I loved this game. It exemplifies for me the strip-bare-and-put-back-with-deliberation-only-what-is-essential-to-the-experience principle. In one sense, the game is no more than a traditional quest game. You move your character around an imaginary landscape, find things, solve puzzles, slay a beast or two and eventually triumph. Sorta. What is different is how the action—you know, finding things, slaying, etc—is actually secondary. Yes, the quest drives you and the game forward, but the quest itself only creates momentum, it is not the core of the experience. This game inverts the typical relationship between game mechanic and aesthetics. Normally, the aesthetics are window-dressing on the mechanic, which is the heart of the game. In this case, the aesthetic experience is primary and the mechanic is merely a way to move you through that experience. Several observations on the design of this game:
1. Discovery. When you start, there no real explanation of the game. A couple of ‘tap here’ instructions and that’s about it. You don’t get any background story, you don’t have to make any decisions, you don’t have to explore and understand a bunch of pop-ups, inventories, levels. You don’t even know if your character is a male or female or what your mission is. Your learning about the game occurs entirely through doing, exemplifying the volley ball principle. Learning about the game, rather than being a burdensome preliminary to playing it, becomes an integral part of the game. Who am I? Why am I wandering around here? What am I supposed to do? The strange narrator, far from explaining anything, creates a sense of mystery, suggesting you, the player, are somehow the subject of an experiment. A quiescent existential angst pervades the entire game, charmingly.
2. Game minimalism. The game is spare. Much of the accoutrement associated with quest games is eliminated or greatly reduced. There are no level based special powers, or special magical objects. Although you do pick up objects, this mechanic is only rudimentary. There is no complicated inventory, you don’t go to shops to barter, you don’t have to acquire particular sets of things. There is no complicated inventory of weapons or tools. The objects in this game (basically a key here or there) are intermediate missions, serving only to create momentum in the game; that is, to keep you moving through the landscape, to keep the experience going.
3. Interface minimalism. Other than the menu screen, which is itself spare and evocative and sets the tone, there are only three view modes within the game. First, the primary virtual world screens, in landscape mode. By removing all clutter, entirely, the screen shots are like paintings. There are no meters, icons, text, information/status display. Nothing: just a simple, and often beautiful, image. The second view is battle mode, entered by turning the iPad to portrait orientation. Here again, simplicity wins out. There is only you, two buttons (shield and sword), whatever creature you are obligated to battle and, in the upper left represented by a row of stars, your life level. Finally, there is the dialogue view, accessed by tapping a tiny, single triangle in the upper right corner of the primary view. These views are not overlapping, do not interfere with each other. Each distills only the essential elements, creating for the designer a unique canvas against which to deliberately create the core experience associated with that view.
4. Using aesthetics to create an emotional landscape. Most quest games are primarily cognitive: it’s about figuring stuff out, essentially a big puzzle. Find this, solve that, etc. These games are fun, but don’t typically provide much in the way of a range of emotional experience. In most quest games, the visuals create a world but not a feeling. And in most quest games, the audio has the same cheap, action-heightening effect as cheesey soundtracks from 1940s horror films. Or worse, incredibly monotonous, repetitive, bubbly electronic music that merely fills aural space. In Sword and Sworcery, the aesthetics take center stage. Though using only simple bit graphics, screen shot after screen shot is simply gorgeous. I often just stopped playing and gazed at the screen image. I often happened upon a screen that I wanted to show other people: isn’t that beautiful? And like good art, the images are evocative. They provoke feelings of desolation, loneliness, wonder, peacefulness, dread. The soundtrack, conceived before the game and the actual inspiration for the game, has an epic quality, again ranging in emotion from peaceful, to lost, to frenetic, to angry to triumphant, but always beautiful (yes, headphones are a must). Together, the visuals and the soundtrack create a landscape of emotion through which a player moves. This is not merely a bonus, value-added to the basic game mechanic. When I finished the game, it was the aesthetic experience I remembered, not the game itself. The game is merely a vehicle for taking a player through this emotional landscape.
5. Combining the aesthetic experience with the core skill of the game. There are actually very few skills a player acquires in this game. The mechanics are simple. Mostly tap and move, simple battle skills, solving a few puzzles. Not much. But there is one tool or ‘special power’ the character has, the ‘song of the sorcerer.’ This is a state you enter in which you perceive and interact with the landscape differently. When you enter this mode, the music becomes interactive and as you solve the puzzle, sounds are generated. For example, you may ‘play’ trees in a forest or a set of waterfalls as a pipe organ or chorus of flutes. This integrates your activity into the aesthetic experience, making you an active participant: you have the feeling that you created that beautiful chorus of booming, reverberating pipe organs. I had a pronounced tendency to linger at these points.
Sword and Sworcery has received endless exuberant reviews (all more eloquent than my discussion, links below), all highlighting how, in some ways, this is not a game in the traditional sense, but an experience. The retro- and hipster ethos of the game, rich with a sense of irony, doesn’t take the game itself seriously (and is often quite funny). The irony of the irony, though, is that the game exemplifies a relatively novel and powerful approach to game design that zeroes in with surgical precision on creating a complex, aesthetic and emotional experience in the player and highlights, dead seriously, a whole new technology of player engagement.