The beginning is probably a good place to start.
Earlier in the year, I managed to find some time to play through Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (in May), Journey (in June) and Dear Esther (in July). I’d heard nothing but exceptionally good things about them so, naturally, I was incredibly excited to finally be able to play them. S:S&S EP had until then been a tablet exclusive (and I didn’t have a tablet), Journey was something I’d sampled only briefly at the EG Expo 2011 and I had been aware of the original Dear Esther mod for Half-Life 2 for years but hadn’t gotten round to playing it, in which time, the astonishingly beautiful remake was on the horizon.
Anyway, recently in the staff forums where we talk about our readers in secret, I mentioned in the Journey thread that I found it ‘underwhelming’, and lumped it with S:S&S EP and Dear Esther. Understandably a few brows were furrowed. I’d only ever discussed why I didn’t get on with these games in a few comments and emails here and there, so rather than continue that trend I thought it was high time I spilled the proverbial beans.
I completed Journey in a single sitting, Dear Esther in two and S:S&S EP in three or four on PC. I had no distractions — it was just me, each respective game, clear skies and an open mind, which proceeded to slowly close down as I got further into each one. I came away from each feeling somewhat disappointed and underwhelmed — underwhelmed in the sense that they didn’t stir me in the way they clearly had others — and in the case of S:S&S EP, frustrated even.
Let me get a few things straight first though: these are all unequivocally beautiful games, not just visually, but aurally as well. I’d have trouble coming up with many games, if any, that surpass or even match them in these areas. They’re sensory delights; awe-inspiring, evocative, intriguing, unique and, in many ways, they transcend what it usually means to be a game. So what the fuck’s going on? Why did I find them disappointing?
Unfortunately there’s no single unifying reason, so I’ll have to explain myself game by game. Let’s start with S:S&S EP before Harbour Master writes about it and I look like I’m copying him. Spoilers, etc.
With Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP the cracks started to appear during the Sylvan spirit sheep puzzle which seemed to rely purely on guesswork. I spent way too long randomly clicking and not-so-randomly clicking sheep in vain before eventually breaking and consulting the internet (which I really don’t like doing). When I found the solution it made no sense anyway. Then came the Trigon battles, which initially relied on guesswork as well. Fail to block or dodge one of the big attacks and you have to start the whole shebang again, and seeing as each one is timing based there’s no way of hurrying things up. What’s more, having to click attack and block icons seemed a tad clumsy given the reliance on visual cues. Several times my mouse pointer accidentally drifted off the necessary icon or I narrowly missed when clicking, causing me to fail and start again. It’s a shame the game didn’t tell me earlier that Z and X could be used instead, which I discovered perchance during one of the final battles.
Another Sylvan spirit puzzle involved strumming waterfalls like guitar strings, which was really nice, but, like the sheep puzzle, I couldn’t for the life of me work out a pattern. One minute it was the first waterfall first, the next it was the third first, then the second. There was no pattern and I was getting angry again, so I consulted the internet. Apparently it was a bug because when I restarted the game the puzzle was a cinch. Thanks bug.
Perhaps the most egregious issue I encountered was one involving the lunar cycles. Unbeknown to me at the time, I’d started the game during the dark moon cycle so my first forray into that dream saw me chase down the Grizzled Boor only for him to seemingly disappear. After defeating another Trigon I obtained a piece of the Trifecta and left the dream. I’d been told that it was possible to switch to the bright moon cycle somehow so I searched, and I searched, and I searched. With the slow walking speed and awkward navigation this took a lot longer than expected but I eventually found the moon grotto (which allows you to change the lunar cycle). Unfortuantely I had no key, and as far as I could tell there was no key to be found. I was stuck, and in the end I gave up and sought clues from a friend, namely Harbour Master who I trusted to be cryptic enough as to not give the game away, so to speak. We tossed emails back and forth and I came to realise that the Grizzled Boor — who was still nowhere to be seen — carried the key to the moon grotto. I thought it was another bug because he apparently appears in the bright moon dream so I did some Googling and found this thread. Here’s the clincher:
This is how the game is intended to be. There are parts of the game that, when played out of moon phase or out of order, result in other parts being missable.
If you split the tree & fight the dark moon trigon first, you can’t fight the boor.
Nathan, Capybara Games
So if you start the game in the dark moon cycle (as I did) then there’s no way of changing to the bright moon cycle without either waiting (a couple of weeks in my case) for it to change naturally (not something I wanted to do) or altering your system clock (not something I wanted to do either). Great. I didn’t want to cheat and I figured if it was by design that the developers wanted me to wait, then I would bloody well wait, Cheating Cheater trophy be damned. As such, by the time the lunar cycle had changed I’d drifted from the game.
Entering the bright moon dream at long last reminded me just how downright gorgeous S:S&S EP is. I was happy to just sit there, cooing gently, taking in the delightful sights and sounds, but this thing needed resolving; I’d already spent 2-3 hours wandering around searching for something that didn’t exist (yet) and a couple of weeks waiting for the chance to carry on. A couple more Trigon battles and a tedious dash up Mingi Taw later and the game was finished. It took me 7.2 hours according to Steam which from all accounts is quite a long time.
