Before we begin, give yourself a pat on the back for owning an iPad. Feels good, amirite? Our day of reckoning has come. Sword and Sworcery EP is great, but I hesitate to call it a great “game”. It’s swo much more than that and deserves a better classification. Allow me to get academic with you a moment. It’s a great “art-thing”, yeah, let’s go with that. I feel much better now. Problem solved.

Sword and Sorcery EP is a handsome art-thing with pretty pictures and pretty sound/music. It is a wholly new experience I am a better man for having experienced. It taught me so much about life and the cosmos. I frequently boot out of the game to go on Swafari (I like to have fun with letters, too) and look up things like ‘metaphysics’, ‘cosmic design’, and ‘lunar calendar’. It makes you want to use phrases like "hauntingly beautiful". 

It’s that killer platform-defining app you’re going to show off to your unconverted friends, family, and acquaintances. I frequently haunt Starbucks and Barnes and Noble for hours, crank the brightness and sound up, and play the art-thing in a spot where the screen is most visible and wait for people to ask what it is and compliment me on how cool it is. It makes me feel good when they say they don’t own an iPad.

Now, for the hard-hitting teleological and ontological questions Sword and Sworcery posits:

  • If this “art-thing” is indeed an “art”, is Twitter now officially a literary art form?
  • Is the App Store now a platform to be taken seriously as a serious digital purveyor of quality art-thing content for serious and discerning gamers?
  • Does this mean The Angry Birds will be labeled as an “art-thing” as a result of Sword and Sorcery’s art-thing status and academic and critical/financial success?
  • Will we start seeing a ripple effect where fart app and iOS beer pong game developers release updates that add culture, class, sophistication, super handsome pixel art, and “art themes” to their games, and branding models?
  • Will “amirite” become a meme?

I urge you, yes you, dear reader, to send a new iPad 2© to Mr. Ebert with Sword and Sorcery installed on it. I’m totally serious. The more iPad 2s we send to Mr. Ebert, the more likely he is to play it, or rather, “experience” it. Please include a helpful walkthrough of the art-thing (We don’t want him to get stuck. He needs to beat it and absolutely not get stuck or frustrated). He must not get distracted/frightened from the art-thing narrative and experimental graphics and gameplay.

If the honorable Mr. Ebert plays this game, I’m sure he will rule in our favor. He will then eat his own words from the can of worms he opened on Twitter. That will show him to mess with us gamers! Eat those word-worms! Suck it, we’ve got art now, for real this time!

The honorable Dear Leader of art judgment.

Mr. Ebert will then tweet an apology, something like, “ I’m very sincerely sick over the stink I made about games. Bad call, y’all. This is a fine day to be alive. S:S&S EP’s art and narrative changed how I look at things!” Or, maybe one of Mr. Ebert’s Twitter friends will tweet a sorcery hashtag, and Mr. Ebert will read the wry one-liner and retweet it with a preface of “Brilliant, wild, genius! I knew I was on this Twitter thing for a reason!”

Now, for some serious and unpleasant questions pertaining to Sword and Sorcery’s artistic legitimacy:

  • Does it hurt the art-thing’s chances of being art and a thematic and important serious work that you need to hold your iPad in portrait style for fights? It kind of hurts my wrists.
  • If the forthcoming iPhone version is 1/5th of the iPad’s screen size, does that make the art-thing 1/5th the amount of art?
  • Is it not art if you don’t own a pair of expensive headphones?
  • If a known felon or sex predator tweets some dialogue from the art-thing, does that make it dark or unsavory art? 

I am tormented by these questions. I feel … tired …

zZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZ

*****

Whoa, that was weird. I guess that was a B-Side I was experiencing. Oh well.

Let’s be clear, yes, Sword and Sworcery EP shares App Store real estate with noveltyware neighbors like Fart Generator Premium and single-mechanic, 99 cent bulk gumball games. But, for the love of god, put the platform partisanship aside and out of mind. Sword and Sorcery EP’s residence does not affect the game qualitatively whatsoever, and neither does its touch-based input, really. Moving on …

Part point-and-click and part Zelda, S: S&S EP puts the player into the role of an adventurer in a side-scrolling fantasy world with an idiosyncratic pixel aesthetic. There are puzzles, items to fetch, sonorous jams and excellent art to imbibe, the odd spot of narrow swordplay, somewhat hidden gameplay events, a small character population that supplies useful and useless dialogue, and lots of fevered poking and prodding to discover natural instruments in the arrangement of quasi-musical puzzles. And there’s a mechanic where moon phases change aspects of the game’s world, but we’ll get to that later.

