Mythic Storytelling in Games: Pixel-Past Mythology

It’s Intermission Time! I’m just across the halfway point of my attempt at Once Upon a Time IX, but it’s all been novellas and short stories so far so I thought I’d stir things up by dipping into one of the other challenges: game reviewing. It’s going to be a fairly lengthy diversion though, as I mean to review not one but four games with folklorey, mythologicalish fairytaleness to them — so I’m going to do them on consecutive days, starting now! I’m also going to claim that one game each fits the four categories of the project, Fairytale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, and I’m going to further delineate them as occupying Past, Present, Future and Timeless settings… and you can contradict my opinions on this all you want, but you can’t stop me doing it!

PIXEL-PAST MYTHOLOGY

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

by Superbrothers / Capybara Games

music by Jim Guthrie

You are welcomed to a pixelated space of blocky layered greys, but with a perfectly smooth moon hanging high in the dark. Is it full, is it half, is it crescent? Waxing or waning? Look out your window tonight to confirm. As ambient music plays, a cigar-smoking man in a three-piece suit invites you to participate in an “experimental treatment for extreme soul-sickness” — is this what you expected, when you sought out an epic adventure of sword and… “sworcery“?

Soon enough we depart into the first of four “sessions” and find ourselves in a much more recognisable location for fantasy and derring do: precipitous cliffs rise from thick foliage as a beam of light descends, revealing — the Scythian, hero of this tale, sword held high and shield ready. Then both are shouldered, a nearby dog is petted, and in short order we pass a flock of sheep and meet a girl of the Caucasus mountains (for these are they) with the easy to remember handle “Girl”, whose flock grazes at the foot of a mysterious and immobile gate barring entry to a vast cavern. Probably we will be back this way…

Beforehand, we travel forests where we must drive away territorial beasts and penetrate caves where old ghosts may still lurk in the darkness, on our way to an ancient temple to retrieve a powerful icon. Doing so provokes the ire of its owner-protector, a towering evil spirit of horned skull and clawed fingers, who pursues us back towards safer lands. We are forced into battle to dispel it and escape, returning in victory to rest and recover in Girl’s home… but our story has barely begun, and it will only grow more fantastical — and ominous — from here on in.

-o-

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery: EP is an entertaining mix of point-and-click fun (or, if you’re playing it on a mobile, point-and-touch). For the most part it features simple puzzles and linear exploration, gradually unspooling a familar tale of heroism and sacrifice to rid the innocent of oppressive evil. What sets it apart is the way it defies expectations about the fantasy genre, combining the usual tropes of the pseudo past (a sword-wielding hero facing unnatural adversaries; magical challenges or rewards; peasant and animal helpers) with sly inserts of the pseudo contemporary, like our suited host and a chilled soundtrack mixing strings and electronica with an associated championing of vinyl. And then there’s the lingo.

The Late Great Bill Hicks™ had a bit where he poked fun at a little piece of literary horror called The New Living Bible, which updated everyone’s favourite sacred text into modern English (“And Jesus walked on water, and Peter said, ‘Awesome'”) and S:S&S:EP takes a similar approach to the tone of epic fantasy, but by contrast makes it work. For example, on meeting Logfella — another local and the owner of Dogfella, that dog we met on arrival — he agrees to guide us to the first stop on our journey.

“Still,” the game informs us, “we definitely got the feeling that he wasn’t super jazzed about this.”

This quirk — the feeling that we are having our dose of high fantasy filtered through the mouth of a musically inclined stoner — persists throughout, but does so in contrast to what are fairly typical epic set-pieces. Picking our route with taps of a finger, we lead the Scythian into combat against various monsters, from three-eyed hounds to Dr. Moreau-like hybrid humanoids to the looming phantom of greatest threat, and work magic on the environment to access new areas, or win information and items vital to completing this “woeful quest” — the details of which are slow in coming, and don’t exactly go where you’d expect.

It has become routine for mainstream games to strive for a realism-level surface quality even in the most extreme of fantasy or scifi settings, and compromised graphics are the kiss of death. Not a problem for pixel-art games, which eschew labour intensive high-tech polish in favour of the relatively low-tech (though, I imagine, still demanding). As with other examples of games that employ this “primitive” style, the blockiness of the graphics can mask (wrong word: achieve) unexpected beauty. In fact, S:S&S:EP cheats on this point a little. Hi-rez details are slipped in, the perfect roundness of the moon for example, playing with our awareness that this is not really the simple thing it appears to be — a common practice amongst indie designers who meld the trappings of the good old days with the capabilities of current computing.

Speaking of good old expectations and the like, I’ve made a point so far of side-stepping a detail of trivial interest: that the hero of this story is actually a heroine. It would be easy to miss. The beats of the story are narrated to us in gender neutral terms — it is our quest, we loathe rainbows, it rubbed us up the wrong way, etc. — and the Scythian’s sex may only be specifically noted within the Megatome, a diary-cum-encyclopedia which updates as we proceed on our journey. There are the mildest of hints during the battles, with each sword blow accompanied by a less than masculine grunt of effort, but nor is it the ear-splitting hi-yah! of a balloon-titted Manga ninja-princess — and as you can see, the avatars in the game are impressionistic rather than anatomically distinct.

It’s a point that has earned the game some credit. For me, a degree of that credit is notable by its admirable irrelevance. The sex of the protagonist in S:S&S:EP is not a vital feature in the resolution of the story — and, of course, the irony being that this is a category of adventure typically embarked on by male heroes. Also, because I’m generally a fan, I’ll point to Feminist Frequency’s video article on The Scythian, but if there’s any chance that you’ll ever play the game I suggest that you don’t watch beforehand, as it includes various major and minor spoilers.

All things considered, I found this to be a real winner. The visuals are charming and the musical soundtrack is lovely (and much celebrated). Aside from in its short, vaguely stressful combat sequences (which in gameplay terms feel like a bit of an afterthought, yet also manage to be significant to the development of both the story and the main character — good trick, that), Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery: EP is a mellow, relaxing experience. Until it edges into being a solemn, quietly moving one, that is.


Tomorrow I will look at a piece of more-or-less contemporary fantasy with an uncommonly thought-provoking message at its core. Games aren’t just Games, dude, as the Scythian might say.

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