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Sword & Sworcery, Video Game
Created by Superbrothers, Capy, & Jim Guthrie

Go To:  The Helpful (13),  The Harmful (2)
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Overview....  *SPOILERS AHEAD*
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery’s story is centered on a female protagonist who is a warrior turned sworcerer that has set out to complete an important quest.  The narrative and gameplay encourage many socially positive ideas, such as; compassion and curiosity.  Its characters embody challenges to gender ideologies, and the overarching theme of the game focuses on restoring balance to nature and the universe.  While this game’s story contains mostly socially positive messages, it does, unfortunately have some insidious sexist messages that somewhat undermine its own anti-conventional efforts.

The Helpful....

No.1 Point of Help:  Has a smart and strong female protagonist who sets out to bravely accomplish what many before her have failed to achieve by drawing upon a wide array of skills.

Evidence:   The main character, and the only playable character, is a female known only as The Scythian (none of the characters have real names).  She is on a quest that she must fulfill, and that many people before her have failed at.  She is armed with a sword and shield and engages in brutal battles against giant wolves and skeleton soldiers.  She learns the way of sworcery and sings magical songs to release the sprites of nature.  She decodes the secrets of the Megatome (an esoteric book) and can read the thoughts of others nearby.  With her power, talents, smarts, and determination she changes the weather, moves mountains, raises islands, opens gigantic trees, aligns celestial bodies, and ultimately, defeats a deathless spectre and delivers the powerful book to its rightful place in the universe.  The Scythian’s male and female peers in the village admire her as smart, tough, skilled, and cool. 

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:   Having a strong female lead creates a positive role model in media for females to identify with, and aids the overall effort to create more female centered narratives in our culture at large, which is currently (and conventionally) a narrative that is dominated by a male centered perspective.  Her broad range of skills and admirable qualities affords her character adaptability, and presents players with a multitude of problem solving approaches.

  Point of Help:  Doesn’t define the protagonist by her sex/gender.

Evidence:   No sexualization, no romanticization, no mother-ization, no other-ization.  While it would probably be challenging to make a pixilated stick-ish figure look sexy, I’m sure the character designers of The Scythian could have if they tried, but they didn’t, so good for them.  Even her vocalizations of pain and exertion sound like a normal person in pain or exertion, as opposed to sounding like she’s having an orgasm (it is not uncommon to sexualize female pain in that way).  The Scythian has no romantic involvement or potential love interests.  No aspect of her character is made out to be nurturing or maternal (and neither is the other female character, known as Girl, for that matter).  The Scythian is not regarded as any different from any of the male warriors who attempted the quest before her (other than them failing, and her succeeding).  Nor is she explained as some strange creature that is somehow unlike a man.  No visual gender markers (like a bow or pink attire) are used to establish her sex as a significant part of her character.    Her sex/gender is pretty much not made an issue of.  In fact, it’s not even until about 10 minutes into the game that the sound of her battle grunts notify the player that the protagonist is female.  The character is also noted as having a rather un-girly “loathe” for rainbows.  All of this affords The Scythian the same unique subjectivity as her culturally predominant male counter-parts.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:   It helps us learn to see past someone’s gender/sex, and to recognize them for their unique qualities.  Also, it teaches males to relate to females as people who are not unlike themselves.  Lastly, the lack of visual gender marker on our heroine defies prevailing notions that assume male as the default gender unless otherwise specified.

No.3  Point of Help:  Challenges the notion of men as “Protectors”, and frees-up women to handle themselves without male supervision.

