I’m usually not one to brag, or claim my old school badge over any one else, but I knew about the brilliant and fascinating and luscious game Sword & Sworcery before you did. How? A rather lengthy post called This is a Public Health Issue I did on the marvelous call to arms video Design Reboot by SuperBrothers some time back. Not that the video mentioned that a game was on the way, but I had an inkling that something more would come of it. After waiting two excruciating years, with the trickle of cryptic email updates only making the wait that much harder, the final result was a far more beautiful, intelligent and witty experiment than I could have hoped for.
I suppose the inevitable spoiler alert should be announced at this point. I’ll presume you’ve either played it, or don’t intend on doing so. On the other hand, hopefully you’ll read this then feel compelled to go out and play it. In which case we’re in a bit of a bind. But as Catch 22’s go, this is not a serious paradox we’re dealing with here. So go download it, activate the megatome, wait for the bright and dark moons and bring happiness to the woodfolk. So know that I’ve written this on the presumption that you have played it, or aren't going to.
I’ve never been a fan of the point and click puzzle game. I don’t really have the patience for a game that requires smarts, and while this means I’ve missed out on a large amount of games, I’m fine with that. I don’t see the point in moving through a story and being rewarded for figuring out arcane inventory juggling tricks. Sworcery, while it employ’s this trope, doesn’t have particularly hard puzzles although I’ll embarrassingly admit I had to look up a walkthrough a few times just to get the ball rolling. There’s only a few different puzzles to figure out, and once the basic pattern has been established, it’s not too hard to work them out. While I’ve read the odd critique of the simple and repetitive nature of the game, it was a big bons for lazy old me. I didn’t come to this game expecting to think hard, instead, Sworcery must be looked at as an experience. As an argument for a mode of gaming that plays itself out, slowly, through time. I’ll get to that argument in a bit, but first I must kneel down on the altar of worship as many before me have done:
This game is totally awesomesauce.
The aesthetic is awesome. The animation is awesome. The sound design is awesome. The soundtrack is awesome. Hell, despite a few complaints, the puzzles are awesome. The mythic storyline, might not be awesome, but that’s kinda the point. It taps into many other gaming storyline tropes and bundles it up into a story that we’re all familiar with, makes you realise it’s not that important, and only then does it reveal it’s awesomeness to you. Even the writing is awesome. I spent half the game with a dry smile on my face, nodding with approval and feeling included in almsot all the jokes. Did I mention it looks awesome? Every pixel is where it should be, with those that feel out of place are out of place for a reason. There’s something to be said for Craig’s 21st century rustic minimalism illustrative look. It’s just such a joy to be immersed in it, as oppoosed to his illustrations or even his animations. Even the marketing of the game was a stroke of awesome. The whole thing ties together into the sauciest little package you’ll come across on your phone for some time.
All of the details in this saucebottle work with each other; nothing is there without a reason. Where details you once overlooked become important, you begin to wander how all of the other visual elements would be part of another puzzle. By the standards of any other game, the landscape isn’t very large, but they pack a lot into each scene. And while there’s lots of walking, you’re walking past some gosh darn beautiful scenery. Everything becomes revealed over time, and the whole landscape eventually sings with the songs of the sylvan sprites. The soundtrack, apart from being an absolute joy to hear, works rather intuitively with the narrative as it unfolds. On another note, this is how it should be done. This is how you create things that matter. That count. That people are willing to put in more money than they should. How you get people to tell their friends. How you sell music. Not that every album should play an integral role in an indie game, but that care was taken to have an affordable album, with proceeds going directly to the musician. With a record that treats the printed object with the aura print deserves.
But I digress. If you want a far more eloquent review of this game, Killscreen has you covered. Not only is their use of words far better than mine, but they're much more aware of how this game is so brilliant compared to all other games that have come before it. I'm not a game historian, or theorist. It's not my thing. I like games, lots, but games have to have a fairly high bar for me to want to play them. For want of better words, I need my games to have a theory behind it for me to want to play it. I need intellect in my games. I need them to teach me something about the world to take something away from it.
I'm here to talk about how Sword and Sworcery stacks up against that metric. How it stacks up to it's own metric. For all his words about Less Talk, More Rock, Craig has a put plenty of talk behind this game. Which brings us back to the start of this post. Two years ago he made a nice little video illustrating some of Jonathon Blow's call to arms about the state of video games.
You can start to see the ways in which this thinking greatly influenced many of the more intriguing mechanics of Sworcery. Blow looks at the the way in which the rules games dictate their philosophical and political outlook. He's mostly looking at World of Warcraft as a symbol of all that is wrong in gaming:
It doesn't really matter if you're smart or adept at trying to get ahead in a system because what really matters is how much time you sink in... It also says that you don't really need to do anything exceptional because to feel good, to be rewarded, all you need to do is run the treadmill like everyone else
When I looked at the Design Reboot video, I used it as a way to lead into some thoughts on conspicuous consumption and evolutionary psychology, mostly as a result of runaway signalling. I'd previously gone to see a talk by Geoffrey Miller, author of the book Spent: Sex, Evolution and the Secrets of Consumerism, and tried to show the connection between these ideas and gaming. On conspicuous consumption, I wrote that
Conspicuous consumption arises from human instincts for showing off our intelligence, personality traits, and moral virtues to family, friends, and mates. Consumerism is not a matter of 'materialism', but of runaway signalling, status display, and socially validated narcissism.
