Textual orientation: The making of DEVICE 6

Simogo on the secrets behind its page turner

Textual orientation: The making of DEVICE 6

Beyond its intentionally unsettling nature, at first glance DEVICE 6 – Simogo's latest iOS hit – appears to have little real connection to the studio's previous critically acclaimed release Year Walk.

Closer inspection reveals that there is, in fact, a thread that ties the two together: puzzles.

DEVICE 6 is a unique spin on the text adventure template, with the words becoming the path along which the player travels, rotating their device and scrolling along the text to both advance the story and explore the world it inhabits.

It's the kind of concept that, even during this comparatively daring age of mobile development, is unlikely to have made it beyond the drawing board at a bigger outfit. Yet, for this particular Swedish studio, DEVICE 6 has helped cement its position as one of iOS's most creative forces.

We speak to Simon Flesser, who makes up one half of Simogo, to tell a different story: how DEVICE 6 made the transition from the real pages of its design documents to the fictitious pages the game lays out on iOS.

Prototype device

"When we had finished up Year Walk, we felt that there were still more to explore by telling as story via text, as we had done with the companion app," explains Flesser.

"So, we started talking about how we'd turn that into more of a game, and not just a regular text based game.

"At the same time I was reading a book called Atlas Of Remote Island, by Judy Schalansky, and I really loved the concept of that book. You feel like you're remotely exploring places, and the sense of being there is actually stronger than most games that just go ahead and show everything. So we started to think about how that feeling could be captured in a game.

"So we talked about books, maps, and how to merge that. And came up with the concept of text maps. We found it interesting how you'd be moving about in an environment and at the same time progress the story. So the player would actually be 'scrubbing' both time and space simultaneously, which we found super fascinating."

Simogo: Magnus Gardeback (sat down) and Simon Flesser

Of course, a single book wasn't the only inspiration for such an ambitious and different project. When we played, flickers of James Bond and flashes of TV show Lost appeared to break through.

These aren't the exact influences, Flesser reveals, but the real inspirations aren't too far removed.

"I was pretty obsessed, and still am, by The Prisoner at that time," Flesser says. "So that was a strong influence.

"I re-watched Twin Peaks during the project so that has probably been a bit influential too. Agatha Christie - mainly And Then There Were None - Franz Kafka's The Trial, Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island ... and just generally British spy fiction.

"I mean, for the general vibe. Escape room type of games too. Mainly 999 for the DS if you've played that. It's great."

Obviously, a more direct inspiration on DEVICE 6 was Simogo's previous work with Year Walk, which laid the foundations in regard to the way the player navigates through the game's world.

"I guess you can easily see how the way you interact and move about is quite similar," admits Flesser.

"One of the things we decided early on was to divide the game into chapters, as having an open world causes a lot of headaches, in that you have to be very aware of all the weird stuff a player can do, that they're not supposed to.

"I think just generally the experience of having made something more adventure-ish and story-based helped a lot too."

Tools to solve puzzles

Once the seed of the idea started to form, it took Simogo - with a small team - six months to finish making the game.

Said team was made up of six people: the founders of Simogo, Simon Flesser and Magnus "Gordon" Gardebäck, Jonas Tarestad (writer), Daniel Olsén (music), Jonathan Eng (one song) and Åsa Wallander (the logo).

As well as the main team, others also helpedout with proofreading and providing the voices for the various characters or (more commonly) recordings the player stumbles across. Many of the voices were provided by Yann Seznac from Scottish studio Lucky Frame of Bad Hotel fame.

The game was made in Unity, with the addition of Maya, Photoshop, Audacity and Audition also thrown in for good measure. On top of this, there was a lot of pen and paper planning during the prototype stages – as a rule, Simogo is a big fan of conceptualising with simple tools.

The studio admits opting to use Unity did throw up a few problems, but overall, Flesser was happy with the firm's choice of tools.

"Font rendering was, to be frank, very poor in Unity," admits Flesser. "So we had to go through some hoops there. We had to make our own column alignment, and at start we even had to edit the font in odd ways to make it render in way that just didn't look awful.

"We ended up using a plug-in for text rendering, ditching Unity's font rendering altogether, in the middle of the project."

Flesser says he wouldn't have used a different engine but, in retrospect, he would have explored other options or plug-ins for font rendering.

I spy fiction

The main draw of DEVICE 6 isn't in its unique visual style, however. Rather, the big pull is the game's story, which – along with the way it's told – helps set the game apart from other iOS efforts.

Despite the story's prominence, however, the way Simogo approached laying out the game's narrative wasn't all too different to that of any other title. The studio started with a list of things it wanted to portray in the game before settling on a final script.

"We actually wrote the story to fit the ideas and messages we had in mind," says Flesser. "And I think that's why it works so well. Everything in the game, including interactions, puzzles and the hardware is part of the narrative. It's a collage of ideas and things, like most pieces of art or products tend to be.

