December 3, 2012 by Daniel
Alright, so a few days ago, in the midst of my glorious return to the town of Steelport, I finished playing Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (the PC version, for reference). Quick opinion: loved the atmosphere and “Team Ico but pixelated” art style, soundtrack is incredible, thought the puzzles were decent, liked the simple but intense battles, didn’t understand the purpose of the Twitter integration stuff, wish they would have ditched the ironic humour and stuck with the more serious tone instead of awkwardly switching back-and-forth between the two.
But what I really want to talk about is the name, because that glorious, complex, unwieldy monster of a name happens to represent everything that I really like about the game.
Upon first seeing that name, my reaction was one of confusion. Superbrothers is an odd combination of words that seems good enough to be a video game title by itself. But then it’s got that second title, Sword & Sworcery, a fairly standard fantasy-sounding thing – but wait, what’s with that “w” in Sworcery? And then that tacked on EP at the end, and hold on a minute, that’s a music term, not a video game one. There’s all these weird disparate elements in the title that just don’t really seem to fit together, and it makes for a rather jarring reading experience at first glance. To properly unpack the title, we need to look at the way the game approaches its music, and how the idea of authorship differs between the two mediums.
Sword & Sworcery is a game that’s mostly based on atmosphere – the dark pixelated art style, the tranquil/creepy dynamic of the game’s world, and, most importantly, the music. The game’s designers are obviously aware of this – they go so far as to credit the composer, indie rock songwriter Jim Guthrie, in the title screen of the game, and “Jim Guthrie” is the only full human name you see in and around the game, so his name carries a certain weight and significance to it that no one else involved in the game’s creation does. The insinuation is clear – Jim Guthrie and the music within is the most important aspect of it, and Jim Guthrie is the only person whose name you should actually be made aware of.
But of course, the importance of music in Sword and Sworcery goes deeper than this. Upon booting up the game, the player is first presented with the image of a vinyl record with four spiral grooves representing the four “sessions” that the game is split up into; there’s a moment in the game where the player is able to jam along with Guthrie’s game analogue; and the climactic moment of the game’s plot takes place at a highly anachronistic rock concert. And again, there’s that EP in the title, which probably tells us more about the game than anything else.
The phrase “EP” is one that is associated with vinyl records. Back in the day – and even to the current one, where the terminology is still used even as the internet slowly changes the way people listen to music – there were essentially three types of records. The longest of these was an “LP”, which stands for “long play” and is what the average person means when they talk about a full-length album. These were pressed on 12″ vinyls and contained around 45 minutes of music. The shortest format was a “single”, which consisted of an A-side containing a single cut from an upcoming album and a B-side that would wind up as the selling point for serious music fans, since it wouldn’t appear anywhere else (at least until the “b-side collection” was established as a cheap way to put out a new album). In between these two extremes was the “EP”, which was usually printed on a 7″ vinyl and has a somewhat more nebulous definition. Common wisdom is that an EP is between 15 and 25 minutes long and contains between 4 and 6 pop-length tunes – this is mostly correct, though the distinction between an EP and an LP sometimes gets fudged, especially if it’s a particularly short LP.
What’s important about an EP, though, is its marketing purpose and what the format itself insinuates. A band will usually release an EP for a few reasons. It could be that they’re just starting out and don’t have enough complete songs for a full-length, but want to get some material out in the public, or have something to sell at shows. It’s often used as a bridge between full albums, a quick disc put out to whet the appetites of fans while they anxiously await a new LP. It’s also a format that punk bands tend to thrive in, since their songs are usually a bit shorter than other bands’ and thus can fit an LP’s worth of songs in a smaller timespan. What the EP really does when used effectively, though, is give an artist the ability to create a cohesive work without being committing to the wealth of material that a full-length demands. Because of this, EPs often end up as more experimental entries of a band’s catalogue – maybe there’s a sound they want to explore that just doesn’t have legs over 45 minutes, but works perfectly in 20.
