Sword & Sworcery
If you’re like half the internet, your first exposure to SuperBrothers’ Sword & Sworcery for the iPad came through your Twitter feed. Someone you follow made a seemingly nonsensical comment, such as “We just woke a slumbering sylvan sprite from a curious nestbox surrounded by three rain-soaked songbirds. #sworcery,” or “We got The Megatome & we are the smartest. #sworcery.”
Within hours of the game’s iTunes store launch, Twitter was exploding with Tweets like these. That a game has Twitter integration is nothing new. That thousands of people were going through a three-step process (register, click on a button to Tweet, confirm) in order to expose the outside world to snippets of a story was. That a game like #sworcery was ever even made seems the rarest thing of all.
During the Twitterstorm, the world, for a moment, divided into two camps: those who were enraptured by the world that artist Craig Adams had built, and those who were pissed off, thinking some virus had infected their social network.
“I think is really significant that we are not auto-Tweeting in the least, that it is something that you do have to press a button that’s barely even there most of the time and then press it again,” explains Adams. While the idea of having the game connected to the outside world through Twitter had always been part of the design, Adams was concerned nobody would ever actually notice.
#Sworcery, as it will likely forever now be known, started out as collaboration between Toronto indie-rock legend Jim Guthrie and Craig Adams, known mostly for the occasional retro-inspired illustration in Wired magazine or his history of the internet video, “Dot Matrix Revolution.”
The latter turned out to be a prelude to what would become #sworcery, as it was also a collaboration with Guthrie. The combination of Guthrie’s music, Adams’ art style, Twitter, the iPad, and a love for classic Robert E. Howard blood-and-guts adventure boiled down into a single idea.
“It’s a set of paintings, a set of ideas, and it really is just an environment for people to hang out in and enjoy the music,” he modestly explains. Much like classic rock concept albums, its best enjoyed in the dark with a pair of headphones and a brain-space open to altered state of consciousness (pick your poison there). “What comes out of it is more of a conversation than a test of skill or a test of reflex.”
This vague idea—to create a series of paintings and musical backgrounds to “hang out in” kicked around for years. “I was continually hitting a wall because I had never studied programming. I’d be using a Game Maker tool, and it’d be going pretty well, and then I’d hit a snag and I wouldn’t know how to problem solve it,” he explains. What he needed was a partner in crime who knew about something other than pixel art and music. He needed someone who understood, you know, games.
Help turned out to be right down the street at Capybara Games in Toronto. Through a chance meeting at a party at GDC 2009, Adams met the team from Capy, and a deal was sealed, as they often are, over drinks. They decided to focus on a small project, targeted at the platform with the highest installed base to corporate bullsh*t ratio: iOS.
And the platform decision informed the design. “When you’re using the machine, there’s a kind of rhythm: I’m going to open an app. OK, now I’m sort of going to scroll up and down. It’s sort of the pace of a conversation.” Rather than focusing on making the user adjust their play style, he and the team at Capy tried to slow things down to the natural pace of an iPad user. Swipe, listen, read. Swipe, think, solve. Tap, tap, smile.
Without the constraints of a traditional development process, a studio pressing on a deadline, or any preconceived notions from an existing audience, what #sworcery evolved into is something unique. While it could be described as a simple point-and-click adventure—it contains dozens of simple puzzles that anyone who’s ever played a LucasArts game would find almost trivial—such a description belittles the real accomplishment here.
Through the use of setting, music, minute snippets of recorded dialog, and an elaborate script told in first–, second– and third-person, #sworcery has finally taken the mantle of thinking-man’s narrative from the interactive fiction diehards.
Of course, doing something this ambitious isn’t without risks. After all, Capy, as a developer, isn’t deliberately attempting to be bizarre, having made the straightforward arcade game Critter Crunch and Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes. They’re a real business trying to make successful games, not art projects. And as in love with the project as Adams and the team at Capy were, by January of 2011, they started to panic.
“I was playing though and just thinking we’d made the strangest thing,” says Adams of the months up to launch. “All of these ideas that were all ludicrous we ended up committing to, delivering on. The result is just really, really strange. I’m very proud of it now, but in January it really seemed like we were about to go off a cliff.”
Worried they would be dropping the game into an audience expecting something much more traditional, they decided to release a trailer of sorts, called the “Audience Calibration Procedure,” which gave us all a sense of what to expect—and it was indeed odd.
“That clip was really an effort on our part to get ahead of the strangeness of the project,” says Adams.
Yes, #sworcery is strange. But it’s strange in the same way that Dr. Strangelove, Ziggy Stardust and The Persistence of Memory are strange: It defines a genre through a masterful embrace of the absurd, without for a moment falling into self parody. Like Kubrick, Bowie and Dali, Adams has shown bravery in equal measure to his talent. For this, I am grateful.