"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."
THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
SWORD & SWORCERY: A GAME REVIEW
A lone figure makes her way through the Caucus Mountains. It is somewhere around 1000 B.C. In the shadow of Mingi Taw ("the Eternal Mountain," what today we call Mt. Elbrus, the highest peak in all Europe), she comes across a lone shepherdess that the locals just call "Girl." Further along she meets a woodcutter named "Logfella," and his canine companion "Dogfella." Hidden in the dreams of these mountain people are the forces she needs to complete her woeful quest. But first, she needs the woodcutter to lead her up the lost roads to the Kingdom of the Clouds. He agrees but isn't "super jazzed" about it.
So begins Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, an indie game phenomenon that combines Jung, Robert E. Howard, and Joseph Campbell in a world that looks and feels like a living Georges Seurat painting. Just to prove how timeless and eternal myth is, the game is set in prehistory, the characters speak like modern twenty-somethings, and the entire project is drenched and dripping with the "feel" of fantasy from the 70s, when D&D was a secret you had to be initiated into, you had Heavy Metal magazines under your bed, and Tolkien was woven like secret threads in Led Zeppelin lyrics. For something intentionally designed to look like you might have played it on your Atari or Commodore 64, Sword & Sworcery isn't a game but rather an experience. It's what Greg Stafford would call a "HeroQuest," a journey outside profane reality into what Mircea Eliade's "sacred time." It's not about treasure, levels, or stats; it's about truth, dreams, and above all else "death."
Don't get me wrong, there are puzzles to solve, monsters to fight, quests to be won. But spend ten minutes within this game and you will immediately recognize this thing is an entirely different species from Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls, or World of Warcraft. The inclusion of "EP" in the title is there for a reason; it's not so much a traditional RPG as a concept album you can hang out in. Designed in collaboration with Canadian progressive rock artist Jim Guthrie, whose stunning soundtrack is a vital part of the experience, the "record album" association is part of the architecture, often literally. On the menu screen, a spinning record album charts your progression through the game, the needle gliding towards the center the closer to the end you get. Every time the protagonist travels back and forth between the waking and dream worlds--the two interconnected settings of the game--the record album is seen "flipping over" (the Dream World is "Side B"). The "sworcery" of the title is not tossing fireballs or shooting lightning from your fingers, but rather a song the protagonist learns to sing which expands her consciousness so that she can perceive the unseen. And in the Dream World you have the chance to meet album composer Guthrie himself and have a jam session with him. The soul of this game is the music.
As for gameplay, Swords & Sworcery has little interest in established conventions. There are no rules to learn before play...you just jump right in. You are prodded at times with enigmatic phrases; Trespass, Look, Listen, Touch, Believe, and part of the challenge is to figure out what they mean. At crucial stages the game's narrator--a Rod Serlingesque dude in a suit with a cigar and a really big chair--will appear to address you, the player, directly, with cryptic instructions and explanations. Because in Sword & Sworcery there is no "fourth wall." From the very start the game makes it clear that you, the player, are going through the journey as surely as the protagonist is. In fact she--the Scythian warrior monk you play throughout the game--never once says "I." Her pronoun of choice is "we," speaking for you and her. Combat is handled by blocking with a shield and parrying with a sword, and you start the game with five "health levels" (the only stat you have). In a brilliant and complete inversion of other RPGs, after each of the game's four episodes one of those health levels actually disappears. This is a game about mortality, after all, and she is growing old, making it harder to reach the end. For the rest, this is your Hero's Journey as much as hers. You begin a novice and learn as you go.
On a random note, the game was released in the US on the vernal equinox and in Japan on the summer solstice. The phase of the moon--our moon, the real moon up the in the sky--is essential to unlocking some of the game's episodes. That means you need to play it over a lunar month at least, waiting for the moon to be in phase. If you can think of anything cooler, drop me a line.
In conclusion, there is a line in the Indian epic, the Mahabharata (composed around the same period as the setting of this game) that kept coming back to me as I played. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the author of that epic would stop every now and again to address the reader directly too. Anyway, it was there in the back of my head as I encountered each Jungian archetype--the Sheperdess, the Woodcutter, the Wolf, the Deathless Spectre. "This is a story about you...and if you listen, at the end you will be a different person than when we began."
That's Sword & Sworcery in a nutshell.