US: 11 Mar 2016
The Swords by Lee-Kuo Chen is a mobile game that consists of nothing but swipes and taps, yet it tells an epic and intimate story—the story of a swordsman’s life from training, to warrior, to a master beyond all others. He tells his story through his collection of swords, the weapons that he’s used over the years, and each blade reflects on a specific part of his life.
As the man grows and learns, the art and mechanics of the game also grow, giving our simple swipes new contexts that add an impressive amount of nuance to a standard martial arts story.
The first sword made available to us is a plain iron sword. There’s nothing special about it, except for the fact that it’s our first sword. Its utilitarian look belies extreme sentimental value, as this is the weapon that starts us on our journey.
We start naturally with formal training, and as usual with these kinds of martial art stories, the training has nothing, yet everything, to do with sword fighting. I don’t know the exact language that the game asks us to write in, though I assume that it’s Mandarin since the developer is Chinese, but in any case, we’re writing an Asian language that’s typically penned with a brush. Those brush strokes are what we trace for practice. The game provides us with the outline of a symbol, and we time our swipes to guide a virtual brush to fill in the outline. We’re not learning how to fight just yet. We’re simply learning how to swing a sword, or more specifically in our case, we’re learning how to swipe.
The Wandering Warrior
The next sword that we see is more ornate and clearly stronger than the last one. It “radiates with a blue and shivering coldness”. This is a sword made for killing.
It may seem like a sudden leap to move from the most basic of basics to when our protagonist is a wandering swordsman—already skilled enough to protect peasants from thieves and highwaymen—but this is actually the moment in the martial arts movie when the training is revealed to have been immensely prescient. Enemy attacks come in on us from all sides. Spears move in straight lines across the screen, and we have to break these attacks before they reach the other side by swiping at each. We swipe up and down and left and right, as if we were drawing. Our training was clearly more practical than it initially seemed.
Our swipes say a lot about the swordsman’s personality. He doesn’t block the attacks; he breaks them, literally shattering the incoming spears into pieces. Our movements haven’t changed. We still swipe, as we did in training, timed in the same way that they were in training, but it is clear that the power behind those swings has changed considerably. The swordsman is a stronger fighter than the thieves, but not necessarily a smarter one. After all, we do still fight like we did in training; our technique is simple and uncomplicated. We win by brute force. We are young and strong and excited to show off our strength to the world, which is why we take to the roads as a wandering hero. Yes, we also want to do good and protect the innocent, but we also just want to kick a little ass too.
This character’s inexperience becomes obvious in the final battle during this sequence, in which the incoming spears are stronger, requiring multiple swipes before they break. Whereas before we could swipe with a purpose, waiting to line up our attack to shatter several spears at once, we now have to act faster and more frantically. This “boss” results in the most chaotic battle: a single strong line that zigs and zags while other lines flank us. The attacks come so fast that we’re forced to rub the screen like we’re scratching off a lotto ticket, lots of rapid and short swipes. We still win by breaking the enemy, but it’s not an elegant victory. When strength is the only thing that separates us from our opponents, our advantage is fleeting. We’re not as strong as we think that we are.
Our swipes come to symbolize the exuberance and naiveté of youth.
The Skilled Warrior
Now that our hero knows his limitations, he can work to improve them. The third sword is long and “twirls when he turns his wrist.” It’s further described as a “soft sword.” We clearly won’t be shattering anything with this weapon.
The third sword is all about precision. Enemy attacks don’t fly in from the sides, in fact there are no immediate enemy attacks at all. Instead, two points appear on screen, a start and an end: The starting point represents us and our sword, and the end point represents the enemy. Between them are several V shaped obstacles, rotated at different angels. The goal is to draw a line from the starting point and to maneuver it through the wide openings of the V shapes before ending at our enemy. And we must draw fast. There may not be any obvious incoming attacks, but we’re still in danger. We’re on a timer, and if we don’t strike first with our killing blow the enemy will strike us with their own killing blow.
Mechanically, this plays like a combination of and an evolution of the past two levels. We’re drawing lines similar to the first sword, but instead of drawing in distinct swipes, lifting our finger after every move, we’re linking each move to the next to create a single flowing path. We’re writing in cursive instead of freehand.
The exact curvature of our writing is determined by the placement and rotation of the V shapes. They fade into view one at a time, showing us the order in which we must hit them, requiring us to use the pattern recognition and timing taught by the second sword. Previously, those attacks would come in from the sides in waves, and a well-placed, well-timed swipe could break a whole group at once. Now, with Vs appearing all over the screen one at a time, each new shape that fades in complicates our path. We can’t start drawing until we know where we’re going. Before we were encouraged to swipe as fast as possible, but now we’re being asked to wait—to be patient until we see the whole picture.
The third sword is about tempering our power with patience. We’re literally looking for openings in the enemy’s defense. The swordsman is no longer defined by his strength, his ability to shatter his opponents’ weapons, but rather by his ability to avoid their weapons all together and strike the one wielding it. Combat becomes about efficiency rather than brute power; a more intelligent kind of combat that emphasizes observation and planning.
This sword is the first to highlight the elegance and beauty of the weapon—the dance of the fight. The movement of drawing is a surprisingly effective approximation of a fight. Our drawing often moves in circles and spirals, around us and around our enemy, then swings from side to side quickly, as if dancing a jig. You can almost see the fighters spinning around each other until we pass through all the defenses, all the openings, and get in our killing blow.
First we had the strength, now we have the technique. We’ve matured into a true swordsman. What other challenges could possibly await us?
War. The swordsman is enlisted to fight in a war and carries with him a giant black blade.