Evidence:   Logfella doesn’t step in to “help” The Scythian.  Other than begrudgingly helping her through a locked gate (that she specifically asked about) and occasionally checking in on her to make sure she’s not dead, Logfella leaves the heroine to handle her own.  In fact, the protagonist even notes to herself how adamantly unhelpful he is.  Also, toward the end of the game, Logfella’s female friend (known as Girl) goes missing, and Logfella, in all the “woe” and distress of her absence, doesn’t do a damn thing……which was cool, cuz Girl was just fine (off doing her own thing helping the protag and what not).  Even when Logfella realizes that The Scythian is going to sacrifice herself, he passively accepts that it is her destiny and does not try to “save” her.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:   This presentation of gender relations contrasts the popular notion of men having to protect women from…..well just about everything, including themselves.  Quite often in fiction, even a strong-headed female character will be written to get herself into a predicament that a man must help her get out of.  This not only perpetuates the patronizing idea that women are helpless, but particularly insinuates that strong-headed women are silly for believing themselves to be capable and are really just a danger to themselves.  Thus, our broader cultural ethos considers a female’s agency to be a threat to her own safety and encourages women and girls to stifle their own curiosity and ambition (and therefore, stunt their own self-growth).  In THIS game, however, both female characters do their own thing without questions or doubt ever coming into the narrative.  This illustrates how females are perfectly capable of engaging the world boldly and intelligently.  This story goes against the grain of the boarder cultural belief of women being hopelessly helpless, and men having to protect them.  Instead, it encourages a sense of self-driven adventure and empowerment in females, and the freedom to get oneself into, and out of, trouble.

No.4  Point of Help:  She’s cool-headed, snarky, and doesn’t take herself too seriously.

Evidence:  The Scythian appears relatively un-phased by what would generally be considered intimidating or awe-inspiring scenarios.  Her internal monologue is witty, sarcastic, and comically prosaic.  She makes fun of herself for thinking in plural first-person “we”, and for finding the idea of martyrdom so appealing.  And she generally doesn’t have much to say out loud, which Logfella comments on early in the game.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:   It shows that women can be just as aloof, unpoetic, down-to-earth, funny, adventurously jaded, and narratively “over-it” as men.

No.5  Point of Help:  Bolsters a sense of comradery among women.

Evidence:   Girl first greets The Scythian by respectfully kneeling down to her (Girl does this again a couple more times throughout the game).  The Scythian obtains her sprite-singing quest from Girl, and frequently consults with her to get guidance about various quests throughout the game.  Girl later tells The Scythian that she thinks something The Scythian did was cool and that she “wished she could’ve been there [to see it]”.  Also, Girl assists The Scythian in completing her ultimate mission by acting as a sort of guiding light towards her final destination and away from the life-sucking spectre.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:   More often than not, conventional narratives rarely pass the Bechdel Test. And even when they do, quite often relationships between female characters are shown as being extremely contentious, competitive, and catty.  This conventional narrative undermines female solidarity in society.  It perpetuates a social environment where females are encouraged to distrust one another, and engage each other in ways that are damaging to interpersonal bonds, thereby cutting themselves and each other off from vital social resources.  This is particularly problematic in regards to women with children, who are in even more of a position of needing social support from female family members and peers. The narrative in THIS story, however, exemplifies a sense of mutual respect and admiration between the two female characters, and puts forth their relationship as demonstrating active support, esteem, and trust.

No.6  Point of Help:  Promotes the idea of restoring and respecting balance in nature.

Evidence:   Themes of maintaining balance in nature are woven throughout the plot of this game.  First there is the protagonist’s main objective of returning the stolen Megatome (an esoteric book) to its rightful place in the universe.  Then, our heroine, after having disrupted weather patterns and caused a storm to gather, sets forth to correct what she messed up.  She releases sprites from various natural elements (trees, waterfalls, rainbows, etc) which then fix the weather.  Lastly, certain quests can only be completed during certain moon phases in game, which also happen to be synced with the real-time moon phases.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:  Themes of maintaining symbiotic relationships with nature encourage us to think more holistically about our connection to our planet and utilize our environmental resources more sustainably.  Syncing the in-game moon phases with real-time moon phases draws attention to the significance of cycles in nature and how we are connected/affected by them.

No.7  Point of Help:  Permits sensitivity, compassion, fear, and meekness in males.