[embed:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W9ywdKH-C5g ]

When the game is at its best, it’s an infrequently meditative jaunt through a beautiful and bizarre nature preserve. It’s like examining a series of gallery paintings at a quick pace, with a lovely in-house ambient DJ. There’s some nice garnish, charming events, and the wonderful investigative gameplay of determining the order or action of integrated musical responses by fingering scenery, like playing linear waterfall streams as strings on a harp.

The latter is the game’s “song of sorcery” component, in which the player awakens forest spirits whose locations are designated by a bubble plume signpost. Once found, the player must activate a gameplay mode where touch input changes to become a mostly trial and error, fingertapping survey of the screen to find flora and fauna that emit a musical note, and oftentimes must be used with other such objects to compose a rough melody, completing the puzzle.

Acting as a wandering wizard detective, who examines the environment and plays its hidden, and not so hidden, instruments, even if clumsily, is the best gameplay boon Sword and Sorcery has to offer.

The sword combat seems like an unnecessary afterthought, with a limited purpose and frequency that could have been replaced by the wonderful sorcery mechanic, tweaked to meet the sporadic conflict. The game is much more sworcery than it is sword.

It’s a shame then that the overall game is terribly confused.

Consider yourself warned, there be spoilers ahead, but I’ll keep them a little vague and concerned mostly with the game’s dialogue and the mechanics of its moon phase gameplay system — the two constituents of the game I feel really get in its own way. And yet, the game takes it upon itself to spoil its lunar puzzles for you anyway, so whatever.

 

SHUT UP AND LET ME PLAY #sorcery

When not telegraphing useful information to the player, the game’s character dialogue is a distracting encumbrance that revels in its own flat and awkward  meta-humor. And there’s a lot of it.

Every line of dialogue — from NPCs to your own character’s observations after poking things — can be tweeted. I completely ignored this functionality, so it didn’t bother me or infringe upon my experience, though I don’t think it justifies itself as a fresh, kinda sorta purposeful relay system for useful information between players.

What did infringe upon my experience was the dialogue itself. Text dialogue is necessary for providing hints, riddles, or rules concerning the song of sorcery gameplay, and the abstract and extraneous lunar puzzle mechanics. But, you need to wade through a sea of bad, jarring jokes to get there.

For example (a relatively small sampling):

You'll find this first S:S&S EP session to be fairly straightforward. It typically only requires 15 – 30 minutes to complete. #sworcery

We had bridged the chasm & we felt super smart. #sworcery

We got The Megatome & we are the smartest. #gotmegatome#sworcery

We got The Gold Trigon. We are so awesome. #sworcery

We have re-assembled The Trigon Trifecta & we are heroes. #sworcery

We spied a curious-looking nestbox with an inscription that read "Tweet & ye shall be re-tweeted". #sworcery

We got the peculiar feeling that it was maybe a time of miracles – where my miracles at? #miracles #sworcery

We were like groan, not another fetch quest, amirite? #sworcery

You woke the deathless spectre who still lurks in the darkness beneath Mingi Taw. What a creep, amirite? #sworcery

Astride a logbridge on the old road stood a grim flagpole adorned with blocky-looking skulls. #sworcery

And yet Logfella offered zero help about what to do next, which kinda rubbed us the wrong way if we're being totally honest. #sworcery

Our research data shows a high correlation between a participant's progress in S:S&S EP & their aptitude for being awesome. #sworcery

The Grizzled Boor was included in S:S&S EP to allow participants to self-identify as compassionate, reasonable people. #sworcery

Perhaps you have already heard about an impossible island under a looming Bright Moon, maybe you read about it on the internet? #sworcery

Be advised that henceforth we will be monitoring your inputs in relative silence. #sworcery

I wish the last line were true. The characters never shut the fuck up and let the game speak for itself. It’s not cute, it’s not clever, and it doesn’t feel natural given the game’s underlying tone. It’s an irritating and abrasive spew of snarky, biting, and apathetic quips from some hipster’s Twitter feed.

The majority of the game’s humor relies on how these characters are transparently tearing down the 4th wall with a sledgehammer. The joke is that these “miracles” are worthless illusions. The joke is that you’re playing a game.

These intentionally patronizing characters sound as if they were GLaDOS’s consciousness after being uploaded to Twitter, dumbed down and remade in its image. It’s not as if any attempt at humor would be unbefitting for the game, but between the settled upon writing style, manner of speech, and meandering self-aware humor, it all sounds so out of place. Every character’s a comedian, and pretty bored and stoic ones at that. Except for the dog, he’s cool. 