S:S&S EP was by no means a bad game, so don’t see this as me tarring it with the poo brush; it didn’t bother me that it was a light point and click/touch adventure game, or that it was short, in the end it just rubbed me the wrong way too many times for its spaced out quirkiness and beguiling marriage of perfectly placed pixels, sumptuous gradients, and Jim Guthrie’s hypnotic sounds to cast its spell over me. I get why xtal said ‘I don’t throw around the word “transcendent” lightly, but here is an utterly transcendent experience’ in his Games of 2011 list because between my moments of frustration I got that sense; that feeling that here was something special; here was something far greater than the sum of its parts, spiritually. It’s just a shame those feelings were punctuated and spoiled by more irritating moments.
Yesterday I bought a Nexus 7 so I’m wanting to give this another spin at some point using the game’s native touchscreen control scheme, and hopefully during the bright moon cycle. It won’t be like playing it for the first time, but perhaps foreknowledge of its foibles will cast it in a better light.
Anyway, here’s The Ballad of the Space Babies, probably my favourite track from the game.
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“Several times my mouse pointer accidentally drifted off the necessary icon or I narrowly missed when clicking, causing me to fail and start again.”
Yeah, this seems like something that would’ve worked better on the tablet, where you could just put a finger on each icon and treat it like a keyboard, instead of having to move your mouse cursor back and forth.
“It’s a shame the game didn’t tell me earlier that Z and X could be used instead, which I discovered perchance during one of the final battles.”
What the…. *froths*
I haven’t played Sword & Sworcery on the PC, but I feel like a lot of what really made it work had to do with the way it used touch-screen controls. I played on an iPad, and it did things that I’d not seen done with the platform as a gaming device. I think some of that would not only be unimpressive when transferred to a point-and-click PC interface, but downright illogical in some cases.
I can’t help but suspect this is a game that suffers in the translation.
This is also one I have not played yet, and based on Gregg’s thoughts I think I’ll wait until I have the proper tablet. I’ve got a Kindle Fire, but that thing’s touchy screen is… difficult; and I almost feel like a larger surface would be the way to go.
That line is a frickin’ keeper.
I wonder about that too, Dix. I hit one enormous hiccup because of the lack of a touchscreen interface — spoilers below — and also rotating the tablet to enter combat mode seems so much more awesome than right-clicking, especially because I don’t have a right mouse button.
There’s a lot like I felt I didn’t understand about it – eating a mushroom and going into sworcery mode is awesome, but what’s it actually doing? But so much that’s beautiful, too.
SPOILER: I just couldn’t figure out how to open the big tree, which I guess is a very natural outward pinch on a tablet, but on a computer you have to pick one spot and drag it out) — which was a huge hiccup because I had to find an online walkthrough, and that kicked me out of the Dark Moon, and then I couldn’t get back in the Moon Grotto because I kept getting jumped by an enemy (though some people have told me that I should’ve tried to fight, since that’s not the enemy that kills you outright but one you can defeat). So I had to wait umpty-ump weeks to get back to the Dark Moon fight, which sapped my will enough that I still haven’t finished.
it is a weird, mysterious game to be sure. I experienced almost all of your difficulties (plus several more), but I’m grateful I didn’t come across any bugs.
I think Dix is absolutely right.
The majority of my problems stem from the translation of the touch controls to mouse and keyboard ie. awkward combat, puzzle solving and navigation. Flipping the tablet to enter combat is much more interesting than right clicking too (I only found this out the other night by trying S:S&S EP on my brother’s Nexus 7, which incidentally prompted me to pick one up).
That dark moon tree puzzle also stumped me as well (no pun intended), I think I might even have consulted the web again but I can’t remember. I do remember spending waaay too long trying to work it out though. And yeah, it seemed like it would have been far more intuitive with a touch screen.
That schlep/chase sequence up Mingi Taw at the end was a bit of nightmare with a mouse. The Scythian just wasn’t responsive enough and kept stopping or slowing down enough to get caught. I had to restart that section a few times which was a pain.
Even on a tablet I think I still would have been bitten by the sheep puzzle and got caught in the lunar cycle trap (presuming I played it at the same time) but I think most of my other issues would have melted away. I’ll find out soon enough how the game was meant to be played.
@Steerpike: That’s a wise choice and I’m kind of envious that you’ll get to play it without some of these hiccups. Play it on a good tablet with some great headphones and put the poo brush back in the poo.
@Melodious Punk: What other issues did you stumble across? That bug I encountered was unfortunate and came at exactly the wrong time given my frustrations with the sheep puzzle!
I played S:S&S on my iPad for about a little while and I really liked the game’s charm. It certainly was different. I believe I made it to that sheep puzzle you mentioned and was a bit lost, so I stopped playing it. And I have yet to launch the game again. That was prob 6 months ago.
