Published Apr 24, 2011And lo, a great darkness covered the land of Jobs as Apple's game-playing apostles were abandoned by the game wizards of the '90s who swore allegiance first to the Gates of Bill and then to the clans Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo. The great rise of the iPhone and iPad has heralded a new dawn and yet for all the Angry Birds flittering about the App Store, most games within have failed to take full advantage of the format.
But then a brave band of ambitious adventurers from the village of Toronto ― pixel artist Craig Adams, indie rocker Jim Guthrie and Capybara gamemaker Kris Piotrowski ― joined forces to craft the artistically triumphant indie iOS game Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, which combines the Zen moodiness of Fumito Ueda's Ico and the quirky humour of Tim Schafer's Double Fine games with The Legend of Zelda's archetypal questing. Oh, and it looks like it was made in the late-80s, only awesomer.
"Everybody who's grown up on that, it warms the cockles of their hearts ― but it goes beyond nostalgia. The reason that style was so evocative was because you had to complete it with your imagination," Adams says over beers at Toronto's Naco Gallery Cafe. "I realized I could get everything I basically needed with a stickman, and if I could do the game in that style then one person could have that authorship that somebody has when they paint a picture or write a song.
"The goal wasn't to make something that looks old. The goal was to be able to make something new and that was the path I chose to do that. I think it looks like it's made in 2011 ― it's just made of little squares."
S&S's genesis began way back in 2003 when Adams, fresh from art school, first turned 8-bit pixel animation into a cutting-edge art style for his one-man Superbrothers project. He soon started doing some outreach to see what he could do with it, like maybe music videos.
"I was listening to a lot of Jim Guthrie, a lot of [his band] Royal City and read somewhere that he was using a PlayStation as a backing track for his solo records," recalls Adams. "So when I was making my first mailer for this illustration style, I figured I'd send it to [Guthrie's label) Three Gut Records, just in case. Jim saw it and decided to package up a record of all his made-in-PlayStation music and sent it over. So I made a little music video using that style and Jim dug it."
Thus a creative partnership was born. That was in 2005, and Adams later found work in the gaming industry, working in the Toronto office of Japanese developer Koei making "not good" PS3 games. He was bored, but also not interested in moving cities just to be another cog in a multinational machine.
"My desperate plan was to take Superbrothers off the shelf and re-launch it," Adams says, "and around then I also connected to Toronto's DIY videogame crowd." Conveniently, while he'd been working in the mainstream industry, an indie gaming scene had been brewing in Toronto, and Adams now had a place to perform his magic.
Then during the 2009 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, when he serendipitously met up with the crew from Toronto indie studio Capybara and they all agreed to make a game together.
"I always wanted to do an iPhone [game], there are way fewer barriers and Capy had experience," says Adams. "The idea was to keep it small so we could take a risk and do something different and it wouldn't affect anyone's bottom line. So it wasn't so much a commercially-driven venture."
(Not that it hasn't been commercially successful, though it's not about to knock Angry Birds off its seemingly permanent perch, Sword & Sworcery quickly ascended to the top of App Store sales charts around the globe.)
First thing Adams did was recruit Jim Guthrie. He explained the concept ― pixel-art game exploring fantasy archetypes to create an emotional experience ― and Guthrie started on the score, using his preferred primitive PlayStation game, MTV Music Maker, because that was what they'd used when they first collaborated years earlier.
"I was using the PlayStation back then because I didn't have a band, but that music informed the game, so I carried that forward and married the PlayStation stuff with the new technologies that I got. I have a Mac now with all the plug-ins, but I still wanted to limit myself. I'm a guy who likes to have boundaries, I don't like to have too many options or I get lost," Guthrie says.
Determined to avoid modern gaming's "wallpaper of orchestral pabulum of epicness," Guthrie and Adams used each other's art as inspiration in a back'n'forth creative process. The result was a score that stands on its own ― literally; they stay true to the game's cutesy EP title by also releasing an actual EP, digital and vinyl, of Guthrie's gorgeous, evocative soundtrack.
"It was the marriage of hi-tech and low-tech ― it sounds chip-tuney at times, but there's a bit more going on than stuff with Atari. Craig's art is like that, too. It looks low-tech but it's got a super hi-tech sheen."
The game play is like that, too, pairing the old-school point-and-click adventure with the ultra-modern iPad/iPhone to create a timeless effect. Though staying true to their original vision wasn't always easy.
"Everyone who grew up with videogames has a certain language burned into their head," says Capybara creative director Kris Piotrowski, "and part of what Sword & Sworcery was trying to do was consciously resist the urge to go, let's add coins, or let's add way more battles."
"It was a challenge because we started on a conceptual level, rather than a game play level. It was like a donut filled with a question. A delicious question."
The answer turned out equally delicious, a perfect pairing of sight, sound and exploration that inspires not adrenaline, but contemplation. "I don't know if we're doing anything more profound," says Adams. "We just set out to make something that was different, that would have its own reason for being entertaining."
"Well," adds Guthrie, "it is deeper than Angry Birds."