These insipid and irreverent advisors, who poke fun at the game’s own clichés and player conditioning, only know a blunt force approach to 4th wall comedy. GLaDOS performs it in a subtle and smart way. The Companion Cube is a symbol or euphemism for ordinary and lifeless objects the player is routinely told are characters they should empathize with and care for. The baleful, macabre, and matter-of-fact testimony GLaDOS gives about the perils of test subjects past is an amusing allegory for game testing, designer scare tactics, prohibitions on unwanted player behavior, and other dimensions of behavioral psychology in game design. S:S&SEP is wincingly direct.

The Superbros. show no restraint in presenting their 4th wall peepholes. Just as you run the risk in film of alienating or distracting your audience with an actor looking directly into the barrel of a lens, acknowledging the audience and the artifice, S:S&SEP routinely chides the player and unimaginatively points at the props and facades that surround them. They’re trying too hard and too little to be funny.

Its heritage of medieval heroic folklore is at once a genre it honors and supplements through gameplay, and some throwback, thrift store vintage it wears “ironically” (nice ogre and wolf-moon profile tee, man).

The pretentiously unpretentious, painfully self-aware shtick is more damaging than simply being a hodgepodge of dead jokes, it’s a cacophony of empty intrusions that cheapen and undermine what is a good experience underneath.

These are not characters, they are out-of-game visitors, they are its writers. I felt naked, made to feel like a fool for taking the game seriously, mocked and derided for buying into its own lovingly crafted illusions and landscape. The world feels invaded and unreal, because writers taken with their own lifeless material are lurking behind almost every screen edge, far more sinister and unwelcome than a Grizzled Boor, three-eyed wolves, and the Gogolithic Mass all sewn into one.

 LinkLinkage: I was all like groan, not this angry ginger again, amirite? #buzzkill #boredom

It really reads as if the game is making fun of itself and only half-heartedly believes in its own interactive vision. There are two halves that comprise this bipolar design philosophy. There’s the half I like, the game itself, the sweet one, the one that’s easy on the eyes and charming, the one that makes good conversation, and sure it makes some missteps, but I forgive it. Then there’s the dark half, the dialogue, the one who speaks loudly saying nothing when it feels insecure, the one who talks during movies and spoils every beat, the one who likes the sound of its own voice.

Many times it felt like I was on an ill-fated camping trip with some blabbering douche who provided commentary on how post-modern toasting marshmallows is, and how subsistence hunting is played out.

Even if the game’s dialogue can be so construed as a high concept commentary on the modern gaming populace, it was a thorny, omnipresent obstacle standing in the way of my appreciating the interactive rewards.

Also, for a game that’s selling itself as some ruminative journey of discovery and experiential exploration, the dialogue leaves little room for the imagination, which leads me to the virtually non-existent moon phase gameplay.

Manipulating a lazy moon

Very simply, the crux of the game is the player’s assembly of an object called the Trigon Trifecta, which is basically an inverted Triforce consisting of three separate triangles (very ironic and needlessly referential, amirite?).

The first Trigon piece can be acquired irrespective of where the moon hangs in the sky, but the latter two require a full moon and a new moon at the time of play (an objective the game makes clear through images and dialogue) … or at least what the game believes are those moon phases.

Early on in the game, you discover a small cabin where you can fall asleep and enter a “B-Side”, a dream level apart from the main world. You are told that the remaining Trigon pieces exist in this dream world, but depend on the moon to materialize.

At this point, you start meeting ghosts that sprout up in the main world, and offer very measured, succinct, and explicit options for how to obtain the remaining pieces. Some ghosts say that they waited weeks for the moon to change, but it was very boring. Others tell you about a place in the world called the Moon Grotto (with a pretty convenient, visible location) where one can control the moon and temporarily fool the cosmos (the game) into thinking it’s a particular moon phase at the time of play. Another ghost laments that he was punished for being a “cheating cheater” because he pressed the home button and futzed with the date and time settings. Pretty subtle, amirite?

So, here are your options the game very neatly and unambiguously presents to you:

  • Wait the necessary real-world time for a new moon and full moon phase.
  • Manipulate the game into thinking it’s a new or full moon by using the in-game Moon Grotto.
  • Manipulate the game into thinking it’s a new or full moon by changing your iPad’s date and time settings.

