CAPY's 2011 adventure is a bit of a classic for me
The moss-and-ochre palette of the Caucasus in Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP is intensely homely to me. Eight years on from the game’s mobile release, returning to the idyllic pasture outside Logfella’s hut is akin to loading up my town in Animal Crossing or spending some time in Persona 4’s Inaba. But for all that home-away-from-home charm, Sworcery is also an exceedingly weird game.
The idiosyncratic narrative is, in 2019, kind of the perfect monster. The game’s social media ties (the developers once referred to Twitter as “fun and nice and cool” which is...optimistic at best) have been appropriately carved out for the Nintendo Switch release, but the clear influence on the writing remains. The bitesize dialogue popups are presented as unstrung, monologic diary entries, as if I’m the unseen observer of a pantomime or puppet show. The tone of it seems counter to the setting, too—Sworcery feels both like a warrior’s sprawling pilgrimage and a field trip of the world's first internet influencer. The Scythian is daring and and vulnerable, but also unafraid to crack a joke and relish her victories. She’s a faultless companion through to the bitter end.
Underneath the cheery detachment from reality, there’s a grim twist to the puppetry; is this the Scythian’s quest, or mine? The Archetype, the meta-level observer of the whole affair, speaks directly to me, and suggests that the journey is mine. He presents the Scythian as a storytelling tool, an unwitting but nonetheless uncompromising vector for me to experience the world. It’s a cynical view of agency and aesthetic value, but I still feel a link with my burdened warrior. The connection to the Scythian is very tactile; I’m encouraged to tap around, guiding her by hand rather than using the sticks. She doesn’t really talk, she doesn’t have many discernible features and her list of actions doesn’t extend far beyond “swing sword” and “block”, but there’s an attachment to the character regardless.
As the end of the game approached, I found myself questioning the motives driving the whole thing. Was I ready to witness martyrdom? Did the Scythian deserve to die just so I could see the quest done? I pressed the button that brought down her sword and woke the Gogolithic Mass; I guided her through the dream world to awaken sprites and put an end to the apocalyptic storm; I directed her in battle against the Trigon, even as it took an increasingly immense physical toll; could I really force her up the mountain one last time to undo all I’d wrought? I’m half convinced the woeful errand was mine and mine alone.
It’s a startling twist on the typical hero’s journey, even if it is laden with hipster-speak and elements outright lifted from other popular games (the Golden Trigon still gets a giggle out of me). It was a shock to the mobile gaming ecosystem back in 2011, and it’s genuinely surprising how well it fits into my library now. A presentation-heavy, gameplay-light experience back then felt like a revelation, not too far removed from the rise of walking simulators, and there’s still nothing quite like Sworcery. I always heard about the kind of adventurous emotions people had when they played The Legend of Zelda or The Elder Scrolls or World of Warcraft for the first time, but I never really experienced it myself until I played this. Yeah, a 2D, point-and-click mobile game did for me what countless AAA games with bottomless budgets couldn't. Weird how that shakes out. Superbrothers’ signature style, which blends rustic colours with dreamlike particles and painstaking animation, remains a standout in today’s post-pixel avalanche world. The indie explosion and the rise of publishers like Devolver means that, to a lot of people, a game like Sworcery is an everyday occurrence, but few are as detailed and mysterious as this.
And then there’s the soundtrack. Jim Guthrie’s Ballad of the Space Babies combines elements from 8 and 16-bit games, Lynchian cinema and post-rock into a tracklist that swings from intense and moody cyclical riffs to upbeat electronica pulsing with life and texture. Some of the tracks would feel right at home on a Mogwai album, others wouldn’t be out of place in a Zelda game, and a few outright defy explanation. Perhaps most important, however, is how the music is positioned in the game. Guthrie leans into the eccentricity, incorporating diegetic sound and contrapuntal themes, peaking with the musician himself appearing in-game and performing a track that errs strikingly close to Lynch & Badalamenti’s “The Pink Room”. Sworcery’s music goes against just about everything I’d expect from this kind of game, and that’s why it works so well.
Guthrie’s in-game performance is really the icing on the cake for a game that constantly breaks the fourth wall. It’s a relatively straightforward and mechanically stripped-back experience, but it does a lot to pull both the player and the world around them into the game, as well as leaking beyond the fourth wall itself. The phases of the moon are integral to progression, sharing progress to Twitter was a key mechanic on its original release and the developers themselves make an appearance. At every turn, Sworcery subverts expectations.
Eight years on, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery still feels like magic. The oh-so-innocent take on social media is adorable and the writing won’t be for everyone, but it’s got unmatched style and charm. It’s an enduringly mysterious game and a great reminder of what the restrictions of mobile gaming can lead to, proving that “cinematic” isn’t synonymous with “photorealistic”. Sworcery was a bit of a personal revelation then, and it’s equally affecting now.