s just a bad call. It’s a game that embraces the irony of it all, but connecting to Twitter is just tedious. At these points the game becomes a friend you unfollow and hope they don’t notice. Flipping that around, there’s the bits where you feel it perhaps go too far in its mood chasing. For example, each boss fight starts with a slow build of sound and mood before the battle starts. And if you fail, you go through that build again. As great as it looks, when you’ve got an extended delay before you can get back to working out the attack sequences, it grates. Yes, it gives you time to recharge your shields, but that’s a “why do you have to recharge your shields after losing a fight?” sort of problem. And you know why: its tension and release, ceremony and ritual. But in this case, the rewards don’t seem to justify it.
So, an adventure game with action elements, controlled indirectly. Oddly, in its mythic tone and approach it reminds me of games which I’m sure that no-one involved in its development have played. As in, British Arcade-adventures like Tir-a-nog or its sequel Dun Darach. You know – the products of Brit devs trying to make D&D games without ever having played D&D. That mix of action, avoidance, limited palette, atmosphere and – above all – exploration. Though Another World’s stylish Frenchness is present, it actually brought to mind the artful and mostly forgotten Coxtel adventures. And, to state the obvious, it’s certainly playing a whole bunch of games with Miyamoto’s icons. You like Nintendo stuff, you’ll smile at bits of this. In fact, at times it seems like a strangely related to me fantasising about someone doing to the Nintendo back catalogue what Moore and Gibbons did to the Charlton comic ones with Watchmen. And I’m well off the topic, eh? And I’m just listing interesting games now, in a “Hey, you recognise the name-check? Aren’t we both cool” sort of way. All it’s doing is make me wanna play Lords of Midnight, and if I don’t stop, I’m going to yabber on about Heavy on the Magick or Dark Sceptre.
In conclusion: it’s hyper cheap on steam (Including the soundtrack for free), very much itself and an adventure game in the truest sense of the word. It’s a game which feels like its own world, like an adventure, and discovering its secrets (and wondering about what it obliquely hints at) is a fine way to spend four hours and/or one month of your life.
Most importantly, the grizzled boor’s penis is amazing.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is available on Steam for £4.99 (currently 10% off).