"Me and Jonas outlined the story and then Jonas wrote most of them, with me acting as sort of an editor, and rewriting things, sometimes really large portions, to fit the puzzles and layouts we had in mind. But we had decided upon everything first, and I even drew primitive maps so we'd get a sense for everything.

"I think the case for both DEVICE 6 and Year Walk has been that the story has been outlined, and then out of luck story bits fall into places. I mean, when you find holes in the plot, and you have to fill those in some way, and then all of a sudden it solves more than one problem."

Flesser doesn't believe the story is vague, but admits that it would take more than one playthrough to piece the whole thing together.

"We find the concept of a puzzle story really fascinating," says Flesser.

"Most things are actually there, but it's a bit fragmented, and I guess you'd have to play it two or three times to piece it all together. We like to keep things a bit elegant and not let the players feel stupid."

Such an approach is evident in the way DEVICE 6 chooses not to inform the player what time period it's set within.

The game's surroundings give off an undoubted Cold War vibe - missile launchers and crackled voice recordings all in check - yet the blueprints for the devices that show up at the side of the text will looks instantly familiar to any Apple aficionado.

"That's another thing that we wanted to be really vague," says Flesser. "We wanted it to have this very strong Cold War or 1960s vibe, but still be very ambivalent about when it's actually set."

And contrasting with this modern day/Cold War mash-up, there's the otherworldly appearance of creepy robotic dolls and mannequins, giving the game a horror edge.

War is cold

"Some of Anna's - the protagonists - comments are actually just my comments to Jonas in a way, so that's a bit meta too," says Flesser.

"She says 'enough with the dolls and mannequins already', somewhere in the game. I mean, it's just wonderfully absurd how a high tech corporation would use something as primitive as dolls in their endeavours."

Not that the addition of such strange characteristics should surprise anyone that's taken on a Simogo title. Equally eerie – asking how players "rate the game so far" at the end of chapters. It's a move devised to comment on companies like Apple who, for better or worse, live and die by the ratings of their customers.

But does this test serve another purpose? Are the answers given used as genuine feedback?

"They are all part of the narrative, and there to power the ideas of the game" says Flesser, sidestepping the issue of whether said information is used before being disposed of. Indeed, there's an air of mystery around Simogo that, it seems, Flesser enjoys portraying.

It's something that extends down to the fact that Flesser has no official title at Simogo – a fact that caused this particular writer a few difficulties, it has to be said.

Much of Flesser's reluctance to give definitive answers, of course, stems from an intention to avoid spoiling the game for those yet to download it – something that's especially key for a game built around narrative.

Flesser is willing to admit, however, that the story is a comment on big corporations - not necessarily Apple - and the power they hold.

"I mean, you can look at it as if it's a comment on Apple specifically, but I don't think it is," reveals Flesser. "It's more of a comment on a lot of things in our society as whole, and some of the things fit the bill."

He goes on to explain that he doesn't want to spell it out completely, as he would like the community to come up with its own theories and interpretations, but DEVICE 6 certainly makes reference to how modern technology eats information.

"It's a game very much questioning things that are happening in the digital age," says Flesser. "And how very few don't really care anyway, and how a lot of questionable things are being disguised as entertainment, and in what means you are paying for this entertainment."

Lighthouse rock

Besides the general concept, one element the studio was especially keen to get into play was a song performed by Jonathan Eng - a looping performance of an original song performed for the game (a rare occurrence in games in general, but even more so for iOS ) that's hypnotic, catchy and strangely surreal.

"The scene with Jonathan was decided really early on," reveals Flesser. "I think actually most of the things made it in, in the end.

"I think we just thought the idea of having a proper performance in the game was very appealing. Very few games have done that: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and No More Heroes are the only ones I can think of."

It's definitely a memorable moment. One that ensures the song in question will refuse to leave your head for day after hearing it, looping endlessly.

"It turned out very very good," Flesser says. "Jonathan [Eng] is amazing. It was produced by Daniel Olsén, who made the rest of the music in the game. They made stuff for Year Walk too last time, but we thought it'd be fun to bring them together this time."

And what about next time? "That's a good question," says Flesser. "Tossing a few ideas around at the moment. Not quite sure! It'll probably be a bit until 'The Next Big Thing' - we have a few small things we want to do in between. Just trying out different stuff, not necessarily games.

"Being such a small studio everything takes time! This week we're hoping to have the DEVICE 6 soundtrack out, for example."

Whatever Simogo does decide to do next, one thing's for sure: we can't wait to turn the page on the studio's next chapter.

Contributing Writer

Kirk is a writer of many words and grower of many hairs. He manages to juggle family life with his passion for video games and writing. From the mobile indie scene to triple-A blockbusters, his life ambition is to play ALL the games. Yes, all of them.