Since its initial release on iPhone and iPad in the spring of 2011, and subsequent 2012 releases on other platforms, hundreds of thousands of people have played Sword & Sworcery, perhaps as many as one million - truly a staggering number. The audience's response has been largely positive: a great many people have enjoyed what they've seen, heard and played. No doubt the majority of the audience's responses were formed in the first few minutes of play, or in the first half hour or so, as the audience adjusted to the distinctive style and sound. Of course, as with all videogames, only a minority of this vast audience will have had the time, interest and opportunity to return to Sword & Sworcery and see it through to the end.
In the last two years we have been fortunate enough to receive many touching letters and messages from audience members. Some have written in to speak about their love and affection for the project and its world, others have written about how the project has been a source of inspiration and motivation for them, which is encouraging for us to hear. We've heard about how the experience of playing Sword & Sworcery brought some people together with their child, parent or loved one. A few have written in to talk about how the project moved them, how it shook them, or how it helped them through a tough time, an illness, a loss.
For those few people who have finished Sword & Sworcery none of this will come as a surprise, but for anyone with only a passing familiarly with the project, some of the responses listed above may seem incongruent. After all, Sword & Sworcery is outwardly known for its deliberately mispelled logo and name, its retro-inspired aesthetic, and its joke-heavy text and self aware presentation. There is a kind of ironic detachment to the public-facing tone of the project that has understandably been interpreted as a kind of insincerity or a pose, and this apparent insincerity has come to define the project in the eyes of many.
As comics author and videogame critic Mr. Kieron Gillen writes in his artlcle about Sword & Sworcery on Rock Paper Shotgun:
"It’s a game which tries to keep a sense of wonder intact, and all the while undermining it with the cast’s world-weary, urbane cool."
"It’s all irony as a way of life, implicitly understanding that the people you’re talking to will recognise the multiple layers you’re communicating on."
Thankfully, Mr. Gillen didn't stop there. He was engaged enough to play Sword & Sworcery through to the end, and his write-up continues:
"Its insincerity is a mask. It’s the most sincere, unironic game I’ve played in ages."
"It covers it with layers of irony, but it’s based on a sincere belief that this shit means something. It could come across as being embarrassed of what it is, except it's more like shyness. As in, what it’s talking about is too important to be approached directly and crassly. You have to joke about it, because if you took it seriously, it’ll shatter."
"This is achieved in everything else other than the tiny snippets of dialogue. It’s genuinely beautiful, with moments of stark evocative beauty, sharp with strangeness."
Mr. Gillen's write-up, linked below, struck a chord with us. It brought into relief the perceptual divide that exists between the few who have seen Sword & Sworcery 'unmasked' and those who haven't. Admittedly, it takes a fair amount of dedication to persevere through the more challenging obstacles, opaque mysteries and lapses in audience engagement that appear in Session II and Session III to witness the story's conclusion in Session IV, where the project's true heart is wordlessly revealed.
One of the more moving letters we have so far received was written by Ms. Erica Mathews. This letter arrived during the launch of Sword & Sworcery in Japan in June 2012, and it is distinguished by the intensity of the loss felt by Ms. Mathews, who at one point describes herself as 'inconsolable'. This response struck a chord with us, and we have excerpted some of this letter, published below alongside relevant imagery from Session IV of Sword & Sworcery. Ms. Mathews's original letter has been published in-full at her web journal Path of Pins, linked below.
[ SPOILER ALERT ] Please be advised that what follows will reveal the ending of Sword & Sworcery.
Audience member and Sword & Sworcery participant Erica Mathews writes:
"...Sword & Sworcery’s constant reminders of the player’s presence, combined with its distinct aesthetic and easy-yet-engaging gameplay, made for the most completely absorbing video game I have ever experienced. Its violations of the conventional boundaries of game and reality and periodic discussion of the player’s psyche made me feel like I was engaged in an experiment, as much upon the world of pixels before me as upon myself. The game’s setting and characters felt that real to me."
"Memories of the day’s progress in the story relaxed me to sleep several nights; as an insomniac with a tendency to see the sinister in the most innocent of media, I can tell you that this is an accomplishment in itself, that the experience was purely positive while I played."
"But I meander still. To get closer to my point, if such a point exists, let me speak of The Scythian."
"I wanted to help her, to accompany her on her woeful errand. In the end, I think I truly wanted to be Cosmic Friends Forever."