I am reluctant to start it up again because I already forgot everything about the game and I feel I will be lost.
I am curious about your experience with Journey though, because while short, it is hands down my 2012 Game of the Year. BUT, I do feel that someone’s enjoyment of that game is actually very dependant on an outside factor that unfortunately you do not have any control over. Your on-line companion. That companion came make the game go from an interesting experiment, to a game that evokes a huge range of actual emotion and forming a bond with a complete stranger, all without ever saying a word to each other.
I was lucky enough to encounter someone on my first playthrough that made the experience simply magical.
Gregg, thanks for dropping me in it. Now I feel like I have to write something substantial instead of the off-on-a-tangent-byeeeee essay I was going to put out there. (January, maybe.) But I am a man of iron. I will resist your wily ways.
This reminds me of the piece I wrote on Lone Survivor, which was held up as one of the finest games of the year (Lynchian and intelligent) yet I ended up writing a piece about how it left me cold.
There is no shame in admitting you didn’t have fun, didn’t get it or had a problem with the package. The obvious common theme with Journey, Dear Esther and Sworcery: they are about feel and emotion, with gameplay or interactivity being there to serve that purpose… or not.(*)
Then again there are issues with PC controls for Sworcery but the gameplay elements of Sworcery are remarkably light; even on the iBodge you’d still have the Moon problem. There are design issues with the game that are swept aside if you fall in love with it. Many people fall in love with it and those that fall into its design black holes are not often heard.
(*) One might say much AAA fodder these days is similar, with CODBLOPSII more about the engaging world/scenario than revolutions in gameplay. There’s a subtle difference between these two positions, your-heart-is-my-harpsichord vs your-personal-blockbuster-movie, but it’s mighty subtle…
Thanks for getting me motivated to pick this game back up after a long time Gregg. I own it on iPhone and I can see how the touch to mouse translation may not have gone so well. There are definitely parts I’m not sure I could have figured out without outside help, but other than that I’ve found it utterly charming. The main reason I abandoned it for so long is that iPhone gaming isn’t really my thing. But I purchased it because by all accounts it was unique and interesting.
As I recall, Sworcery mode and eating mushrooms and stuff can yield hints to the tonal puzzles. My brain could be inventing this mechanic, however.
@tanis: I’d recommend sticking with S:S&S EP if you can, provided it’s on a tablet! It never lets up on the charm front. Hell, start it again because you’re still close to the beginning. I’m hoping to post part 2 up over the next few days so stay tuned!
@HM: Yeah, of them all I think I have the most bones to pick with Journey because I couldn’t just roll with the feel and emotion of it alone, it’s certainly more ‘gamey’ than Dear Esther and S:S&S EP in my opinion which opens the door to a line of criticism that I haven’t raised at them. As a result it does get a different treatment.
@Botch: There’s no denying how unique and interesting it is. To be honest, writing this was tough because the screenshots and music are so beautiful that I wanted to dial back my recollections as if they were betraying me! If you’re playing on the iPhone, enjoy! 😉
Well, it looks like a fair amount of what I might’ve said in response to your article has already been covered in the comments. ^_^
I too ran into a bug with the waterfall puzzle (strums not correctly registering) which was entirely resolved after a restart. And opening the huge tree – infuriating and counterintuitive on PC, a cinch on touchscreen.
Conversely I was very lucky with the phases and the only time anything wasn’t where I needed it to be I was able to pop into the grotto and cycle time forwards. Similarly I had no problem with the final trek up Mingi Taw – the Scythian was slow, sure, but I could freeze the Gogolithic Mass easily enough. It was actually the wolf which bothered me, as I ended up fighting it for ten minutes, having not realised from any previously fight that it was possible to kill it (the tutorial, after all, has you defend yourself three times after which it runs away).
All told, though, I found that – despite occasional frustrations – I appreciated the occasional obtuseness of S:S&SEP. Almost every time I figured out what I was doing wrong / needed to do I kicked myself for not working it out, and I appreciated not having been spoon-fed. Instead it introduced a bunch of mechanics and then left it up to you to remember them hours or weeks down the line in an entirely different area. Here is your toolbox: now remember that you have it.
Next time I review a Superbrothers game, though, I’m going to ask them to send me an iPad. 😉
I’m not sure what it was with the ascent up Mingi Taw but it felt like a good chunk of my mouse clicks weren’t being registered so it was very choppy and tough going. As such I had to restart it numerous times despite trying to freeze the Gogolithic Mass whenever it started getting a bit too close. Ahh, I didn’t think you could kill that wolf thing prematurely either, I thought it was scripted to run off after each encounter until the end.
I was a big fan of the way the game didn’t bash you over the head with solutions and expected you to play around enough to work things out for yourself but at the same time some puzzles (like the sheep one) didn’t make the slightest bit of sense and as mentioned some just didn’t translate well to mouse control.
I really do wish I’d played it on touchscreen first, if only to nip certain gripes in the bud and prevent them colouring the rest of my experience!