The Mysteries Of Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP

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Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP is one of those games that I picked up not long after release but never got around to playing, until now. Its distinctive art style made an impression on me at the time, and I recall seeing lots of discussion surrounding it after its 2011 release, but somehow I never read much about it, and when I finally decided to play it I went in knowing almost nothing. Having everything be a surprise was a real pleasure, so I have tried to write about it without revealing too much.

It’s safe to say that Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP is not quite what I expected. All I had to go on was some brief footage I’d seen long ago, from which I’d extrapolated an idea of what it might be like. The reality is markedly different from what I imagined. For me, the result was effective and enjoyable, but I know those with different tastes may dislike it. They might find the humor dischordant and forced (I only rarely felt this), or take issue with the slow pace, or writing that playfully shifts in style and tone. They may even dismiss the game as pretentious, an attempt at “art” that is not nearly as profound as it thinks it is. I, on the other hand, felt that both its serious and glib moments mostly hit their mark. If there are failings, they stem from certain details that date the game, unmistakably placing Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP as a product of the indie game movement of the late 2000s and early 2010s.

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP first appeared as an iPad and iPhone exclusive in 2011, before coming to PC the following year. This was on the tail of big headline-grabbing indie game releases such as Super Meat Boy and World of Goo, games that had established a new “indie” aesthetic. Indie games at that time often shared similar visual styles and themes, and a philosophy of artistic expression that encouraged breaking from established trends in mainstream game development. Their creators formed a new community with a strong sense of camaraderie and collaboration. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP embodies that spirit. The titular Superbrothers is an alias for artist Craig D. Adams, who was making pixel art under the name in his spare time while working a day job for a major game developer. At the Game Developer’s Conference (aka GDC) in 2009, he met the president of Capy Games, who had seen his art through a mutual acquaintance, and they decided to work together. Craig had already collaborated with musician Jim Guthrie for a few video projects, and brought him in to make the score for the game. The actual development occurred alongside some of the first big indie success stories like Braid, so the timing was perfect (you can read a nice account of the development of the game here, but beware a few spoilers). Superbrothers, Capy and Jim Guthrie are given equal standing as creators of the finished game.

Today, we’ve seen how this early indie game movement blossomed into a beautifully varied flood of games of every stripe. Where once the distinction between mainstream games and indie games was clear — and I used it myself on this blog — the term “indie” is no longer particularly informative. We have games made by single developers and established teams of industry veterans, weird free games and polished commercial releases, online games that continuously update for years and experimental games made in just a few days, major publishers supporting smaller projects and small independent teams making huge games, and digital distribution platforms willing to host all of the above and everything in between. Many of the things that Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP does that were striking and original at the time have been adopted and expanded upon since. A slow paced game where players wander through beautiful locations and listen to music was once unusual, but today we have all manner of them; the once-derogatory term “walking simulator” has spawned an entire genre. Games that eschew traditional “game” elements like scoring and action in favor of narrative and complex themes, whose meanings are open to interpretation, were once rare but are now commonplace. Playing Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, it is clear that it came at a time when game developers were still testing these waters, experimenting with new ways to write and present games. The most obvious example is its Twitter integration, letting players automatically tweet out bits of dialogue or other text from the game. Not only is such integration no longer novel — we have games specifically designed for streaming now, letting those watching the stream influence what happens — but it also comes from a time when Twitter itself was new and interesting, when discussions surrounding it centered on its potential as a new communication tool, rather than the dangers of an unregulated system that promotes mob mentalities and enables campaigns of harassment and abuse.

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, then, can feel a little dated, perhaps even naive or overblown, but such a judgment is unfair. It is genuine in everything it does, and it stands on its own merits. There’s no question that it’s a beautiful game; while pixel art is a common style, Superbrothers’ take on it is strikingly distinctive. Characters are sketched in only the slightest detail, seemingly with the minimum number of pixels, yet they are not small and boxy as I’ve seen in most low-detail art. Their big torsos, tiny heads, and long spindly single-pixel limbs are a dramatic departure from the proportions used in most pixel art, and provide space for wonderfully expressive animations that provide far more character than a few extra pixels might. I also admired the imaginative use of a limited color palette, which Superbrothers turns into an artistic strength. This recalls early games that faced strict hardware limits on available colors, yet managed to create evocative scenes through careful color choice and the use of tricks like dithering to create “extra” colors. But Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP does not merely ape this style, it uses the expanded range of colors available with modern hardware for subtle shifts in palette for different locations or scenes, and the occasional use of extra colors or true color gradients to add an extra flourish. The excellent animation applies to these background scenes as well, and I often found myself stopping just to gaze at the landscape for a while.

Music and sound are also central to the experience. The “EP” in the name is not accidental; it is both a figurative and literal reference to an extended play record. Composer Jim Guthrie is listed prominently alongside the game’s title, and it’s clear that the development team worked closely with him to integrate music and sound with the visuals and narrative pacing of the game. I guess I’m primed to think of folk music when I see the name “Guthrie”, but, while there is some guitar and a few other acoustic instruments in places, the score is predominantly played on synthesizers. My copy came with the digital soundtrack (which, now that I think about it, probably means I got my copy in the Humble Indie Bundle 5), and it’s a great listen on its own, but really shines in the game itself. A perfect match for quiet exploration, beautiful landscapes, or tense and creepy moments alike, it’s a highlight of Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP.

I can’t write much more about the game without giving things away. I did want to mention one detail that I liked: Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP specifically encourages players to take breaks and play over several sessions. They’re even called “sessions”, using natural break points in the story to suggest players stop and return later. While players can press on if they like (or take breaks mid-session), the pauses give time to mull things over and appreciate the art and writing. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP is a slow paced game, and it works best when players digest it slowly as well. This design was also a nice surprise, when so many games today seem focused on stringing players along by convincing them to repeat repetitive activities and pay for convenience features. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP trusts that its players will return of their own accord, which is nice to see.

If you like visual art and music, I suspect you’ll return of your own accord too. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP is not a long game, but it’s a memorable one, and I recommend checking it out.

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