The Meaning of EP (of Sword & Sworcery)

“An extended play (or EP) is a musical recording that contains more music than a single, but is too short to qualify as a full studio album or LP. The term EP originally referred to specific types of vinyl records other than 78 rpm standard play (SP) records and LP records,[1] but it is now applied to mid-length Compact Discs and music downloads as well.”

-Wikipedia

I’ve been consistently surprised at how my friends don’t know what an EP is. I’ve heard comments like, “that CD is great, but it’s so short!” Of course—that’s because it’s an EP. When explaining this, I’ve been asked more than once, “why?”

All images are from the Superbrothers site http://www.superbrothers.ca/

There usually seems to be a reason as to why EPs exist. Many bands release one or two before they ever release an album, perhaps as a way of testing the waters—putting some of what they have out there to see if anyone likes it, or to see if they can get a record deal before writing a whole album.

One of my favorites, the Penelope EP by Shabutie, may be like this. Even though there are almost thirty demos and unfinished tracks by Shabutie that can be found online, the band only ever released two EPs before splitting (to later reform as Coheed and Cambria). The Penelope EP is only five songs, all excellent, and the only complete songs that exist in the style of Shabutie. The other EP, Delirium Trigger, marks the band’s move into the sound that would become Coheed and Cambria.

Sometimes, an EP seems to come out of lack of material for a whole album. More often, EPs released later into a band’s life contain something different from the usual style of the band, yet close enough that fans would still appreciate it.

the LP for the EP

A clear example of this is The White EP by Agalloch. Agalloch is a metal band that incorporates tons of folk and atmospheric elements, and there are often songs on their albums which forgo metal altogether in favor of folk. The White EP is seven songs of very peaceful, serene folk music, all very much in the style of Agalloch, yet different enough from a main release to not be called one. (Agalloch also did the first kind of EP with Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor.)

An EP that isn’t so easily classified is the recent Carbon-Based Anatomy EP by Cynic, which is only six tracks, three of them two-minute interlude-like songs. The other three sound like Cynic, yet different from their (very short) Traced In Air album from three years prior, in that the songs are less heavy and have much cleaner vocals. Did they release it as an EP because of these subtle differences? Or was it just too short to release as an album, and the band didn’t care to add more to it? (After all, Traced In Air is barely album-length, and also isn’t nearly as altogether good.) We’ll push this question aside for now.

One of the games in Humble Indie Bundle V is called Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. When I saw the title, the “EP” immediately made me think of a musical release, but I didn’t know if this was the game’s intent. Once I started playing it, I quickly realized that it was. (The fact that the game’s symbol is actually an EP record helped.) It then became apparent that the game was, itself, an Extended Play. As a matter of fact, the intent seems to be that Superbrothers is the name of the “band,” and Sword & Sworcery is the name of the EP.

So what kind of EP is it? In terms of the career of the Superbrothers team, it’s the first kind. Their first release: a humble, low-key indie game, originally developed for iPhone, and eventually adapted to PC and Mac due to its popularity. This is not unlike the way many EPs are released with only five-hundred copies at first, but may later receive re-release due to high demand.

As a video game, Sword & Sworcery embodies the concept of an EP. It’s very short; despite a mechanic that makes the game take a lunar month to complete, there’s probably no more than six or so hours of actual game time (depending on how long it takes the player to figure things out). The average video game is somewhere between ten and twenty hours, although there are plenty of “LP” games that, like the aforementioned Traced In Air album, barely skate over the line (i.e. a lot of modern action games that can be easily blasted through in an afternoon).

S&S also has the quality of being quite unlike any other game, which isn’t the same thing as being unlike the rest of a band’s material. Still, there tends to be a level of convention, and a great deal of contention, over what people will consider a “video game.” S&S is one of those games that causes all kinds of debate. Nevertheless, as odd as the game is, it doesn’t contain anything unknown to video games. It is ultimately a side-scrolling, point-and-click, 2D adventure game, with a very simple combat system and an interesting (if not wholly important) social media aspect.

