Sword and Sworcery the hell out of some trees

Full disclosure: I wrote this for a grad group, and the site we use is probably Googlable. But I like how it turned out and thought you fine folks might be interested. It’s on Sword and Sworcery (again):

Northrop Frye details the sympathetic fallacy in Anatomy of Criticism. I don’t have my copy in front of me right now, so I can’t quote it, but basically he says that in romances (medieval, not sappy) nature is in sympathy with the action or the characters. So it rains when people are sad and storms when something bad is about to happen. Think of Macbeth, where the weather goes insane when King Duncan is killed. I think it’s called a fallacy now because of its overuse in melodrama – a stormy night is the most famous example.

But fantasy is driven by the sympathetic role of nature. Magic is pretty much the manipulation of the forces of a sympathetic nature, which can be negotiated with in some way. Frodo’s starlight in The Lord of the Rings burns brighter when reminded of the star it came from – so light has a memory and is different from source to source. Qualitatively different, not just in tone, but in spirit. Frodo and Sam can remind the light of its source and make it help them in their peril.

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP is about a lot of things, and fantasy’s sympathetic nature is one of them. The game’s simple quest structure, undermined as it is by the arch cynicism of the Archetype and the Scythian, is actually pointed toward a mystery, not a revelation. We never learn why the Scythian is doing what she’s doing. The world doesn’t really seem to be in danger before she awakens the Gogolithic Mass. The discovery in the game is about Sworcery. And Sworcery appears to be music and using it to draw out the spirits in a sympathetic nature.

The soundtrack to the game is called Ballad of the Space Babies. The sounds of the game are about summoning the spirits out of the different things they reside in. They’re very much like sylphs and naiads and dryads, except maybe more inscrutable. They keep lending power to the Scythian, but again we don’t really know why.

The Megatome allows us to read everyone’s thoughts, but still the game keeps intentions from us. The most profound thinker of the game is Dogfella, whose purpose is really just a hint system to keep players on track if they’re lost. The mystery of each puzzle is generally the same: figure out which pieces and parts of each scene is interactable, which have spirits in them, and then summon them out with sworcery, with sound tones. Some of the puzzles directly imitate music, like the waterfalls that have to be strummed like a series of guitar strings to make a chord, and all of them have the space babies creating a harmony as the player interacts with them.

So sympathy is equaled to music in the game. Given that the website for the game says it can be considered a prog rock experiment as well as a game with accompanying soundtrack, that makes sense. The place of power in the world – the Trigon Grove – has the EP of the game itself lodged in it, bigger than life. The record is the path to power, just like in Dudefella’s room where pondering the miniature EP will send the player to the dream world.

A lot of fantasy before the game has made the connection between magic and music. It’s a natural one to make, if for no other reason than a lot of cultures practiced their magic using music. Chanting is traditionally how to enter a more mystic state of mind. But in the game the music is crafted by the player, discovered – the full soundtrack comes and goes, but will always play when the player has unlocked another part of the narrative. Each space baby trio brings along with it its song. You can meet the singer/songwriter Jim Guthrie, the guy who wrote all the music, and ask him to play a song you won’t hear anywhere else in the game. And it’s long, so it will reward you for staying and listening.

It’s probably significant, too, that this game was originally on the iPhone and iPad. People use those as mp3 players. If you play it on the iPhone you’ll probably play with headphones. So the physical act of playing was originally just like listening to music.

So the game seems to suggest something about music – that it’s an interactive experience just like a game. And it suggests something about fantasy – that it uses its sympathetic nature almost to replace intention. Ritual doesn’t have intention while practicing it. Anyway, practitioners are meant to clear their minds of everything but the ritual, which is why rituals work the way they do. They’re their own practice. The result can be nothing more than having completed the ritual correctly. Japanese tea ceremonies aren’t really about making excellent tea, though they produce that at the end.

In the same way, the game is about a similar practice. Anyone who’s played sections of a game over and over without advancing the plot can tell you they’re doing something very similar. Sometimes playing a game isn’t about reaching the end, even when you do end up reaching it. So in the end Sword and Sworcery uses both fantasy and music to talk about games: games are experiential, even when they are narrative.

That’s why I wanted everyone to read the manifesto, “Less Talk More Rock.” Also, of course, because of the music connotations. But it’s an excellent primer about the similarities and differences between video games and other media. Many games have plots, but all games have narrative. The player’s narrative is individual, even when he or she does the same things. It’s how someone can get satisfaction from their 1,000th win using Ryu in Street Fighter – it’s like they’re completing the parts of a koan. And that koan can be repeated by other players, with slight variations, and still have individual meaning.

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