Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP is the Watchmen of Videogames

Like all right-minded people, I bought the Humble Indie Bundle V the other day, lengthening my Steam library by a few more names and giving me my third copy of Psychonauts. The reason I really bought it (other than the OST for Bastion) was Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP.

I’ve played through the first two sessions last night, and whilst it is very knowing about its mythopoetic structure, I am thoroughly taken with it. It is the most beautiful Amiga game that wasn’t made in the 90s, graphically, musically and experimentally. It recaptures the sense of wonder I felt as a small child, viewing all those other worlds with a belief and willingness that adult cynicism has largely stripped away (and they were all other worlds – not different aspects of one fantasy monomyth, but each varied and surreal in their own way). I can’t help but think that I’m playing it the wrong way, though.

The first thing I did when the game blossomed on my screen was press D. The screen moved sideways, not the character. Fair enough; indirect control says something of a game’s philosophy, and as the Megatome itself notes, the game uses the second-person throughout the narrative so it all ties in thematically. Then I clicked where I wanted to move, and not a lot happened. Then I double clicked, and finally the Scythian trundled off on her adventure. After a while the game prompted that I could click-and-hold to guide the protagonist and move her around in a more graceful fashion.

I more or less instantly preferred this method. It’s slower, the protagonist sort-of ambling in the direction you indicate rather than the purposeful striding a double-click prompts, and occasionally I end up dragging the screen around instead, but there’s one key advantage: I’m not hearing my mouse clicks anymore. In a game centered around ambience and setting and music, the sound of my interaction is remarkably jarring.

After a brief journey through the misted forest paths our heroine has to face off against a three-eyed wolf. Double-clicking it to approach causes a FIGHT? prompt to appear. And then it waits. So I clicked on the word fight, and I clicked on the sword icon, and I clicked on the flashing red segment right of that, and I clicked on the wolf, and nothing whatsoever happened. I was so confused I even turned to Google. Eventually random experimentation led to a right-click which took me to the fight screen: hurrah! Only now I had to work out how to fight with no prompts.

In this day and age, of hand-holding and few in-box extras (especially for games delivered down the internet pipe, y’know?), the complete lack of on-screen prompts and tutorials was really, really weird. But in context with everything else here, it makes sense. This isn’t a PC game.

That’s an obvious thing to say, given that it is, indeed, ported from the iPhone/iPad. The problem is, it is still an iPad game, just now it’s running on my PC. Everything is tap, tap and hold, drag, swipe. The two levels of zoom speak to the relative screen sizes of the iThings. Tapping-and-holding surrounds the cursor with a soft circular glow, which annoyingly blocks what’s behind it, but that wouldn’t matter if your finger was already in the way. Every interaction that left me stumped would’ve just been intuitive with touch.

Even the structure of the game is built around iThings and their usage pattern; after each session (i.e. chapter) the game out-and-out tells you to take a break. It admonishes you to stop playing, because you’re not meant to be sitting down at a computer in a dedicated expression of Game Playing, you’re meant to be picking it up in odd moments of your day to sink into a world of mist and myth. It’s why the atmosphere is so important to the whole thing, because it is about engendering that sense of wonder in the player, not about being a game.

So as lovely as the game is, I’m just not connecting with it.

Which leads me to my Watchmen comparison (different from Kieron Gillen’s): like Watchmen, S:S&S EP is a game designed for its medium, and that can only ever succeed in its own medium. Zack Snyder copied the graphic novel almost frame for frame, barring the missing giant squid and attendant subplots; the structure and the pacing and the framing of shots was all lifted directly from the original work. But what worked so incredibly under Dave Gibbons’ pen fell flat under Snyder’s lens, because Alan Moore & Gibbons had built Watchmen around the graphic novel. The 9 panel grid layout, which reached its apotheosis in the entirely symmetrical Chapter 5 and structurally spoke of that part as the centre of the story. The layering of Tales of the Black Freighter throughout, a playful tease on the entwined history of comics and superheroes in this reality, a history the story deconstructs so thoroughly. All the details hidden away in the back of panels, only there if you take the time to pay attention and read at your own pace. If you just saw the film of Watchmen you’d miss all this, all this structure and context and layering, and come away thinking it was an interesting superhero film with a long act one and a more cynical heart. You’d never know it was one of the greatest works of a decades-old medium.

As with Watchmen, so with Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. I’m enjoying it, and I’ll undoubtedly finish it, but I don’t think I’ll ever appreciate it for what it really is. There’s a barrier of interface between us; I should be stroking and caressing this world, not coldly clicking. I should be happily relaxing into this other place, briefly freed from the strictures and stresses of life, peering through a window onto a world that isn’t; instead I find myself annoyed at the slow pacing because I am sitting down to play a game, not look at a 16-bit postcard. I’ve not even reached the part that takes reputedly takes 28 days of real time (sans cheating); that’s a design decision based purely around a device you have in your pocket and can quickly check for 5 minutes, and it couldn’t possibly work elsewhere without feeling like a chore.

S:S&S EP is a lovely game, it really is, and you should own it anyway after HB5 so you may as well play it; but away from the medium it was meant for, it’s only half a game, a world out of context, an aching, longing feeling that it isn’t everything it should be. Play it, and mourn what it should be.

(or just play it on an iThing, if you’re that swish)

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