There’s a gaggle of Christmas carolers gathered around this door. What has drawn them here?
John: Procedural generation is so very often used to great effect in games where starting over is a frequent occurrence. As a result, the gaps, the less impressive joins, tend to be more dismissible, because hey, a new one will be along in a minute. So when a linear game is bold enough to let its entirety be procgen, that’s something impressive. That’s the first time Songbringer is impressive.
Once you’ve seeded your world, with a string of six letters or numbers, it crafts a unique version of its collection of enemy-filled individual screens, expansive underground dungeons, and hidden items, upgrades, and NPCs. And then weather, ground conditions, shop contents, monster density… And that’s your game world, from start to finish. A decent chunk of time, as you follow the daft story through.
The story is of crashing on a planet surface, and attempting to recover, and prevent a big bad. It’s nothing original, but nor does it set out to be. It’s breezy, a background, but with enough fun dialogue and silly moments to not feel in the way. And indeed, that your original ship’s navigators were called Rosenbow and Gildenstern is reason enough for the game to exist.
What you do is explore, discover, and be constantly overwhelmed by how utterly beautiful are its pixel graphics. Think Sword & Sorcery, lit by God. The lighting is so ludicrously wonderfully throughout. From that point on, it’s a very deliberate tribute to early Zelda, without ever actually feeling like a Zelda clone.
A screen might have one or two enemy types, each requiring different tactics to fight, allowing you to build up quite the mental bestiary. Dungeons contain multiple rooms, keys, and bosses. You gather new skills and equipment throughout. It’s very Zelda in some respects. But it doesn’t attempt the same twee atmosphere, the same noble themes, and most importantly, none of Zelda’s various styles. That, and the procedural generation.
And it all works so splendidly. It’s witty, breezy, and absorbing. There’s always plenty to be doing, it’s always a huge pleasure to look at, and yet it feels comfortably relaxed, the sort of game to play while enjoying a podcast – comfort gaming. It’s been one of my stand-out games of the year, and yes, I’ve seen the middling reviews it’s received elsewhere – I can only assume they were expecting it to be something else. Just enjoying it for what it is has made it one of my favourite things in 2017.
Adam: I haven’t spent enough time with Songbringer and I’m hoping to remedy that over the holidays. The first time I played it, I was at Devolver’s lot at E3. Rather than being hidden inside the sweaty halls of the convention centre, they occupy a carpark, bringing their brand of outsider anarchy to a little patch of escapism just outside and opposite the showfloor. I always enjoy visiting because there are plenty of developers to talk to and no crushing queues to endure.
Nathanael Weiss, the developer of Songbringer was there. I think he was wearing a pointy wizard hat. We spoke for fifteen minutes or so and he told me about his background in game design, how he had dropped out of the industry for some time to travel. It sounded like he’d gone pretty far off the beaten path and some of the experiences he had made it into Songbringer. It doesn’t look or play like a travelogue, but I think Weiss’ journeys were an important part of his approach. Images and ideas have leaked in, and even though Songbringer is fantastical and strange, it feels like it’s driven by dreams and figments of memory and imagination rather than world-building and homage.
As John rightly says, it’s very Zelda in some respects. Early Zelda, with the single screens connected into a larger world. But it has a beauty all its own, with some of the best pixel graphics I’ve seen in a long time, and most importantly it feels like the work of a singular mind rather than a deliberate attempt to (re)create a link to the past. Zelda is a reference point but so are hallucinogenic cacti. I think they’re both equally important.
Head back to the calendar to open the door to another of 2017’s best games.