Chances are, if you’re a gamer or are following one on Twitter, the #sworcery hashtag’s shown up in your timeline. It refers, of course, to “Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP,” the indie game just out for iPad.
A smidgen of indie developer insider buzz and in-the-know word-of-mouth preceded its release but, really, “Sword & Sworcery” was one of those games that you had to know about already to know about. Yet, despite its relative obscurity, it shot up to the #3 spot for paid apps for the iPad, with nothing to speak of in terms of marketing. One of the things that’s led to the viral, explosive success of “Sworcery” is the way it integrates Twitter. Nearly every scene or dialogue exchange can be tweeted, serving several different purposes. #Sworcery tweets tease those who don’t yet have the game, provide oblique hints for other players and reminds those who have completed it of what it was all like.
As the EP part of the name suggests, the game’s really a slim novella of an experience. Part of its charm is how it mixes Ye Olde English (as approximated by comics legend Stan Lee in the early issues of his work on Marvel Comics’ “Thor” ) with modern-day colloquialisms. Whether by design or by accident, that combo makes for hilarious, attention-grabbing tweets. For example, “Miraculously the sinister storm has lifted & glorious sunlight has returned to the realm so that’s totally awesome.” Or, “We Scythians loathe rainbows.”
Words make it sing, but it’s the aesthetic that make “S&S”‘ shine. Its expressionistic pixel art suggests the ideas of things, which adds to the hazy, lazy appeal of the gameplay. These dots mean a bird, those a deer, the ones over there assemble into a shadowy demon.
Gameplay-wise, the mechanics are light but enjoyable. There’s the occasional swordfight but, mostly, you walk around exploring and completing touch-based puzzles. Early on, you get acclimated to exploring the world with your fingertips and having it talk back to you in its own quirky, second-person voice. Rather than a game that dares players to conquer, “Sworcery” invites you to converse with it.
Such as it is, the conversation’s small talk but the best thing about “Sworcery” may be how, musically and visually, it encourages you to meander and take your time. Sure, the Scythian-the female warrior on an unspecified, “woeful errand”-has an overarching mission, but the player’s not prodded on in any real way. You’re going to see things on this quest. Go down that path and check out those graves. Oh, look, sheep! And you can shout out nearly everything you see on Twitter.
Underneath all of the aesthetics and gameplay is a great downtempo electronica soundtrack by Jim Guthrie, with just enough renaissance-fair flourish to keep it on message. The soundtrack itself is a meta-construct, too, video game music made from a video game (“MTV Music Generator,” as detailed here).
That fits for “Sworcery.” It’s a game full of its own self-consciousness and traffics in intellectual indulgences that pulls in Jungian dream theory, Conan the Barbarian references–the original Robert E. Howard books, thank you very much–and old-school NES games like the classic “Legend of Zelda.” But, every time you want smirk at its admitted preciousness , some undeniably cute animation or wry dialogue ping off your heartstrings. Like when the mystical Megatome book lets you read your canine companion’s thoughts, which go something like, “Bark, bark, bark. Sometimes I grow weary of barking all the time but a dog’s gotta do what a dog’s gotta do.”
Super-decompressed genre conventions (like the girl named Girl or sentences like “The wood-chopping woodsman chopped wood.”) and built-in social networking make it a game that creates its own collective subconscious. All of a sudden, people know that other people know about this game. Granted, it does so very willfully, which drains some of the charm out of it. Nevertheless, the elegant design and the unalloyed delight that “Sword & Sworcery” evinces about games, philosophy and music draws you in and grab hold.