This is the significance of the EP moniker in Sword & Sworcery‘s title, and it’s also what links the Superbrothers part to it in a meaningful way. Superbrothers is not used as a way to denote game series, but to claim authorship as the studio that made Sword & Sworcery. In this way, the title actually becomes something really novel – it’s not “Sword & Sorcery, a game that is the first in a long line of the Superbrothers series of games” it’s “we are Superbrothers and we are presenting our first game Sword & Sworcery, that also happens to be equivalent to the idea of an EP in the music industry”. It’s an acknowledgement of the wholeness of Sword & Sworcery – that it’s an experiment, maybe a taste of what’s to come from the studio, but also that it’s very possible that the next game under the same banner won’t take place in the same world, won’t feature the same characters, and might be completely different in regards to gameplay systems. It suggests that the only link between it and the next game will be that it’s made by the same person or group of people, but also that it’s meant to be seen as not just it’s own product but a greater contextual representation of everything else that Superbrothers will be making in the future. It’s like a band whose new release sounds totally different than their old stuff but still identifiably by the same band – Tommy and Who’s Next, for example, sound completely different, but they’re both undeniably by The Who.
LIke any piece of art, an album isn’t made in a bubble, and the context of that album is probably the most salient thing that affects your understanding of it. Using my previous example, Who’s Next is an incredible album by itself – but to really understand it, you have to look at where it comes from and what it means in context. You need to have the information that Tommy came before it, because this gives you the realization that the ballsy explosiveness of Who’s Next is in direct response to the more controlled, heavily orchestrated sound of Tommy. And noticing this gives you a deeper understanding of that album, what that album represents in the context of The Who’s career and most importantly what the band is really trying to say with it.
The problem is that this doesn’t tend to happen in videogames, because videogames have a distinct lack of authorship. The video games industry is studio-based – that is, the development of games is not attributed to specific people but studios made up of many. In the beginning of the industry, this wasn’t such a huge problem, because those studios were still relatively small – made up of maybe ten people, tops. But as video games have become more mainstream and gotten much more expensive to make, studios have become massive entities consisting of hundreds of people. The individual identities of game makers has been completely lost, as have the connections to the artists making those games. Even within one studio, different projects are often overseen by different people and thus have very different personalities – and yet we still perceive the artistic evolution of the creators themselves in terms of “studios” and not in terms of people.
The weirdest thing about this is that it’s not like it has to be this way. Look at the credits to any major movie, and you’ll see a similar development system, where hundreds of people work on the same project. And yet, what really matters about a movie to someone going to see it often isn’t the plot or that it even looks interesting – it’s that the names themselves have a certain pedigree attached to them. A Scorcese flick is always going to draw an audience simply because of the name, and there’s a certain style associated with him that is entirely identifiable. In contrast, nobody who saw Shutter Island did so because of it’s connection with Phoenix Pictures.
This is the dilemma that video games are in right now. There’s really only two names I can think of that ever go on boxes – Tim Schafer and Sid Meier – and even those names don’t really mean anything outside of people who are already deeply familiar with the industry.
So what I like about Superbrothers is that they’re willing to put their name on a box and say that the game is their own, the insinuated promise being that they will be a studio that has an identifiable personality and one whose progression will be easily charted and contextualized. And they even screw it up a bit; despite the fact that Superbrothers is an incredibly small indie developer, it’s actually really hard to find out the makeup of the company (it’s seemingly one guy by the name of Craig Adams), which means it’s tough to attribute to an individual. But it’s a step in the right direction – towards a future where the vague, cloudy blob of a “studio” is less important than the the individual people in charge of the development of that game.
To summarize, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP uses its bizarre, music industry-influenced name in order to represent the credo of the developer himself and his intention with the game. As well, the name is – hopefully – the beginning of a new climate wherein we’re able to fully contextualize developers’ works in relation to their previous material, allowing us to better understand the intention of each game in their particular ouevre, in turn allowing for a greater level of meaning for each individual work.