This is part three of a four part, in-depth study of what makes a great game. Reader be forewarned, there be spoilers afoot.
If you’ve read the reviews for Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, you already have a sense for how fantastic the game is. Boot up the app on your iPhone or iPad (the iPad version is definitely recommended), and you arguably get one of the best games to have come out of this generation. I say this regardless of the platform.
However, few know how complete and transcendental the gaming experience S:S&S EP delivers. We aim to lay it all out. For those of you who have never heard of this game, and those of you who don’t own an iOS device, we also aim to let you know why you should still take note.
Transcend The Story
There is an adage swirling in the development community that if you have a game with stellar gameplay but a weak story, you still have a great game. Inversely, if you have a game with stellar story but weak gameplay, you most likely have a suck game. For the most part this is true.
Albeit, have you noticed games that separate themselves from the pack and achieve greatness tend to have superb stories? It is an element that made Red Dead Redemption so amazing – the dialog was well written, the characters were greatly developed and the setting had its own lore that whispered to you at every turn. Of course, great gameplay will translate to a good game. Story, however, may be key to making it a classic.
Now, we must be clear when we talk about story. To a lot of people, plotline equates to story. That’s only a small part, to be honest. If B.A. and M.A. concentrations in creative writing has taught me anything, 9 times out of 10, character development is the most important aspect any story can offer; and S: S&S EP offers this in a big way.
Looking past the almost trite plotline of a sword and shield hero on a quest to rid the land of evil, the player finds subtle twists that plumb into rich studies of lore, religion and morality. Not only is the female Scythian on this quest, she is offering up her life to it. Early on in the story, the player learns she will most likely martyr herself in the process of bringing the Megatome to the top of the mountain Mingi Taw. The NPCs whisper about this suicidal errand. The Scythian herself muses about this in a few observations. In a search for deeper meaning, the player may ask why?
Because “it sounds cool” is the game’s initial observation. Somewhere along the line – between being haunted by supreme evil in the form of a shadowed, horned skull spectre and meeting a few pastoral NPC (including the dream version of Jim Guthrie himself) – one discovers that she feels beholden to protecting the world, both real and dream, and all living creatures what call it home.
Once this discovery is made, S: S&S EP takes that essential next step to make the player truly care about it. This is in part accomplished through the immersive, tactile gameplay (see part 1, Transcend The Familiar). The other part comes from Point Of View (POV).
In this case, POV is used more in the storyteller’s sense, but draws many similarities to gaming POV. For example, First Person in gaming has the player looking through the character’s eyes ala Mirror’s Edge or Call of Duty, where first person in storytelling assigns the main character as narrator, using “I” phrases such as “I pwn all NPCs on hard mode”. Surprisingly, S: S&S EP takes a big risk by assigning a second person POV. This is where the narrator includes the reader in the action. “You/We pwn all NPCs on hard mode”. It may be jarring for a reader to have the narrator dictate how s/he does things. It is a natural human reaction to resist when someone tries to make us feel, think, or do something in a specific way. For gamers it may be even more jarring as we’re used to making the game do things and not the other way around.
Yet, S: S&S EP executes the second person POV spectacularly because it still supports one of the main pillars of video games – empowerment. Players only really see that second person POV in action after they tap on a specific object “[i]nside a titanic hollow tree we spied a solitary grave & we got a little bit curious about it”, or after an epic battle is won, “[w]hen the light & the sound subsided we found ourselves rain-soaked & cold amid a parliament of trees”. In other words, even though it is saying that you are observing and doing these things, you actually are.
An even stronger device of empowerment, the Scythian refers to the player as a god, giving context to the tapping and swiping and thus immersing the player even deeper into the game’s world. This empowerment is further accentuated with the ability to read the minds of the NPCs through the Megatome – second person limited omniscient POV.
Next: Transcend The Genre