Evidence:   Logfella openly expresses his feelings of anxiety that are provoked by a thunderstorm, and retreats into the safety and comfort of the hut where he proceeds to “freak out”.  Throughout the game he foregoes several adventurous opportunities because he doesn’t “dig grim mysteries”, and opts to sit on the sidelines rather than get involved in the thrills of The Scythian’s quest.  The narrative of the story does not ostracize or ridicule him for feeling or expressing worry and fear, or for choosing to abstain from exciting undertakings.  The narrative simply shows that he does.  Logfella also shows compassion and concern for The Scythian when it can be seen that multiple battles have taken their toll on her health.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:   Our culture’s standard definition of masculinity entails many emotionally and socially destructive ideals, which arguably come close to approximating sociopathy.  It teaches males to be self-centered, audacious, reckless, and exploitative of others.  It encourages them to engage the world with invasiveness and domination.  This toxic construction of masculinity abhors empathy and compassion, and punishes sensitivity and timidity.   These values as a whole are extremely damaging to the emotional, interpersonal, and intellectual capacity of the males subjected to them, as well as to those who are victimized by noxious and aggressive hyper-masculine behavior.  The narrative of this story, however, does not depreciate Logfella’s sensitivity.  It allows him to be a nervous and gentle man whose character is valued mostly for his snarky and cynical comments (as well as his ability to chop wood like nobody’s business.)

No.8  Point of Help:  The UI/UX design encourages curiosity and careful exploration of one’s environment.

Evidence:   Despite the interface of the game employing many of the interactive capabilities of smart phones (i.e. Multi-touch, pinch-to-zoom, rotate screen orientation) there is virtually no tutorial for how to control the game.  There are only very vague, minimalist, single-word hints that guide the player to particular types of actions.  But for the most part, we are left to explore and experiment with the interface, and find out for ourselves how to activate and control the game.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:   This type of interface design challenges players to be creative, curious, and experimental in their interaction with the game’s environment and to access a more acute intuitiveness of engagement.  All of this can translate into how we interact with the real-world, encouraging us to be more still and observant of the environment and others in it before we mindfully interject ourselves.  Such an approach, in general, is more careful and has less potential to be disruptive or destructive to the delicate relationships between all living and non-living things.

No.9  Point of Help:  Challenges ordinal ideas of gender that are established by standard language patterns in English.

Evidence:   The Scythian, when sharing a bit of her back-story, refers to her growing up alongside her “Sisters & Brothers.”

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:  The phrase “Sisters & Brothers” is a minor adjustment in syntax from the standard phrase “Brothers & Sisters”.  Trivial as it may appear, the reversing of these words definitely draws attention to itself as being odd or uncommon, because it is. And we are struck by it as so because it confronts our conditioned assumptions about priority of gender in linguistic expression, and how it reflects priority of gender in society.

No.10  Point of Help:  Encourages men to own up to their own shortcomings.

Evidence:   When The Scythian takes the time to explain her story and purpose to Logfella, it becomes clear to her, after sometime, that he had stopped paying attention to what she was saying.   However, later when The Scythian consults the Megatome to read Logfella’s thoughts, he thinks, “I must’ve nodded off at some point during the Scythian’s super epic story.  I have a really low tolerance for lore”.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:  Although Logfella doesn’t express it directly to The Scythian, his admission of failing to listen and his owning up to rudeness is still presented in a way that encourages self-examination and acknowledgement of one’s incompetencies.  In particular, this refutes the gender stereotype of women never saying anything important, which is an excuse commonly used that permits men to not listen to or value what women say.

No.11  Point of Help:  Praises compassionate actions on the part of the player.

Evidence:   After defeating the Grizzled Boor (to obtain a special key), the player is left with the option to slay him or let him live.  And as the player is debating the next course of action, the injured Boor is pathetically cowering in a pool of his own blood.  If you let him live, The Archtype praises you as being “compassionate and reasonable”.  If you slay the Grizzled Boor, The Archtype basically refers to you as being a violent psychopath.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:  In popular fictional stories, it is often depicted as righteous (or even merciful) to “finish off” a defeated opponent.  This is particularly true of the video game sector of story-telling.  Violence is inarguably problematic as a conflict-resolution strategy in society.  And although this game does force you to fight the Grizzled Boor (GB), after you beat him, the game implores you (by way of sympathetic emotional-behavioral cues) to let him go.  And if you do let him live, the narrative commends you for doing so.  But if you kill him, you are scolded (however, there are no practical consequences in the actual gameplay, other than GB not appearing at the end).

