When gamer evangelists insist that video games can be as absorbing as novels and movies, they’re usually talking about console fare like “L.A. Noire,” “BioShock” or “Assassin’s Creed.” These narrative games are indeed captivating. Even a reluctant gamer can lose days to them.
But that heady experience is rare on a mobile device. Mobile games feature about as much story as a cigarette. You play them nervously and in urgent drags. The biggest story in mobile games right now is a metastory: a national thriller about how the diabolical English developer King snatched hundreds of millions of innocent brains with its infernal hit, “Candy Crush Saga.”
(Ugh. Let’s never speak of that game again.)
But now there’s a popular game app that features a chic, cerebral, refined story. Device 6 is a multisensory mystery game that sticks to the ribs.
The best thing about Device 6 may be that it’s exactly just not too hard. Victory is elusive, but in reach. After five hours of play, I am just over halfway through.
While Device 6 can be played on a smartphone, the game is best on a tablet. You’ll find yourself peering into it, rotating it madly and concentrating deeply to catch secret messages buried in static. All of this reminds you of why you bought a tablet in the first place, and might even justify the purchase of one for someone on the fence. (Device 6 on the new iPad Air could make a nice Christmas present for a mom with a mystery-novel habit.)
A Device 6 player is, at heart, a reader. The game is an interactive book, with prose that branches off like a cross between e.e. cummings and “Choose Your Own Adventure."
The protagonist is Anna, a gutsy woman with a hangover and a headache. The player tracks her as she wakes up from a blackout in a shadowy castle. She prowls around trying to figure out what’s up — and how to get the heck out by answering riddles, cracking codes and solving “math” problems that are in fact arithmetic or the simplest algebra.
The game’s ambience is ingenious, evocative and chill-inducing, without being precious and “overdecorated” (as Anna observes of the castle). It’s no surprise that the hyperelegant Device 6 comes from design-delirious Sweden, where three years ago Simon Flesser and Magnus “Gordon” Gardeback formed Simogo. The game has something of Ingmar Bergman’s beloved “world of low arches, thick walls, the smell of eternity, the colored sunlight quivering above the strangest vegetation of medieval paintings and carved figures on ceilings and walls.”
The sprawling castle is a hoardery pile jammed with broken, weird, outmoded tech including Soviet-era computers. The graphics evoke the 1960s, the Cold War and James Bond, but the photographic element of the game also expresses '60s nostalgia for the 1930s and '40s.
This is a neat trick that only confident European design fiends could pull off. At one point, Anna comes on an R&D lab that makes toys or weapons or weaponized toys. It's creepy without being too on-the-nose horror flick.
The only drawback to the game’s being made by Swedes is that the English-language writing in Device 6 is plodding. Like the prose in too many games and apps, the prose here is a placeholder — not exactly Agatha Christie or Alan Furst.
What a shame. There must be someone great who could write the heck out of Device 7.