Here is what I want you to do:
I want you to step away from a glowing screen for a moment. Intimidating, I know, but there’s more. I want you to find something that is anywhere in the geographical region between Goblin’s Roller, Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, Earth 2 and Carpenter’s score for Halloween III: Season of the Witch. I want you to clear a space on the floor and sit in it, get as comfortable as you can, because this could take a while. This is not about achieving zen – please, this is a game review – in fact clearing your mind is the opposite of what you want to do. No, I want all the stuff cluttered about in that noggin of yours remaining, but I want you to re-arrange it. I want your depository of tales, facts, quotes, sounds and colours to sort of create its own stream with the music, accompany the atmosphere, and justify the sound with an original narrative. Kind of like a dream, but with an audio guide and you in complete control of the souvenir camera. If all goes well, this will become what is known as a fantasy.
It may have elves, it may not have elves. It may have orcs and dragons, perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps it has ghouls, and perhaps that’s because you took my Carpenter suggestion a little bit to heart, and that’s my own fault. Sorry. Perhaps it also has beings that have yet to be named, but what you have hopefully achieved is the ability to recognize the order of disorder. Your however-long journey will have left you with a stream of conscious adventure that within its own logic and style justifies itself. It needs nothing else, even if it is made of everything else. In the long awaited Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, we see a lot of things. We see video game nostalgia, we see Tolkien throwbacks, we see Twitter and we even see Mad Magazine. But despite all the familiarity, Sworcery does not aim to be included with conventional commercial fare, and yet it also goes beyond only being promoted by word of mouth.
Landing in a peaceful mountain in the Caucasus, the quiet Scythian appears. On a quest to reunite the mysterious Trigons and the Megatome, this is her journey and she must do it. Joining the Scythian in this stretch of scenic forest are the Dogfella, Logfella, Girl and strange Archetype, whose Tweet-like thoughts offer some aid in tight spots. This isn’t some sort of ‘don’t bother making sense of it’ scenario, nor is it overzealously layered with parallelism. It’s a concoction somewhere between satire and sincerity, a whimsical style of push-streamed-fantasy, where the childlike concepts and bewildering picture book designs overrule the driving narrative. It’s the kind of story that hasn’t been approached in popular culture since Warriors of Virtue (this is me blaming Warriors of Virtue for that, not praising it), but despite the spiralling motifs, there are certainly reoccurring themes. There is nary a sequence where dreams, mood and music do not come in to some sort of play; a suggested trinity of freeform creativity. From the title to the Side A/Side B vinyl flips you take into the dreamscape, the S&S team seems to go so far as to hint that all three things are in fact one in the same.
On first glance S&S appears to land nearest to being a point and click adventure, and while you certainly point and peck, expecting anything akin to Monkey Island would be a bit misleading. You aren’t prodding all over your iPad screen, scavenging for items to pick up in one place and use in another, and you certainly aren’t annoying the locals awaiting the proper conversation track. In all the glory years of 90s point adventures, the only one I can think of that works anywhere near S&S is Doug TenNapel’s art prioritized title, The Neverhood. Like The Neverhood, S&S is littered with puzzles and solutions, though the answers cannot be found in any carried concept of logic, but rather in understanding the rhythm of the game’s atmosphere. Most of these sequences ask you to play around a bit, look for clues in the scenery, ranging from playing waterfalls like a harp, comparing a forest to its reflection and just plain poking around. Though I have to admit some of these were a little obscure; certain problems will impel you to try an action you had never even been compelled to try before, and then leave you hanging dry and stumped. If this is starting to appear a bit too pretentious, then S&S’s cure for that, too, is much like The Neverhood’s, balancing artistic gusto with a casual and humorous discourse. Characters, especially the Logfella, maintaining chill-dude-like dialogue, often just trying to get the silent Scythian to talk at all with ‘casual ice breakers’ related to blood-sports. Battles are a fairly basic and limited occasion, though the boss-like taming of the Trigons are real tough comers.
Art and sound caused heads to turn around to S&S in the first place, and here they will ensure your head doesn’t turn away. The sound quality is a top production, and there isn’t a rogue pixel in sight. I mentioned Carpenter earlier for a reason, the score, which with EP in the title insinuates that it’s close to being the reason for the season. Music and sound trickle in and out, peaking at thematically appropriate moments. The audio is something you could almost take without the context, but when combined with the visuals they usher in stronger emotions because gosh darn it, they want to! Nostalgia is certainly at play here, but Superbrothers’ style is more like a hazy remix; his artwork and its animated counterpart are more of a reflection, interpretation, alteration on a pixelated past. I don’t want to even try to lure the ‘games = art’ discussion here, but Superbrothers has always been on the art side of things, and this happens to be a video game. Even if the visual design is minimalistic, it’s microscopically detailed, and even the characters, as basic as some look, inspire you to fill in any blanks.
I only just got my mitts on an iPad, but by fiddidling about with some of the other games on it (FOR OPINIONS, WILL, OKAY?!), I can confidently say that no game is as hands-on with the tech like S&S is. Poking, yes, but the tilts and position of the device itself play a grand part, and the Twitter functions may bug some, but to others it offers a quirky new direction to bragging rights – not to mention making for a surplus virtual strategy guide written by others when you get stuck. You even, dare I say, have to poke two things at once with both hands, something to consider before taking Sworcery along for the commute (works better under your bedsheet fort anyways). The iPad has certainly had plenty of worthy games, but S&S is probably the first original title (and WHAT an original title at that) that treats the device as more than something to smudge with finger prints. It doesn’t ‘work around’ the way you play on an iPad, it works with it, and that confidence coupled with such amazing execution makes for something the players will have a hard time forgetting. Sworcery warns that sections of the game may only last 15-30 minutes, which is a humble lie if I’ve ever seen one, and if you really are plowing through the game at such a rampant speed then I worry that you are missing the point.
This is a fantasy. A compilation of unexpected images, ideas, sounds and colours layered on to the back of those that came before it. It may be a little more tongue-in-cheek than Fantastic Planet, but the effect is nonetheless the same. It is a tripped-out virtual narrative installation, one which takes your hand and leads it into the creator’s world of recycled aesthetics. Like a dream that microwaves feelings and images you’ve encountered for days, weeks, months and years. It’s an indescribable journey, which is what makes it pure magic.