As before, attacks are represented by arrows streaking across the screen, and we have to slash them away before they reach the opposite side. Combat in war is similar to combat on the road, fighting is fighting, but now there are a greater number and variety of attackers. The level called Rock Catapults tosses just a few thick, slow lines at you, while Storm of Arrows chucks a group of thin, quick lines. The Battle of Rangers consists of many thin lines, now flying straight rather than in a gentle arc. The games uses its simple stark visuals to emphasize trajectory, and trajectory tells us quite a bit about our opposition.
Combat in war may be similar to combat on the road, but the swordsman is not that same wandering warrior that he used to be. He’s now learned precision and timing, when to strike—efficiency over flurry. Despite the increased number of attacks at once, we’re only allowed one swipe per level. One swipe to block every attack. However, it’s a powerful swipe. We’re not using our ornate sword, the thin blade designed for precision. We’re using a giant great sword that gashes a third of the screen, destroying everything in its path.
The great sword acts as a combination of the past two forms of combat. The swordsman channels the strength of his wandering warrior days, destroying and breaking attacks, but he channels it through the filter of his skilled warrior days. We only have one attack, the angle of our swipe has to connect with every incoming line, thick and thin, so patience and observation are key to victory. He watches, waits, and then attacks with all the power in the world.
In one clever level, we face an invincible arrow. Each hit merely deflects it rather than destroys it. In order to win, we have to angle and time our swipes to contain it, bouncing it back and forth like some sideshow game. Yet again, we see that strength is fleeting, that there are others stronger than us, but now, we know how to handle them. Skill beats strength.
However, despite our new found patience, this is still a war, and war is about survival, not elegance. In the final level, we’re inundated with arrows and rocks and attacks of every type from every angle, wave after wave of them, but we’re no longer limited to one gash. We can go all out, wielding the power of the great sword without limit or hesitation.
It’s a frightening ending, and a sad arc for the swordsman. At first, the war is a test that showcases his skill and control, but eventually the chaos and violence becomes too much for him and he’s forced to let go of that control. It’s a step back.
In the short scene that plays afterwards, we see the swordsman standing on a hill of rubble and broken flags. The narrator reads to us: “At the battle of Sunrise, the [swordsman] led a team of raiders and charged into the enemy’s camp. He courageously ended the war, but never used this sword since for all the killings.” Such hesitation is understandable. His strength and skill make him dangerous, so dangerous that he can take on an entire enemy encampment, so dangerous that he can become a war hero, so dangerous that he himself has become the weapon, not the sword.
Now, tired of all the violence, he steps away from combat altogether.
The penultimate sword brings us full circle, back to our training. This transition is represented by a simple wooden sword.
As a teacher, the swordsman’s strength becomes a moot point. Firstly, he’s now a great war hero, so he doesn’t have to prove himself to his students. Secondly, this new role requires him to go easy, as he doesn’t want to kill his students. Thirdly, teaching prioritizes technique over strength—the expression of an idea as a lesson over evidence of physical capability. As such, there will be no breaking of swords and no shattering slashes in this level. We’re past all that killing. Instead, we focus on deflecting, and this is the first explicitly defensive level since our own training.
The swordsman is represented by a circle at the center of the screen. His sword is a dot, orbiting around him at a consistent speed and direction, as if he were holding out his arms and spinning. When we touch the screen the dot extends outwards in a larger arc. Letting go drops the dot back into its original orbit. Attacks come in from the sides of the screen, as usual, and we must deflect them using the dot, timing our extensions and retractions so that the two shapes collide.
This is very clearly an evolution of the mechanics from the Skilled Warrior level. The emphasis here is again on observation and timing, but in a more complex manner. Instead of just tracing a path as fast as we can, we now have to judge distance and speed and how those two variables interact. The dot slows as it grows out and speeds up as it falls back into orbit. This nuance of control is required for certain levels, making this training sword the hardest weapon that we’ve wielded so far.
What’s particularly impressive about all of this is how the game makes us repeat actions from previous levels, but with an entirely new control scheme. We’re blocking attacks just like when we were a wandering warrior, and we’re timing that block just like when we were a skilled warrior, but we’re performing these actions without swiping. There’s a complete avoidance of the gestures that we’ve come to associate with violence, emphasizing the swordman’s new found pacifism. We’re still blocking, still fighting, still participating in the dance of combat, but in a new, non-lethal form.
With his enemies defeated and his students taught and his skills honed beyond all opposition, the swordsman—now grandmaster—retreats into a solitary life with the one thing that can still challenge him: Nature herself.
The final sword is no sword, and our final opponents are falling leaves and snowflakes and the wind, providing a relentless wave of targets that never falter or flee. It’s fitting that this is another level focused on defense. We don’t actually fight Nature. We simply survive for some amount of time against her army of vicious leaves.
It sounds funny, but the fact is that this is the by far the hardest level in the game. The natural world is truly unrelenting. We’re still swiping and tapping, throwing leaves like knives and stabbing snowflakes, but now those techniques are pushed to such an extreme they just might make your arm hurt. It’s brutally difficult to block every piece of frozen ice before it hits the ground, but that’s the point.
Our grandmaster can defeat Nature in this moment, but not forever. This is an enemy that he can’t truly win against. Eventually, he will falter and fail and die, but not before he passes his lessons and story on to another, reviewing his life through the swords that he’s held, explaining the importance of each, showing a new young swordsman the path to grandmastery.
That’s the life of the swordsman, epic in scope thanks to a story that uses its tropes to cover a vast swath of time. It becomes intimate in detail thanks to smart controls that make us feel each stage of his growth. The Swords is a short game with a simple title that hides a wealth of beauty.