No.12  Point of Help:  Presents the brutal finality of death and allows time for grief.

Evidence:   After the sacrifice of the Scythian, we can see her body floating down the river to the sounds of the final overture.  As we see her corpse float by familiar sections of the forest and hear the solemn yet inspirited music, we are presented with a glimmer of hope, that maybe her woeful errand has not ended so tragically and she may still be alive.  However, the final scene of the story shows  the funeral pyre of our beloved Scythian, attended by all the other living characters.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:  The portrayal of death in this story carries with it an appropriate weight that authentically approximates the grief and permanence of losing a loved one.  The finality of death is portrayed through the consequential alignment of The Scythian’s death with the end of the story.  And the aftermath of her death is depicted in a way that allows the player to experience a surprisingly deep level of mourning.

No.13  Point of Help:  Effectively presents more realistic consequences for violence, and demonstrates frailty as a universal human quality.

Evidence:   As The Scythian advances through the game, it can be seen that brutal battles are taking a permanent toll on her health.  After each major battle, the maximum capacity of her life/health bar (indicated by 5 stars at the start) decreases by one star, so that her health cannot ever fully recover to what it once was.  By the end of the game, the max capacity of her life/health bar is down to 1 star….she is literally on the verge of death (and not to mention coughing up blood every few minutes).  Another example of frailty comes after defeating the Grizzled Boor, at which point he wallows helplessly in pain.

How is this Helpful in Influencing Society?:  We live in an age filled with PvP First-Person Shooters in which players die and immediately re-spawn over and over again within the same battle, and Role-Playing Games (RPGs) that typically imbue their characters with ever increasing strength and skills after each successful battle.  These very popular interactive formats present a formula of violence that assumes “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”….which is, frankly, a ludicrous idea (let alone "what kills you....doesn't really kill you").  Sometimes, what doesn’t kill us can make us stronger, or sometimes we just suffer permanent injury and/or trauma….it’s really a gamble.  The real-life repercussions of war and violence entail not only potentially permanent physical and psychological damage for the survivors, but (because of the integral social nature of our species) psychological trauma is, quite often, inadvertently passed down from generation to generation. This phenomenon is known as Transgenerational Trauma
[].  In contrast with other RPGs, the game of Sword & Sworcery presents to us a permanently declining health bar in response to exposure to violence.  This communicates the everlasting and devastating effects of violence.  Additionally, because the Grizzled Boor also demonstrates weakness and incapacitation in response to being assaulted, frailty is displayed as a universally human trait (although it’s not clear whether GB is “human”, he IS a person…of sorts…a humanoid?).  Either way, if The Scythian had been the only character to demonstrate such, then it could have genderized the notion of frailness as being something that only women are capable of.  Luckily the creators avoided this pitfall.


The Harmful....

No.1  Point of Harm:  They named the female shepherd “Girl”, and refer to her often by her appearance.

Evidence:   Even though the creators of this story refused to take any of their characters seriously enough to give them real names (i.e. The Scythian, The Archetype, Logfella, Dogfella), they still, unfortunately, slipped into some sexism when nick-naming one of their un-name-worthy characters.  While the man who chops wood is goofily named Logfella (classified by his gender and occupation), his female counter part (who herds sheep) is just referred to as Girl. This connotes that the only thing worth knowing or acknowledging about her is her gender, her occupation being irrelevant.  Also, in choosing the word “girl” instead of “lady”, “chic”, or “gal”, it imbues her character with juvenility.  Even worse, the narrations of the protagonist often refer to her as “the dark-haired girl”, which then unnecessarily draws attention to her appearance as an important feature.  Plus, this is even inapt (and confusing) because the main protagonist, The Scythian, is, herself, a dark-haired female, and therefore renders Girl’s dark hair as a non-distinguishing feature.

