One In a Million

Device 6 is what I imagine all the books on The Island in The Prisoner were like. (In other words: it’s amazing).

Simogodevice6

Device 6 is a painfully good game for iOS by Simogo. It’s almost too good to be a mobile game, but at the same time it could only work on a phone or a tablet. And it might be the most mind-bogglingly imaginative game I’ve played since Portal 2, which something I never would’ve thought I’d say about an iOS game.

It helps that all of its inspirations are things I love or things that I desperately want to love. It’s most evocative of The Prisoner, not just with its basic premise and its fantastic opening credits sequence, but with its overall aesthetic: an uneasy combination of old Europe with “mod” Europe, 60s spy stories, weird 50s sci-fi, early Apollo program technology, and unnerving surrealism. It also reminded me of old science textbooks (back when the typography alone was interesting) and the first series of Look Around You.

Structurally, it’s a combination of interactive fiction and graphic adventure. Any random screenshot taken from the game out of context is going to look like a page from House of Leaves. But where the typographical tricks in that book seemed like nothing more than postmodern affectations — I’ve got to acknowledge that I found House of Leaves insufferable and abandoned it after around 50 pages — in Device 6 it serves a purpose.

The type forms a physical space as you’re reading about that space: sentences narrow as you enter hallways, flip as you turn corners, and then do even more imaginative stuff than that as the story progresses. (My friend Brett Douville talks about his favorite bits in a spoiler-heavy post on his blog). Once you’ve finished a passage, you can (and will have to) navigate through it as you go back and forth to get information to solve the puzzles.

It’s an ingenious way to achieve the “mode switch” that helps make graphic adventures so appealing: the sense of discovery as you explore a space, and then the sense of accomplishment as you go back through the space and put together the pieces of what you just learned. And it does it all through text and a few perfectly-chosen photographs.

The photos are brilliant, but if I got into explaining why it’s so clever how they use parallax both for mood and puzzle-solving and to give you a sense that you’re looking into a real 3D space, then I’d have to also mention the terrific sound design. And the clever interstitials between chapters. And the music. And then we’re getting into spoiler territory.

As for the puzzles: I know plenty of people who love puzzles. Put them anywhere near a cipher or a logic problem, and they go into a fugue state, furiously scrawling unintelligible symbols into a notebook until they’ve found the solution. I’m not one of those people. I don’t hate puzzles, but whenever I’m faced with one, I’m less likely to think “oh boy!” than “oh man, do I have to?”

Seeing as how I’ve spent the bulk of my career working on adventure games, this would seem like a pretty big problem. Kind of like an Italian chef who never really developed a taste for tomatoes. I’ve always seen the ideal puzzle as being something that delivered a joke (as with Monkey Island 2), something that was so integrated into the story as to hide the fact that it was a puzzle in the first place (as with Day of the Tentacle), or something that called attention to the artificiality of the puzzles and used that artificiality to its advantage (like Portal and Portal 2).

Playing Device 6, I found myself grabbing a note pad and furiously scrawling unintelligible symbols onto it until I’d found a solution to each chapter. It wasn’t the puzzles themselves that were so engrossing — frankly, none of the puzzles will be unfamiliar to you if you’ve played puzzle-based video games before — but that they were both integrated into the story and drew attention to their own artificiality to perpetuate the uneasy paranoia and surrealism of the game.

And I think overall, it’s the way Device 6 artfully combines all its elements and influences that makes it work so well. I completely lost track of time, but I’d guess I spent around 3 hours total on it, and it was full of clever moments that took me by surprise. I’d highly recommend it for anyone using iOS.

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