Simogo reinvents itself yet again with weird, wild Device 6

Two Simogo titles illuminated new possibilities for iOS games in the same year -- with only two people on the core team. Simon Flesser discusses Device 6, the studio's latest weird, wonderful experiment.
The best way to see the strength of touchscreen platforms, like iOS devices, is to play games that haven't just been designed with the platform in mind, but that couldn't exist on any other platform. Simogo's latest title, Device 6, goes a step further than that: It's the kind of experience that consistently subverts ideas about games that live in a little square of touchable light, and the shape they can take. The Swedish studio has slowly built a reputation with diverse and distinctive iOs games: Its early titles Kosmo Spin, Bumpy Road and Beat Sneak Bandit were united by a vibrant, cute handicraft feel, and the latter won Best Mobile Game in the 2012 Independent Game Festival. Simogo didn't want to be pinned down to a single aesthetic; it decided to take a hard left turn from its tonal portfolio with Year Walk, a puzzle-solving horror adventure rooted in Swedish folktales that released earlier this year, earning critical acclaim and an excellence in visual art nomination in this year' IGF. But Simogo still had Device 6 in it: a vivid, high-end iOS game in the studio this year that again demonstrates its talent for consistent self-reinvention and versatilty. Everyone there must be very proud. "Everyone here is just me and Gordon [Gardeback]," says the company's co-founder Simon Flesser. Wait, really? All this time, just the two of them? Five lovely games in just over three years? Year Walk and Device 6 had Jonas Tarestad on story and script collaboration, and Daniel Olsen created the music for both titles (Flesser had done music on his own for Simogo's prior work). Device 6 in particular features a bizarre and climactic showstopper by Jonathan Eng -- but other than that, design and development has been all Flesser and Gardeback's work. In a way, Simogo feels more like a design firm than a game development "studio", exactly -- an eye to very specific aesthetics, constant self-reinvention. Device 6 is an especially unique foray -- it's an interactive story with puzzles, sound and visual effects, influenced by 1960s spy fiction, the unique surrealism of The Prisoner, and the texture of Judy Schlansky's book "Atlas of Remote Islands".

The player arrives in a mysterious mansion, which leads over red carpets and through creepy parlors, out across an island garden and into a classic gilded movie theater. Mysterious sci-fi elements overlap gently with vintage gadget culture and the seeds of a dreamlike psychological thriller throughout. It's hard to explain the way Device 6's verbiage sprawls to create a sense of physical space, with impeccable sound design elements helping enforce each area's discrete areas as the player's asked to turn the iPad to follow words that lengthen, curl and hum across distances. Touching and pulling reveals intricate details in tiny windows that appear vibrant and alive, cutouts that create depth in the experience of reading. Sometimes clues to progress are contained within the prose itself, at other times concealed within the sparse and graceful images that surface alongside the text. Puzzles sit clearly within each area, and players have to look, touch and read to devise the solutions that allow them to move on. Flesser says the earliest files for Device 6 date just after the completion of Year Walk, so the pair was already on to the next project right as the first one had finished. "[It] was definitely a game concept before it was a story, and we wrote the story to fit," he says. Year Walk had a companion app alongside it, offering a guide to the game's lore. It was a big inspiration for Device 6, says Flesser, in that he and his colleague wanted to move further into the direction of text-based minimalism, "something based on telling rather than showing," and that created a sense of place even when the primary interaction was reading. "We knew we wanted to make something with a little bit of a Cold War vibe, but still be ambivalent about when it takes place," says Flesser. The game employs some of Simogo's own photos, snapped in a local basement flower shop, and "odd stuff" from flea markets combined with paid texture libraries -- old technology, "lovely creepy dolls and monkeys". The game's narrative manages to balance the logic of a multinational corporation exploring mind control technology, with absurdist elements, like stuffed bears containing voice devices, haunting toys and paintings. device 6 1.jpgThe "text maps" conceit of the game was particularly interesting to the pair to create -- "when you're scrolling, the story is progressing, but you are also traversing geographically... so what happens when you're backtracking? Are you rewinding time, or has it been set already? That concept felt really interesting," Flesser says. "The basic concept is something you can prototype quite easily without the interactive elements." At the end of each level, the game demands you rate and review it -- but not in actual interface with the App Store. Rather, to attain "points", players score the game's "graphics", "replayability" and other factors in a fashion you suspect is just window-dressing for the player's relationship to the machine (both narratively and literally) and their own agency within the experience. On one level, Device 6 can be read as fashionable commentary on our relationship with interactive entertainment itself. It's unique and should be experienced -- "People criticize [our games] for being short, though," Flesser reflects. That's probably why some subtle criticisms of checklist-style reviewing are encapsulated so deftly within Device 6: "That kind of thing suggests, to me, that all games should have to fit within a certain box," he says. "And I don't like that."

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