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:   To not include the occupation in the pseudonym of the sheep herding female, is to perpetuate the deeply-rooted idea that what women do is of no value or consequence to society, and therefore, not worthy of acknowledgement.  Also, our culture heavily places a female’s value in her appearance (namely her youth and sexual “attractiveness”), and to continually refer to this character by describing her appearance is to uphold this idea.

How to Change the Story?:   Should’ve just named her “Sheepgal” , “Lamblady”, or “Woolchic”.

No.2  Point of Harm:  The story undermines its own non-convention by ultimately making the heroine a puppet designed for the bidding of an “all-knowing god” (a.k.a. the player), and we are left to deduce that she has no agency of her own.

Evidence:   The player is not meant to BE The Scythian, the player is meant to be a god-like figure that controls and compels the protagonist to complete the tasks commanded of her.  This is insidiously written into the storyline when The Scythian, herself, references being “guided by the finger of an all-knowing-god”.  It is also noted by other characters that she appears to be “controlled by an unseen force”.  The Scythian is a strong, skillful, and smart female…but all of her positive qualities are undermined by the fact that she is indited to not acting of her own volition.  The Archetype even plays a hand in instructing the player to push the lambasted protagonist onward, saying “forcefully drag The Scythian to the summit”.  Although, The Scythian is well aware of her mission and her destiny of martyrdom, it is acknowledged (by Dogfella’s psyche) that she wishes to avoid it, but Dogfella states that her fate is sealed.  This makes it rather clear that her actions are not self-determined and she is not willfully completing her mission.  The Archetype even refers to the player-god as “offering” The Scythian up for martyrdom, which implies that she belongs to the player-god, and did not choose this destiny for herself out of her own gumption.  In the end, she dies by the player’s hand.  Then the narrative follows with a suggestion of eternal cosmic friendship between the player-god and the Scythian’s spirit.  The Scythian never protests her “fate” or the decisions/commands of the player-god.

How is this Harmful in Influencing Society?:   The violation of the personal rights of any person is an issue of deep concern.  This problem particularly comes into play in social matters concerning females.  Women struggling for rights over their own bodies and life choices is still a huge problem embedded in our society.  The historical aims of patriarchy to control women’s bodies has played a substantial part in creating the social structures that we continue to operate within.  When words like “woeful” and “burdensome” are used to describe the heroine’s mission, what is really being suggested is submission to a sense of duty.  This coincides with long standing social structures and cultural practices that coerce women into positions of subordination.  The idea is that women’s minds should not interfere with the entitlement society divinely claims over their bodies, and that they should essentially be tools for the patriarchy.  All of this supports the notion that a female’s value is somatic, and that a woman being controlled is a flattering indicator of her worth.  Also, the plot-ending choice of sacrificial death comes uncomfortably close to the problematic Euthanized Damsel Trope [].  Although the Scythian is not framed as a damsel to be saved, her sacrificial death is forced by the player, an act that the narrative paints as one of altruism on the part of the player-god.  The narrative’s suggestion of cosmic bond between the player and The Scythian implies that The Scythian herself must be grateful for the player-god’s choices and actions upon her, and that she should have no qualms regarding it.

How to Change the Story?:   Paint the player as a god-like helper assigned to The Scythian to give her guidance in her ambitiously SELF-ordained quest.   And/or, have the Scythian express more authentic emotions of conflict regarding her fate (i.e. doubt, fear, grief, resentment, objection).  And/or The Scythian could break free of the player-god’s control at some point(s) and defy her “fate”, demonstrating her need for autonomy, and completing her quest in a way that is even better than what the “all-knowing finger” had originally intended….Like maybe a way that lets the awesomest warrior of sworcery live on to tell her tale to future generations of Scythian Sisters & Brothers.  Amirite? 

Contributors: Lianne Neptune

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