Five years of Sword & Sworcery: the history of a weird and beautiful game

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Five years ago, Craig D. Adams was riding a Toronto streetcar home after a long day at work, when he looked up from his phone and was confused about where he was. That evening, Adams — an artist and game designer better known under the pseudonym Superbrothers — had just released his first game, a collaboration with local studio Capy Games and musician Jim Guthrie. It was called Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, and it had a unique feature: all of its dialog was chopped into snippets of 140 characters or less, and a little button let you tweet any of those snippets along with the hashtag #sworcery. As Adams was commuting home, the game was just rolling out in the iPad’s App Store in New Zealand, and the tweets were flowing in. “I was so engrossed that I didn’t just miss my stop,” he says. “I missed the next nine stops.”

Sworcery went on to become a rare thing in mobile gaming. It was both a critical and commercial success, selling more than 1.5 million copies as of 2013. It featured a distinctive pixel art style coupled with a dark, foreboding soundtrack and simple-yet-engrossing gameplay that brought together elements of point-and-click games and classic fantasy adventures like The Legend of Zelda. Unlike most popular mobile games, it hasn’t been cloned, because its appeal lies more in a mood than a specific game mechanic, and that’s not easy to copy. Even today it remains distinct. But its influence can still be seen in many games that followed, notably the 2014 hit Monument Valley, whose creators have cited Sworcery as an inspiration.

Today marks the game’s fifth anniversary, and since launch Capy has gone on to create several games, including the upcoming Below, while Guthrie has scored a handful of movie and game soundtracks and even released a new solo indie rock album. Adams, meanwhile, has largely receded out of public view. Aside from a few projects, he has remained out of the public eye, quietly toiling away on a mysterious project that he’s not quite ready to announce yet.

“I think I’ll just be lucky if anybody remembers the [Superbrothers] name when I have something new to show,” Adams says.

How Sworcery came to be involved a lot of happenstance. Sometime around 2003, Guthrie received a postcard in the mail. It had some pixel art on it and a short note from Adams, saying that he was a big fan of Guthrie’s music. As a response, the musician mailed back a burned CD featuring some unreleased tracks made using an original PlayStation. The two kept in touch over the years, and made a few short animated videos together. (Some of those songs eventually made it onto the Sworcery soundtrack.)

At the time, Guthrie was trying to make it as a more traditional singer-songwriter. He also had dreams of doing soundtracks, but didn’t know how to get his foot into that world. "I was a mostly uninformed, low-tech indie rocker guy who always wanted to do soundtracks for film and TV," he says. Games were never something he’d really thought of — so it was a bit of a surprise when Adams asked him to score Sworcery. "It was never on my radar, because it seemed so far away and unattainable on a practical level," Guthrie says. "I didn’t know anybody who could make games. I knew people who play drums and play guitar and stuff."

Around that time, Adams was working as an artist at the now-closed Toronto branch of Japanese game developer Koei. In the evenings he had created the Superbrothers moniker — it "had a nice ring to it" he says of the name — and did some pixel art projects, including low-fi illustrations for magazines. In 2009 he hatched a plan, one that seems far-fetched in retrospect. He republished some of his old work online in an attempt to reignite interest, and then he headed down to San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference, in hopes of meeting someone who would want to make a game that looked like his distinct pixelated paintings. The plan worked.

While at a GDC party, Adams met Nathan Vella, president of a then relatively unknown Toronto studio called Capy Games. It turns out that one of Adams’ former Koei co-workers had gone on to work at Capy, and introduced Vella to his work. It didn’t take long for the collaboration to start. "Fifteen seconds after meeting Nathan he said ‘Let’s make a game together,’" says Adams. That was in March, and Adams eventually started working in the Capy studio full-time on the game the following October. (The time in-between was filled with tying up some loose ends, including the process of receiving a grant from the Ontario government.)

By this point, indie games were becoming a phenomenon. In 2008 Jonathan Blow released the seminal Braid on the Xbox 360, a game that showed it was possible for a small team to create a big hit. It made Blow a millionaire (he then funneled the money into making his next game, The Witness, which launched earlier this year) and showed the potential for new digital platforms like Xbox Live Arcade and the App Store. "This is the thing I had been imagining would exist for kind of my whole life," Adams says of the indie gaming movement, "and when it actually happened I was busy."

But the timing turned out to be fortuitous. By the time work on Sworcery started, the App Store, and mobile gaming in general, were still in an early stage of maturation, and Twitter — despite being five-years-old — was a bit of a Wild West where a small game could still make a considerable impact. "It was kind of a perfect storm," says Guthrie. The iPad — which was ultimately the launch platform for the game — came out in the midst of Sworcery’s creation. There were already some hit mobile games, but Adams felt that there was room for something more engaging than a time-killing puzzle game. "It felt like a bit of a blank canvas," he says. "It seemed like there was a thirst there."

