If you’re unfamiliar with the Humble Indie Bundle, then I have the privilege of introducing you to one of my very favorite things. Begin with a handsome package of independent PC games, representing a healthy sampling of developers and genres. The games are DRM-free, cross-platform, and can be downloaded as many times as you want. You get to name your price for these games, no minimum. Whatever you pay will be split between the developers and two amazing charitable causes: the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Child’s Play Charity (you also get to determine the split).
In other words, you get to discover new games without breaking your budget, worthy charities get some love, and indie developers get the support they deserve. It’s the best thing ever.
I have always been impressed by the Bundles I’ve picked up in the past, but the current offering — only available until June 14 — takes the cake: Psychonauts, LIMBO, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. If you pay more than the average (currently a paltry seven dollars and change), they’ll tack on highly acclaimed action-RPG Bastion. All of these games are worth getting excited over (I’ve been obsessing over Bastion for months), but today, I’m going to focus on Sword & Sworcery. It’s every bit as quirky as the name suggests, but beyond the tongue-in-cheek lies a soulful, soothing adventure game — with a sword-swinging, magic-flinging female protagonist to boot.
Sword & Sworcery tells the tale of the Scythian, a fearless warrior from far away lands, “guided by the cursor of an all-knowing god.” I won’t going into detail about her “woeful errand,” because some of the game’s charm depends upon its slow reveal. Suffice it to say, it’s a story of mysterious forests, evil beasties, ancient relics, and of course, sworcery.
At first glance, Sword & Sworcery is deceptively simple. This is a game that can easily be played one-handed, as you will rarely need more than the left mouse button (which makes sense, as S&S was originally designed as a touchscreen iOS game). A simple double-click — or “tip tap,” as the game calls it — is all you need to move, explore, and interact. Combat is all about pattern recognition and response time; there are no tactics to be found here. The story is light, and the writing never reveals anything beyond than what you absolutely need to know. The artwork is so minimalist that it makes pointillism look downright lavish. As you journey along, the ambient hums, strums and coos of the sublime soundtrack (composed by singer-songwriter Jim Guthrie) teach you that an adventure can be a pretty mellow thing.
So, in a game like this, does the gender of the protagonist actually matter? After all, the Scythian is represented by nothing more than a few colored rectangles. The only way that we know she’s a woman is because of the sounds she makes during combat, as well as the other characters’ pronoun use. My inclination at the start of the game was that her gender did indeed matter, but only because of its relative rarity. In most adventure games, the hero’s gender is purely an aesthetic choice, but even so, it’s far, far more common to find male characters in these roles. If nothing else, it’s nice to be represented, even if it doesn’t have a big impact on the game.
However, after spending a little more time playing, it was obvious that just about everything in Sword & Sworcery means something. This first becomes apparent in the writing, which deftly swings from subtle poetry to over-the-top nonsense to vaguely stoned flippancy. Left unchecked, Sword & Sworcery’s artsy ramblings could easily have become pretentious, but the writers knew exactly when to switch gears, becoming irreverent just as words like “mythopoetic” threaten to bog you down, then waxing lyrical again before said irreverence makes you overly dismissive of the story. The game is equally deliberate in its homages to other works, which are unabashedly woven throughout. A renamed Triforce is cheerfully prominent, and there is mention of a “skyward sword” as well. The game’s narrator, who speaks in pseudo-Jungian riddles, goes by the name of “the Archetype.” Everywhere you look, there are references to films and books and art. The entire game is one big love letter to creative inspiration. After I completed the Scythian’s woeful errand, I discovered a section on the game’s official website that discussed the underlying themes and concepts. They had this to say about the Scythian:
The character concept of The Scythian can be traced back to a project from the early days of Superbrothers (established in 2003) with a project set in the Aegean in the bronze age, around 1000 BC. The Scythian’s gender may have something to do with Leonard Schlain’s The Goddess & The Alphabet: The Conflict Between Text & Image, a book that offers an alternate perspective on the received wisdom of thousands of years of male-dominated written literature & history. Tombs dating back to 1000 BC found in Turkey, the Ukraine, Iran & Georgia offer evidence of respected warrior women, recorded in ancient literature as the amazons of Homer’s Iliad.
So, yeah, I’d say her gender is noteworthy.
Of course, one important question remains: Is Sword & Sworcery actually fun to play? Oh my goodness, yes, but in an unusual way. It’s a true adventure game, no doubt, but there is something genre-defying about it. Its overall tone weirdly reminded me of casual games like Flow or Osmos, even though the gameplay has nothing in common. Sword & Sworcery is really in a class by itself. Mix The Legend of Zelda with Samorost and Kyoto, and you’d be on the right track. The game isn’t an adrenaline rush so much as it is…whatever the opposite of an adrenaline rush is. A serotonin snuggle. This is a game that wants you to ease in and take your time — in fact, the design demands it. Sword & Sworcery is split into four sessions, and you are encouraged to take a break after each one. The first session only takes half an hour (which the Archetype informs you of beforehand). Eager to continue, I ignored the game’s advice and barreled on to the second session. Though I still enjoyed myself, I felt a little bleary-eyed at the end, a little less content than I had been before. The designers clearly knew what they were doing when they suggested that I stop. By the third session, plowing through is not an option. The Archetype informs you that the third session will take a lunar month — and he’s not kidding. There’s not that much gameplay to be had, but the puzzles in the third session depend on the phases of the moon within the game, which change in real time. You have no choice but to kick back and wait. (Spoiler: There are two ways around this. One involves an allowable cheat, though its corresponding Steam achievement informs you that you are a “cheating cheater” deserving of “profound shame.” The other is an unlockable secret, which the game does not consider cheating.)
But don’t be fooled by the game’s slow pace — there is a real adventure to be had here. The forests are wild and beautiful, even though they’re made of blocks (perhaps even because they’re made of blocks). There is wonder in the sylvan sprites and the changing moon. The force of unspeakable evil you set out to destroy genuinely creeped me out the first time it chased me down the path. The puzzles can be hair-tuggingly tricky, requiring an almost Myst-like approach of blind experimentation. The combat, though rudimentary, challenged my reflexes in a surprisingly satisfying way. And as for the Scythian, it took me no time at all to become invested in her fate. I knew nothing of her backstory, and had only the barest glimpses of her personality, yet guiding her through to the end was quietly poignant. With only the most basic of tools and mechanics, Sword & Sworcery manages to deliver a memorable, magical escape for adventurers who are all grown up.
Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.