I first heard about Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP a while ago, but I didn’t really pay it any attention until Thomas from the esteemed Frictional Games said it was his favorite game of 2011. Based on what he said, I needed to play it immediately. Unfortunately, it was only for iOS. I gave up on it (as I don’t have any iThings), but about a month ago, out of the blue, I found out that it was released on Steam for PC. I eagerly bought it right away, and recently finished playing it.
Sword & Sworcery is easily one of the best video game experiences I’ve ever had. By no means is it a perfect game: S&S is riddled with somewhat clunky and combat and often frustrating–not in a good way–puzzles. While I’d be hard pressed to to say that this is a game in which the flaws are part of the charm, S&S easily rises above its flaws.
The translation of S&S from iThings to PC is a strange one. It works perfectly well on a PC, but throughout the game I was struck by how much more sense things would make on a touch device. Some of the puzzles quickly devolve into click fests where you just keep clicking all over the screen until something happens. But, on a touch device, it seems like that would be much more intuitive. Instead of moving your mouse around to click on things, you simply touch things. Physically, touch things. This intuitive use of touch interface seems pretty critical to S&S, and unfortunately it doesn’t translate all that well to mouse interface. Luckily, this ultimately had a rather small impact on the overall experience, and it’s easily forgiven considering the game was specifically designed for touch devices. Other than the frustrating puzzles, all it really did was make me want to play it again on iPad.
In addition to a slew of direct Twin Peaks references, S&S wears on its sleeves inspiration from one of my other Favorites: Metal Gear Solid 3. MGS3 has some clever self-awareness, which S&S runs with. At some points, characters in both games remind you that the game isn’t reality and encourage you to take a break, and S&S has at least one direct MGS3 reference. But one of my favorite things about S&S were some important events that relied on events in the real world. Depending on your timing, you may be forced to wait. There’s an in-game and out-of-game cheat to get around that, but with my timing the in-game work around was closed to me so it worked out that I had to wait a couple days at one point. At first that was frustrating and I almost the out-of-game cheat so I could continue immediately, but then I realized that the developers did this intentionally. They don’t want you play through the game in a speed run in one sitting; they want it to be a more laid back and extended experience.
I’ve never really been into the whole retro-pixely style thing, but S&S is just beautiful. Rather than merely copying a style out of nostalgia, Superbrothers embraced the pixels and created something unique. In the game it works wonderfully well. I’ve pretty much only played realistic first or third person games, so I was pretty amazed at how beautiful the simplicity of the graphics are. While watching single pixels tumble down a waterfall, I didn’t think about the fact that they were just pixels rather than fluid dynamic effects, I just thought about how pretty it all was.
The pixel art just makes sense. This is a game for computers, and everything that is shown on a computer screen is just a bunch of pixels. Ultimately, realistic games are just pixels put together to look like something that they’re not; they’re inherently fake. Not that I’m trying to bash realistic games, I’ll be in the business of making realistic, or at least 3d, graphics, and I wouldn’t be doing that if I didn’t really enjoy it. But there’s something special about using pixels in a simple and symbolic sense, rather than as realistic representations. While playing, a single pixel in S&S reads as a hand just as well as a hyper-realistic hand in some AAA game. I just love that simplicity and purity.
Sound is one of the key components of S&S, and one of the things that makes it really stand out. The cost of the game on steam is easily worth it just for the soundtrack alone. Created by Jim Guthrie, the soundtrack (er, I mean the Sword & Sworcery LP) seems like it was developed alongside the game rather than just for it. Sort of like the 2001: A Space Odyssey book and movie. But of course the S&S LP doesn’t only work as a standalone album. In the game, I never thought of it as anything other than incredibly well done game music: it’s a lot more than just pre-made music. The sound design itself is quite musical, and melds in with the ambient music really well. Even the sparkly sound of rabbits jumping into bushes often sounds like it’s directly part of the music track.
I think that actually illustrates the one most important and simplest thing that makes Sword & Sworcery so great: the amazing way that every aspect of it melds together to create single whole. I’ve seen people criticize the dialogue for having modern-day lingo in it, but without that the whole thing would feel very stiff and fake. S&S is piece of art in the purest sense: a creation in which the authors put themselves. This is what I always look for in games, and Sword & Sworcery is one of the very few that does it.
P.S.: This is from the creators of the game, and is some of the best advice I’ve ever read about game development. http://boingboing.net/features/morerock.html