Most of the symptoms of conspicuous consumption can be neatly explained through this particular subset of evolutionary psychology. It's in this area that some games attempt to prove their worthiness to the player as well. It also neatly sums up everything that's wrong with poorly considered elements of Gamification. As an aside, I'm working on a post that compares gamification and quantification, but that's to come later. I continued
This abuse of runaway signalling is exactly Blow's argument. Without these scheduled rewards, is there any worthwhile gameplay left? Without a power up, gold coins, a bigger gun or more narrative, does the game fall below a threshold of playability, of interest? It's these empty rewards that keep most players hooked, the mistaken impression of a fitness indicator.
This game doesn't rely on forcing you to interact with it so you gain a bigger sword. It makes you want to interact with it to experience the world. You never get any power ups, you're sword doesn't get bigger, you gain no extra artifacts at the expense of fiddling around with inventory. The only objects that you gain allow you to interact with the world on different levels. The use of a magic mushrooms is a master stroke. Something we've all joked about, but here it makes sense. Not just as a game mechanic, but how it's appropriate to the woodland setting. Sure, you can restore your health, but I'd argue that this is a necessary element in all games where it's appropriate to do so. Sure, life is precious, but not so precious as to be detrimental to gameplay. More on that in a bit. So if "the rules of a game, the kind of interactions that a game puts you into is the meaning of life for that game" then what is the meaning of life for this game?
Well, what are the rules of this game? Sure, it plays around with archetypes of classic games from our childhood, but it mixes them together to make a statement about itself, through the mechanics and the gameplay. You only have the chance to walk around and point to explore. There are puzzles for you to figure out, puzzles that make you pay attention to the environment. You get a chance to look beyond the normal scope of the environment. But there's also lots and lots of walking. You get lots of time to look at the environment. Everything reacts. Sure, these are only minor interactions; the water splashes, the trees rustle. But it's enough to make you aware that this environment is real. You get to go to sleep and enter a different world. A world in which the rules of the game remain mostly the same, but it has a different vibe to it. And there's a boar that dances and sings like Brent from The Office. It's also a place in which you get the final components needed to push the game into the final act. And there's this book that you need to open every now and again to find out about backstory, but also because it's interesting, but also to prod you into the vague general direction you need to go. It's a nice use of text as backstory. A method that doesn't detract from the gameplay, it's a separate component.
Oh, and you need to kinda pray to the environment, to tinker around with the sworcery component. The flip side to this is the sword fighting. Sure, it plays around with Punch Out, but it also forces you to wait for the right moment, to be patient for the right time to strike, so you have to pay keen attention to the enemy, and remember how this battle works out. And there's some seriously bad ass synth when your facing off against unknowable geometry (a nice little touch of Platonic realms thrown in for good measure).
But the way they use the phone's capabilities is also interesting as well. Sure, there's a bit of ticking off all the boxes that this thing is capable of, but it very rarely feels tacked on. It feels like an exploration of what this thing is capable of. You could almost hand this to someone and they would know everything that is possible about the machine, save for the gps sensor. Those there's lots of exploration here. Tapping, swiping, sliding, rotating. Even using it as a communication device. Patience also figures heavily in this game. Patience to walk around from place to place. Patience to look around. And patience to wait for the moon cycles. Sure, you obviously went to the moon grotto, or tinkered around with the dates on your settings. This also adds another layer of awareness into the game. Making you aware of the lunar cycles is a pretty broad stroke; the idea that a game could introduce such a slow pace is critical to how the game operates. It's a game that engrosses you into the world but but makes you aware of your own as well. And it does this another way by tinkering around with twitter.
So this backstory, the archetypes, the mythic narrative, the generic gameplay mechanics that tie back into the days of videogame yore; they all tie into wanting to make something that wasn't reliant on these mechanics, just about making something that's interesting. In a way, we've all played this game before. We all know how to play this game, as it's been part of our childhood, and we know the story already.
If I knew more about Jungian theory I could delve into it a bit more, so I'll just quote Craig from a Gamercamp keynote he gave when previewing the game.
Carl Jung wrote this crazy book... [with] illustrations by Carl Jung of a dude slaying a dragon and magical trees in the forest.... And Jung's a psychologist who talks a lot about archetypes and how we all have the same drives and the same imaginings no matter where we are in the world. There's something about that and the genre of sword and sorcery that fits. No matter where we are, no matter how sophisticated we are how, we still just love the idea of a magical sword and going into a dark cave to fight a dragon. So that's the concept right there: Carl Jung and Conan the Barbarian.