I chose the latter. As far as I can tell, my only punishment was getting a different ending cinematic.

No matter which method you choose, the acquisition of the remaining Trigon pieces is the same. You journey back into the B-Side for each moon greets you with a new song and some minor differences in the atmosphere of the level, and a bunch of sorcery puzzles materialize that lead to the hiding Trigon piece.

The game teases you with little riddles that spark the imagination, and then overtly tells you what to do, spoiling the initial majesty of considering the rules of its cosmic mystery.

In my view, the time-recognition moon phase gameplay is almost totally absent, since you have two strategies for circumventing this system and making it obsolete. Just a few leisurely taps can heroically shift time and will the pixel moon to align with your errand. Of course some players will be chaste and patiently wait for the real moon to enter those necessary phases, but it’s an unreasonable and fruitless prospect to begin with, and seriously destabilized by the game’s endorsement of manipulation to speed up the process. Especially for eager early adopters such as myself, we simply don’t have the discipline and the luxury of time to wait around for the moon to do its thing, we already have beenpatiently waiting for years now.

Much like character dialogue, the lunar gameplay is a construct that undermines itself. I’m extremely puzzled by their decision to make the much-touted lunar gameplay system a binary, progression-essential task. For me, the patent allure of imagining some sort of moon phase gameplay is if it were dynamic and not progression-essential.

Imagine, time-sensitive, dynamic atmospheric generation, or more simply, every day of the lunar calendar procedurally generates new weather effects, music, wildlife, hidden events and side interactions, and other mysterious ambience.

Perhaps game updates could even introduce new and singular manifestations for rare moon phases, like raining ash, a fiery sky, and a side-quest to cast sorcery and pollinate flowers with brushstrokes during a lunar eclipse. Or even nocturnal flowers that awaken at night under a blue moon, and other cosmetic and gameplay changes that appear during a supermoon, harvest moon, blue moon, etc.Tune in at any time and get a cool little experience, independent of realigning the cosmos or “uploading the Megatome to the swirling infinite,” or whatever.

Signature time-sensitive content generation like this would obviously require more development incubation, money, even talent, and push the release date even farther back. But, why is this version of time-recognition, moon phase functionality even in the game if it’s not being significantly leveraged, and if the designers provide you with two convenient methods of bypassing it altogether?

 

Not so much a heroic effort, but a good one

Now, I know I’ve spent some time picking bones, sharpening my blog sword, and singling out aspects of the game I feel are significant detriments and missed opportunities, but the game is good in spite of itself.

Underneath the writers’ and designers’ dialogue graffiti, there’s a terrific painting. Beneath its muddled and mistaken sky, there are constellations of interesting interaction.

The game’s title pretty much sums up this bizarre dialectic; It pays homage to the sword and sorcery game tradition of yore, and then snickers at it, and gets lost in the forest — a potent and impotent perversion of a time-honored institution.

Just as the moon's satellite path is certain and predictable, it was preordained that Sword & Sworcery EP would be the next title game pundits would use to further the tired games-as-art agenda.

A lot of writers have been too eager to declaim that it is “more than a game.” It has a clear objective, interactive obstacles, puzzles, completion percentages, set paths to walk along, handholding, a control scheme with physical input, bugs, and combat. Call me crazy, but I’d call that a game.

It doesn’t break the mold. It doesn’t signal the prophesized art renaissance of games. But why does it need any of those highfalutin qualities, where does that expectation come from, why convince yourself it meets this imaginary, high-flown criteria?

Sword & Sworcery EP strives for an ambient, emotive journey through a glade of abundant wonders hiding in the underbrush, but ultimately it misses this mark more than it hits. The bucolic pixelscapes, the running rivers of sound, and the custodial labors of being an 8-bit Andrei Rublev — who prefers casting flurries of instrumentation to the paintbrush — this is the experience I touched now and then, before the mouths of writers and the forgotten moon constricted it.

Still, I can’t get that sour dialogue out of my mouth. That’s what weirdly has endured with me the most since completion. Is there some high concept here I’m missing? Is it saying that going onto Twitter and reading these scripted travelogues of fellow adventurers is in some way referencing the times, that some compressed social media appendage has irrevocably changed the archetypal hero’s journey? In spoiling their own game, are the designers saying the lofty and obtuse riddles of old have died on the Internet, slayed by Game FAQs? Ultimately, is Sword & Sworcery EP a commentary on the information age's pathogenic impact on old-growth narrative and mystery, or just perpetrating it? My money’s on the latter.