S&S is clearly the product of a small team building something which combined what they were capable of with what they were interested in. Even though the world is built with minimalist, pixel-based art (“rustic, 21st-century minimalism,” the site says), it’s drop-dead gorgeous, because the creators clearly knew how to push that simple medium as far as it could go through use of color and scale.

The social media connection doesn’t seem to impact how the game is played to nearly the extent that the game implied it would, but it definitely impacts the story-telling. All of the narration and dialog is written in less-than-180-character bursts, and there is an option to tweet each line of the story through a built-in twitter function. To match with this, the language of the characters sounds like the way people actually talk on twitter—a little bit more hipster than I’d like to admit my twitter sounds like.

There’s an in-game option to read old dialog, which appears in feed chronology.

This idiosyncratic juxtaposition of twitter language with rustic, fantastical imagery and a soothing, wonderful soundtrack threw me and everyone for a loop; but I dug it. The idea of characters in a fantasy setting talking like modern humans makes no less sense to me than them talking in retarded-sounding old English. There’s also a lot of fourth wall breaking and general weirdness, but none of it seems out of place, because the game starts off by telling you that it’s meant to be a psycho-social experiment, and the bits you play are bookended by a narrator inviting you to each “session” of play.

Towards the start of this post, I name-dropped three of my favorite EPs, and I do think that S&S is worth listing beside them. Though S&S makes a point to be an EP, there are a number of games which could similarly wear the monicker—but none that I’ve played which I enjoy this much.

The other day, I compared a game that I love because its brilliant mechanics make it fun to play, against a game which I didn’t like because while it had great concepts, it was ultimately frustrating. Superbrothers has simple mechanics which aren’t tight or brilliant, but neither are they frustrating, and they do their job of servicing the game experience. Saying that the mechanics are merely unobtrusive isn’t a condemnation. If I could’ve said the same of Psychonauts, I would’ve had nothing negative to say about the game. It’s like an anime whose animation is only serviceable, but which is nonetheless excellent because it excels in many other ways.

Sword & Sworcery is a tiny and slow game. It takes place entirely in the span of about thirty screens, all set on one mountainside (albeit at times under different environmental conditions). It is driven by three or four simple mechanics, and much of the game is spent walking around (rather slowly) between the screens, taking in the sound and light. This alone is quite pleasant, but the real money is in a few big cinematic moments that wowed me. Moments like when, after ten minutes of solving a puzzle, the solution would activate a sudden, amazing happening, and the music would shift, the aspect ratio changing slightly, and the game told me how smart I was.

A lot of rating scales are based around a singularity of perfection. A game that gets a ten is the greatest game ever. The thing rated #1 is better than everything below. Over time, I’ve come to favor a system that goes, “very bad, bad, good, very good,” or an extension of this, such as the Baka-Raptor rating system, or Roger Ebert’s comparable four stars. Because not only does perfection not exist, but the idea of looking for it is boring, and stunts the analysis of how much one actually likes something.

Were I on a ten scale, I could never give an EP a ten out of ten, because for me, perfection would involve length. I happen to prefer long albums. This is a worthless way of thinking, because there are EPs that I would consider among my favorite albums, and it’s much more lovely to have them on the “very good” layer where they belong.

Sword & Sworcery is like that. It’s a short, tiny game, but I love it. I might even see myself playing it again, or at least enjoy watching someone else play it or recount their experience with it. Giving this game something like a seven out of ten on a grand scale of all video games is worthless. It’s just a very good EP of a game.

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6 thoughts on “The Meaning of EP (of Sword & Sworcery)

  1. Interesting. I never thought about the meaning of an EP so much. Currently the djent band TesseracT gets bashed for their EP “Perspective”, but like you explained (metal) bands do such things to experiment a bit and to see if the fanbase will like it or not. If it’s a failure, they won’t suffer too much because it’s just an EP.

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