The new game by Swedish developer Simogo, previously responsible for the equally innovative Year Walk, is a stunning approach to interactive fiction, wrapped up in the stylistic trappings of 1960s modernist cinema. It’s a love song to the French New Wave, a movement that embraced the pulpy, hard-boiled American detective story, and married it with a sophisticated, completely out there European artistic sensibility.
Between this and Year Walk, Simogo have demonstrated that they couldn’t be more European if they tried, and it’s great to see such a strong sense of cultural identity, auteurship even, develop in their games.
Essentially a story told in six chapters, written by Simon Flesser and Jonas Tarestad, Device 6 lays out its text in architecturally and metaphorically interesting structures. The story’s protagonist is a girl named Anna who wakes up in a mysterious empty house. As you navigate the passages, they take on the shape of the layout of the environment they describe, with footsteps and ambient sound design giving a sense of place. Later a paragraph of text forms an elevator taking you into the bowels of a lighthouse, or a spiral staircase, scrolling around as you slide your finger upwards; simple moments that make you gasp with amazement.
Every aspect of Device 6 is festooned with clever, minimalist graphic design and a brilliant period score by Daniel Olsen that combine to create far more atmosphere than most big budget games struggle to capture. From the evocative opening credits, that provide a stylistic nod to Saul Bass whose work for Hitchcock’s Vertigo is legendary, to the embedded crackly black and white images that subtly parallax, giving the page’s texture and context, everything has been placed to build a very specific tone.
The feeling the game/text imparts is an atmosphere of intrigue and voyeuristic paranoia. Like the Prisoner, or its modern day counterpart Portal, Anna has been transplanted to a strange and unsettling place where she is being spied upon as part of some unfathomable experiment. It reminded me of the experience of watching the extremely unsettling Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais, a classic of high brow European cinema that sees an allegorical love triangle form and disintegrate in a dusty hotel full of mirrors, mannequins and discordant classical music. Meanwhile the ending seems to be a direct homage to Chris Marker’s La Jetée, which was famously used as the source material for Terry Gilliam’s dystopian classic Twelve Monkeys. Like Device 6, La Jetée makes the most out of minimal imagery, made up as it is of hundreds of still photographs. Between this and Year Walk, Simogo have demonstrated that they couldn’t be more European if they tried, and it’s great to see such a strong sense of cultural identity, auteurship even, develop in their games.
In his book Trigger Happy game critic Stephen Poole describes the way games bar your progress “as if you were reading a novel and being forced by some jocund imp at the end of each chapter to win a game of table tennis before being allowed to get back to the story.” Device 6 literally does this by scattering cryptographic puzzles throughout the narrative, which require you to scour the text for answers, then input them into tactile old fashioned machines. At one point you meet a man down a well who imagines you are the one requiring help, a nice metaphor for the leaps in logic required to solve the game’s surreal puzzles, which seem like they’ve come from the fever dreams of a mentally broken Professor Layton.
It’s a form of game design that could only really work on iPad or touch tablets, not only because the spatial logic of the game is so tethered to the shape of the screen and its interface, but because it plays with the device’s function as both an e-reader and a gaming platform. In short, it’s as though iBooks developed sentience as a mischievous AI, and is as thoroughly surprising and unsettling an experience as you could hope to have on that device.