"Perhaps I should praise the writers for actually breaking the law of protagonic immortality."
"Perhaps it would have been trite if the Scythian had survived her woeful errand."
"Perhaps it also speaks to her courage and selflessness that she should pursue her quest, knowing the final consequences."
"Whether or not this is the case, the Scythian’s fate as a martyr hit me like a blind curve at 80mph. I don’t think I started to wonder if she would indeed die until Dogfella’s Megatome entries explicitly mentioned martyrdom somewhere in the third session."
"Perhaps if I had, I would not have taken the Scythian’s death so unhappily."
"As it stands, I have been overwhelmed with grief since the end of the game–unexpectedly so, since, after all, it was Just A Game. "
"I hesitate to even listen to the soundtrack in spite of its great beauty and positive associations, afraid that it will only remind me of how upset I was when I watched the final scene..."
"...how I kept hoping the Scythian would be alive somehow when Logfella scooped her out of the river..."
"...and how I had to finally resign myself to her death at the funeral pyre."
"If I could travel to the Caucus Mountains and find the spot, my tears would pour out on the meadow where her ashes were scattered."
"In my mind, at least, I do travel there, seeking solace from her promise of eternal cosmic friendship."
"I remain inconsolable."
The above are excerpts, the letter in full can be found at path of pins, it is also linked below.
Staff at Superbrothers had this to say about The Scythian's tragic martyrdom:
She is separate from me, and her soul belongs to everyone involved in the project, but it could be said that I created The Scythian, in that I painted her and her animations, I painted the locations through which she travelled, my initial concept of her laid the foundation for the collaborative work to come, and my initial concept of the project - "a crude videogame haiku about life, love and death" - suggested a tragic finale.
All of the concepts in Sword & Sworcery were the result of the three-way creative collaboration between Superbrothers, Capy and Jim Guthrie. That said, as the sole artist, animator, writer, cinematographer etc etc it was up to me to visually design and paint the finale at the summit of Mingi Taw, and it was up to me to paint and animate the little sequence that follows, including the funeral pyre scene. I had a weird mix of emotions going in, but mostly I was excited and a bit relieved. After all, we were at long last building the end of the story, which meant the project was inching closer to completion.
What's more, I knew in my heart that this was the right ending for the project. It had to be this way, because... well... because people die. Sometimes, most times, this can be hard to rationalize. It just is. Often it's a long time coming, other times it's abrupt, and there are cases where it's somehow both at once. Often it's hard, often it's kind of beautiful, and often it's both and it just tears your heart out... and then you're lost in a shambles of thoughts and memories... and eventually, once enough time has elapsed, you breathe... and you maybe move on, kind of, because you have to, because you're still alive.
Even though I felt we were on exactly the right path, the painting process was no picnic. In fact, it was a profoundly, intensely heartbreaking experience. These final tragic scenes last only seconds for the audience, but I lived in these moments for hours, and I had lived with The Scythian for every waking minute, through some challenging times, for over a year.
Logfella stands at the water's edge in the gloom, an object floats ashore. He leans on one knee, grips The Scythian's corpse and lifts it, dripping. I'm adding and removing pixels, adding frames, changing the timing of each frame. Click click click click, copy paste copy paste, click click click click, select and move, copy paste, click click click click.
I painted the funeral pyre, building up the shape and the structure, adding details to suggest the texture of wood and stone, placing it in the meadow to see how it would look. Click click click click, copy paste, select and move, stamp stamp.
The time eventually came for me to copy, rotate and paste The Scythian's corpse, placing it atop the pyre. This whole time I've had Jim Guthrie's immortal song Little Furnace on a loop, this is the song that will play through this epilogue, I know which musical phrase will define which moment, bringing them to life with a depth of beauty and sadness. It's late at night, I'm alone, my little pixel friend is dead, and there's no going back. Why am I so broken up? I knew this was going to happen all along, in fact this sequence probably should've been painted and completed weeks ago, maybe even months ago... but now that it's happening I realize I'm not ready, it's too soon... and I'll be honest with you, I'm fucking weeping this whole time.
I begin to animate the fire. Click click click. This is it, this is goodbye, I loved you, I love you, thank you.
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- Read Erica Mathews' full letter on her web journal Path of Pins. link to path of pins
- Read Kieron Gillen's write-up on Rock Paper Shotgun. link to rock paper shotgun
- We've added some Sword & Sworcery items here on Superbrothers HQ. go to videogames