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October 22, 2013

Notes on Device 6

I played through Simogo's Device 6 over a couple of days last weekend on my iPad. It was delightful. The post below contains spoilers for some of the delightful visual gimmicks it contains. I'll signpost the big ones, but in general it would be better if you could go off and enjoy the whole thing freshly for yourself, and then come back and read.

Even though I grew up with text adventures, I haven't played one in quite some time -- I occasionally open up a version of Frotz with an old Infocom game, but that's mostly for nostalgia and no longer for genuine exploration of the form¹. I've played through some Twine games, notably Zoë Quinnzel's Depression Quest and Cara Ellison's Sacrilege, and though I think there's some great work going on there, I'm not deeply into that community, either, and I think you have to be, to a degree, to be exposed to the best of that or even really to know what's going on².

That said, I've often found text to be one of the best game mechanisms for promoting all sorts of feelings, perhaps explicitly because it eschews chasing a visual realism and instead interacts with the imagination, just as novels do. I jot down a sentence such as, "The crocodile catches your leg in his teeth" and you might just have a jolt of panic if you're invested. It's also possible that I just read a lot, I suppose.

I should not have been surprised that someone found a way to freshen up those old text adventure games, removing one of the most significant barriers in that finicky parser and marrying text to an infinite canvas with a little multimedia dashed in for good measure. But I was. I picked up Device 6 on the strength of Swedish developer Simogo's earlier work in Beat Sneak Bandit and Year Walk, two iPad experiences that have won awards and distinguished themselves with unique visual aesthetics. Their strength in visual aesthetics is particularly on display here in an opening sequence that reminded me of nothing so much as the opening credits of a Danger Man/Secret Agent Man or The Prisoner or the Bond films, but which doesn't much represent the play or visuals of the game proper.

To understand the game's appeal you need to know just the barest amount about its story, which starts with a young woman³ named Anna who awakens in a tower room of a castle by the ocean. She has no idea how she's gotten there. We learn this through a couple of paragraphs of text, and as Anna goes exploring, so too do we, dragging the canvas of text around following sentence lines. The interaction here isn't "read at your own pace and then tell me where to go," but "read and drag along with the story." It's a simple concept, wonderfully done, and soon you're dragging in various directions, reorienting the iPad in your hands as you do so4. The pure play is wonderful, exploring the space of the canvas while you simultaneously explore the physical space that the text on that canvas represents. It tickles two parts of your brain at the same time, in much the same way as Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves did, though here the digital format allows for an even wider range of possibilities.

Delight-spoiling mention begins here

I was especially struck by two passages that wouldn't have been possible in a traditional printed text. The first was when, having been in control of my movement through the story and canvas during the entirety of the game, I was treated to an animated descent via an elevator. That this occurred immediately after a chapter transition only heightened the surprise and the delight,and it happened deep enough into the game that I was beginning to feel as if I had seen and heard all it had to offer. It was reinforced by audio of a descending elevator. Fantastic.

The other gasp-inducing delight occurred very close to the end, when both the protagonist and I climbed a spiral staircase, which was represented in the text as a three-dimensional spiral, where it was as if I were rotating a transparent tube on the surface of which was printed the description. This was amazing; it was like a flourish at the end of a long jazz performance, when the musicians should be all tired out, a last wink at the audience to let them know they're really quite good.

End delight-spoiling mention

You encounter images that scroll by in parallaxed windows, as well as various technical drawings of the implementations of "devices," such as the one in the title. The former are largely where the various progress-gating puzzles which permit passage through the game's six chapters; they are a perfect marriage of the memory limitations of the device and creating the sense of place5. At times you only gain full view of an image by scrolling back and forth, as if you're peering around the corner of a window frame to take in just a little more of the view.

This isn't a puzzle-dense game, and the chapters are short. The challenges aren't terribly difficult, but challenge isn't remotely the fun to be had here; had I been too stumped by any single spot, I might have been tempted to put it down for awhile, rather than devouring it in a couple sittings as I did. It would have worked against the spell it cast on me.

Discussion of the framing premise which is a little spoilery, too

The frame around all of this is that the character you play, Player249, is experiencing Anna's adventure through means of a series of devices, the last of which is the Device 6 of the title. Of course, you the player are yourself experiencing Player249's adventure through a device of your own choosing. At the end of each chapter, there are little questionnaires with often bizarre premises which remind you of this fact (and often make you chuckle). The maker of these devices (The "HAT Corporation") also calls to mind Réné Magritte's Son of Man/Man in the bowler hat painting; this feels deliberate, especially when you consider the appearance of a man at the very end of the story and the callback to the painting's ocean setting. Very cleverly done. I love such allusions.

End of framing premise discussion

If you've read this far, I do hope it's because you've gone off and played the game. If you haven't, you absolutely should. It's a reminder of just how gigantic this continent of games can be if we're still finding wonderful things to do with text.

¹I've even fiddled with Inform7 a bit, but haven't produced any genuine work.
²I have some notes on a small Twine game. Writing this bit makes me think maybe it's time to start work on it. Ugh. So many ideas, so little time.
³Perhaps a spy, based on the introductory movie.
4This is my only complaint; I played the game on my latest generation iPad, with headphones in, and between the weight of the device and the cable, I would either drop it into my lap or occasionally get tangled up in the wires. A better experience might be had on the lighter Mini, though I think the screen of a Touch or a Phone would be too small for me.
5I've not developed a game for an iDevice, though I'm familiar with some of the OS restrictions in terms of working memory. In this case, still black and white or subdued in tone photos are given the qualities of film by clever procedural filtering. The image brightens and darkens as if projected by a projector, and little bits of fuzz and imperfection are overlaid on top. This is all done procedurally but gives the images a liveliness that, while not entirely fitting with one of the premises (why projected film in a space this main character is exploring), nonetheless fits the other (I'm experiencing this through a device which mediates her experience in such a way that I get some abstraction of it). Immensely clever.

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:56 AM | Comments (0)