You don't need to look into this too much to realise that Jung's big red book is the megatome, which is a nice little nod. But this triple play of archetypes and mythic narratives all that jazz is a really nice way for moving beyond all that stuff and just focusing on polishing all the details and letting the experience speak for itself.
All of the little tricks of using the possibilities of iOS help reinforce the way in which this exploration occurs. It's not just about tinkering with this world, but about exploring what these machines are capable of. And I get the sense that the team making this were exploring it as well. This all adds up to these many layers of exploration, and experience for experience sake.
The scene in which we get to sit by the fire with Jim Guthrie, as he plays his music, made me stop fidgeting, forget about the game, and just watch the scenery. Lord knows how it was done, but it was the most enjoyable little bit of videogame scenery I've had the pleasure of enjoying. The first time I've just sat in a game, and watched, despite there being nothing else going on. It helps that the song And We Got Older, is a hauntingly beautiful piece of music. That scene just really gets to the heart of the game as something to be experienced, despite the trimmings of mechanics and gameplay and interaction.
This game provides lots of nutritious food. It's food that you want to eat. That you want to savour. Not because there's a whole host of extrinsic rewards waiting for you if you do and forcing you to keep on going. The whole game is filled with these times when you force yourself to slow down, settle in and let the whole thing wash over you. And its a really refreshing feeling to play with something because I genuinely wanted to. It rewards exploration, not through all of these little points, or stars or a bigger sword. Unless you've got some pretty badass algorithms underlying your game, how do you manage to quantify exploration? You don't, you let it speak for itself as something worthwhile doing unto itself.
As an antidote to leveling up, the way that I lost my health over time, that I became weaker with each battle, made me rely more on my skill than on any silly piece of armour or potion. It was when I realised this, that I understod the magic of the game. Many other games have created an environment where life is precious, Passage being one of them. And while Passage makes you feel sad, really sad about the loss of life, it's the sole purpose of the game. A fantastic and beautiful and smart game, but it operates at a smaller scale than Sworcery and focuses solely on this (touching) message.
When fighting comes into the mix, you don't get to rely on more armour or a stronger sword to beat the boss, but have to make considered moves, and be patient with each one. I'm guessing that great care went into this logic, and it adds to the meaning of the game via the rules imbued in it. That the levelling up must come from within the player, skill is not a matter of more loot, but of patience and smarts. As a side note, and due to my diligent research, it turns out that the original name of the game was to be Poopsock, and was to riff on the Design Reboot video, to be a pisstake on leveling up and RPGs and all that is wrong with games. It would have been a nice little exercise, a really smart and clever look at it, but the decision to turn it into something more serious makes it all the better for it. I managed to scrounge these images from another presentation he gave which show off the prototypes of this game. It's clever and funny and amusing and all that, but it wouldn't have had the heart of the final result. But I would like to play it. Nothing wrong with a meta game now and again.
Blow talks about, and Superbrothers make light of the typical WoW player, trapped in their own dark dungeon, alone and eating snacks. Sworcery brings you back into the social realm through the rather amusing use of connecting to twitter. Yes, it was annoying when my feed was littered with adventures by others who had the iPad version, but once I started playing, I couldn't help it. I wanted to be part of that same conversation. The twitter parlour trick doesn't feel foreign to the game. If all of the touching and swiping controls are to be explored, it seems natural that they use it as a communication device as well.
As a minor point to my argument, the use of twitter became a minor variation on the theme of conspicuous consumption. The way I wanted to show everybody that I was playing the game. That I was using it. At worst, it flooded my twitter feed. At best, I knew that there were others around me who were playing and enjoying this game, and you get to feel nice and warm knowing you're part of it. It wasn't an extrinsic force making me want to show off, I wasn't competing with others to show that I was playing it, but it was definitely conspicuous. This really comes to the heart of the runaway signaling I mentioned before. It toys with our desire to socialise, to feel connected, to be part of something bigger. But it also toys with our desire to want to show off. It's a trade off, but a nice one at that. This isn't a complaint, just an observation. What's most thrilling about the twitter aspect of the game, is how they managed to fit in every single textual narrative element into a tweetable text. Fitting some witty observation about my day into 140 characters is hard enough. Fitting in a story into a series of bites less than 140 just shows how much effort went into this experiment, and how much they cared about making it as enjoyable and polished as possible.
The ending, got me. It got me hard. I hadn't really felt much of a connection to the protagonist, mostly curiousity. The urgency of the dog barking near the end, the way I only had one life bar left, I realised that this was the end, of both the game and her life. As I ran away from the Gogolitic Mass, stopping only to vomit, I new the end was near, and it made me sad. Not tear jerkingly sad, but the grim awareness that the game, and her life, was about to end. It's hard to feel anything for a protagonist in a game, to feel anything resembling genuine emotion. Excitement, frustration and white knuckle fear come easily to games. The medium is well suited to this. But a sense of bitter sweet loss usually remains too nuanced for games. By making me feel compassion for my character is something I didn't expect until the game moved towards it's final act. Despite the more cerebral arguments put forward by the game, this becomes the final lesson.