I can say really wholeheartedly that you need to try Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. But I don’t really want to spend time recommending it to you. It’s basically a revamped point-and-click adventure game, with a few neat mechanics thrown in. The combat, when it appears, takes the form of a timing puzzle, really, with a button for sword and another for shield. The magic is point-and-click, taking the place of the traditional “does this item interact with anything in this room” mad-clicking. But I’m interested in what it does with fantasy. You know. Duh.
This game is really amazing. The world of it is strange and fascinating and it shows us just enough to make it vibrant and fantastical and frightening without boring us to tears (the way many contemporary fantasy novelists do at this point). We never learn the main character’s motivations – known only as “the Scythian,” she is dedicated to uniting the Trigon Trifecta and using the power thus gained to upload the Megatome to Mingi Taw, ending forever the threat of the creature atop the mountain’s peak.
I said we don’t learn the Scythian’s motivations, but she clearly has them. But there’s never any sensible time for her to talk about them. She tries to, once, speaking to the woodcutter known as Logfella. But he nearly falls asleep, so she gives up in disgust. The most startling and remarkable line in the entire game, probably (and possibly in prose I’ve read recently, too), is “We got The Bright Moon Trigon for glory & for spite.” The narration is in first person plural, implying it might be the gamer narrating what he or she did alongside the Scythian. But anyway. The Scythian appears to be driven by anger and spite, terrible dark emotions that much of fantasy tells us are transient, weak, and ignoble. They’re of the Dark Side, yes? But the Scythian presses on, aiming to martyr herself (her words) for the greater good, despite not seeming to care about it at all. What sort of person could be driven to save the world out of hate? It’s a fascinating question as she passes through the dreams of her companions, seeking the Trigon where it hides in the collective unconscious of the country folk. It seems almost as though The Scythian uses her magical power to create the Trigon Trifecta from the images of it in dreams, save only that the first Trigon was in the “real” world.
Certainly the story and character turn the typical fantasy adventure on its head, and the world, with its somehow lush, pixelly vistas, is charming and frightening and everything a fantasy world should be. But there’s a strange tinge of irony that in no way kept me from getting into the events and characters. Usually the two things don’t go together, do they, irony and genuineness? So how is it they mesh so well here?
There’s a character called The Archetype. He is equal parts tutorial, ironic commentator, and morally questionable guide to arcane power. After acquiring the Megatome you may check in with him frequently in its pages, as the book reads the minds of those nearby (like that book in Negima). He will tell players about luminal spaces, and what it takes to reach them, and the phases of the moon (real world moon phases). He is droll, be-suited, and casually smokes a cigar at all times, save when he raises his arms to the sky in moments of supreme power.
The Scythian – or the player-narrator – is at times ironic as well. The language of the Scythian/narrator/player wavers between casual but normative language and a laid-back surfer dialect. Things can creep the Scythian out, and graves by the roadside can be “cool.” But at no time did this language pull me from the story. This is a fantasy in which people react as they do. If you are an arch, sarcastic person, and you were to be suddenly launched into a dizzying world of magic and blood, you would still be that arch and sarcastic person. The Scythian seems almost as though she wants to prove herself, to what or whom I have no idea. Perhaps she is proving that she can do what no one else has ever done, despite not coming from a privileged, powerful, and earnest background. She has the casual sarcasm of the lower-middle class. She’s keeping the world at a bit of a distance, but isn’t trying desperately to be arch at all times. She can still be amazed or frightened by things.
The irony in the game actually allows us to become closer to what’s happening. In part it’s characterization – the Scythian isn’t a painfully earnest, wide-eyed naïf, stunned into silence by everything. But it also lets us choose a headspace. We’re given a range of places to be, things to feel. It’s why, typically, explaining feelings in a novel is a bad idea – it informs the reader what to feel, instead of allowing him or her to come to a genuine feeling of their own. This game does the same, somehow. It weaves a textured place in which terrible and wonderful things happen, and the characters in it react to them with understatement, but with sometimes painful and always odd emotions. We are left to feel what we will feel. I, for instance, spent a lot of time screenshotting the ruins, countryside, and the like, then made all the pictures a slideshow desktop background.
A note on the “EP” of the title: the game is also a kind of album. There’s an album soundtrack by a fellow named Jim Guthrie, and the Trigon Trifecta’s iconography includes a record with the titular triangles in the center. The dream world is the “B Side” to the real world’s “A Side.” In the presentation the game is knowingly artificial, more of the mild sarcasm coming to bear. In this case it is knowingly a piece of art, something meant to move you. There is one moment, if you seek it out, where you can do nothing but listen to a piece of music. I mean more than sit back and hear the soundtrack. You can get someone to play a song, and if you stay long enough you will hear an entire piece of music, with variation and changes throughout. So the vinyl makes us remember the game is a work, but the music pulls us into the world, where we’re willing to sit and listen to that album.