Like the game’s origin story, the development of Sworcery was very organic. While Adams handled the art, writing, and some of the design, Capy creative director Kris Piotrowski served as designer, while co-workers Jon Maur and Frankie Leung handled the technical side, and Guthrie provided the music. "There was no real structure to how we did it," recalls Guthrie. "It was kind of a mess, to be honest, at times." Sometimes Adams would share a new piece of art, and Guthrie would compose a song to fit the vibe; other times it was the exact opposite, with the team building new sections of the game inspired by a new track.

"I remember thinking that there should be some kind of explosion at some point."

Guthrie wasn’t always sure what to think. Given his relatively limited history with games, the slow pace of Sworcery — which often involves just walking around an area, listening to music, and tapping the screen — was surprising. "I remember thinking that there should be some kind of explosion at some point," Guthrie says. "I remember being uncomfortable with the pace, though I wasn’t uncomfortable with a pace like that in a song or in a film."

Vella similarly had doubts at certain points. Sworcery was originally expected to take around a year to make, but ended up taking nearly twice that long, increasing the budget. "As it became clear the project was going to run longer than our estimates, I definitely started doubting it," Vella says. "I think Craig did, too. We talked about options for the project, and honestly my brain was telling me to scope it way down and figure out how to just ship something. That very easily could have been the end of Sworcery. But as I remember it, Kris really fought for the game — he wouldn’t let me sell it short and he wouldn’t let Craig lose faith."

The slow pace that worried Guthrie wasn’t the only unique thing about Sworcery. It also featured incredibly cryptic dialog (which was part of why it was so fun to tweet) and a structure that used the iPhone’s built-in clock to encourage players to play at specific times; certain events would only trigger during the appropriate lunar phase. Because of its distinct (and often strange) nature, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly made Sworcery so successful — even for the creators. "I think we created a design that had a pace and a space where interesting thoughts could percolate and Jim’s music could work its magic," says Adams. "I don’t know what to make of it exactly, but it’s just really heartening to see."

"When I look back after five years, I am most surprised by how such a huge audience was willing to embrace something like Sworcery," adds Vella. "It’s such a slow, meandering game built to be a music box for Jim’s beautiful soundtrack. You fight shapes, lose health over time, read a book that collects thoughts. You are meant to just stand and look at moody pixel art. All of it seems really damn strange. But millions of people did it. They meandered and fought shapes and stood and looked. They listened to Jim’s music. Thinking about it like that kind of floors me."

That success has had a profound impact on its developers. Combined with its other games like the adorable puzzler Critter Crunch and strategy game Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes, Sworcery helped to turn Capy into one of the most respected independent studios in the industry, and the focal point of the vibrant indie game scene in Toronto. The studio has since released acclaimed games like the time-travelling shoot ‘em up Super Time Force and is working on the much anticipated Below, due to launch this summer. "It gave us a lot of confidence to keep pushing and making games we believe in," says Vella. "The slog through development takes a toll, but having so many people understand what we were trying to do is invigorating."

Guthrie, meanwhile, credits most of his subsequent success to Sworcery. "It really changed everything," he says. "I had been making music my whole life up until that point, and had a little bit of success. Honestly, I was still super broke and didn’t have any money. And I didn’t have anybody who wanted to hire me to do music for film or TV or games or anything."

Adams took the opportunity to largely go quiet and focus on what was coming next. He has pulled back from the industry in a lot of ways. The last time he attended GDC was in 2012, a year after the release of Sworcery. Once he realized the game was likely to be a success, he proposed to Jori Baldwin, his longtime girlfriend and the inspiration for Sworcery’s lead character, the Scythian. A few months later the two were married in her hometown in Quebec, surrounded by friends, family, and wilderness. Eventually they left the hectic life of the big city and bought a small house in the woods in Quebec, just along the border with Vermont. In 2014 they had a little girl. Adams calls her "a little sylvan sprite."

During that time he’s been working on a follow-up to Sworcery, though he’s not ready to show it just yet. Like his first project, it’ll be a collaboration — Adams is working alongside an as-of-yet unnamed partner — and much of the focus will be on creating a specific mood and vibe. The pair don’t have a release date in mind, but the game is being designed for traditional game consoles, not mobile, and will feature 3D graphics in place of Adams’ distinctive pixels. While many game developers struggle with the idea of following a big hit, especially when it’s their first release, Adams doesn’t appear phased by Sworcery’s success. "My challenge the last few years has been ‘Can I create this thing that I want to create?’ And that keeps me busy enough, and until that’s finished I don’t have too many worries outside of that," he says.

As for Sworcery, he says there isn’t really anything he would change about the game in retrospect. That includes the tweet button, a feature which was actually made more prominent after playtesting showed people would often miss it.

"We were worried that the button would never get used," he says.