Review: Device 6

By Owen Faraday 05 Nov 2013 0
"If this was all a test, what was the point of it?" "If this was all a test, what was the point of it?"

Fair warning: there's spoilers in here. Device 6 is the one of the year's most unusual and original games, and it deserves your attention. I'm going to be totally crass and just deadline my review right here and tell you that the score at the bottom is a 4 out of 5, and that if you like puzzle games, adventures, or interactive fiction, you should probably just totter over to the App Store and buy Device 6 without reading any further.

If you're the sort who doesn't shy away from spoilers (or you've already finished the game), then let's talk about Device 6.

Device 6 is a game about games, and about us, the people that play them. That's not really what I was expecting pre-release -- after the eerie and personal Year Walk, I expected a slightly more intimate story from Simogo writer Simon Flesser. But no, Device 6 is about us, but there's no intimacy here. It's viewing us through a microscope.

"Anna felt she had no choice but to continue." "Anna felt she had no choice but to continue."

The game is hard to encapsulate within a genre -- it's mostly text, which you read like a work of fiction, but the words change orientation frequently, obliging you to flip your iPad or iPhone around to scroll the words and reveal the next bit of the story. Each chapter of the game is dotted with a handful of puzzles which you'll need to travel back and forth through the text to solve. There's a couple of really obtuse ones, but most of the sleuthing in Device 6 is relatively basic and I suspect that the average time for completing the whole thing isn't far north of a couple of hours.

The text of Device 6 is written in flat, straightforward prose, stripped of any embellishment. We're reading the story of Anna, who (like many video game protagonists) has awoken in a strange place of which she has no memory -- an island that is sinister and surreal. We follow Anna as she clomps around the island's towers and mansions, more annoyed about the lack of cigarettes than concerned for her safety.

What's engrossing about the writing is not to do with the workmanlike way it's written, but with the way it's been set. When Anna runs across a long narrow bridge, the text condenses down to a long single line which you sweep along as you read. When Anna stops to catch her breath and take in a remarkable vista, the text forms a solid page, encouraging you to slow down and read it leisurely. Because of the way the text layout manipulates you, you embody the protagonist of Device 6 more fully than any other work of digital interactive fiction you've ever read.

You aren't Anna though -- you're someone else. You're someone else having an experience identical to hers, which is the whole point of Device 6.

There's a moment in Device 6 where you seem to have done something potentially quite violent -- but then nothing happens. There's a moment in Device 6 where you seem to have done something potentially quite violent -- but then nothing happens.

"You're one in a million," you're told at one point in the game -- though the real message here is that you're one of a million. There are interludes between chapters that solicit your input "in the interest of improving the product" -- of course, they don't do anything at all, we're all getting the exact same product. Thousands of people might have finished Device 6 by now, all taking the same path, making the same decisions, and being led around by the nose.

The whimsical layout of the text is all part of this -- what clearer sign of your subservience to Device 6 than the way it forces you to spin your iPad around like a circus seal with a ball? (If you hated Warhammer Quest's flip-to-inventory, you should probably steer well clear of Device 6.)

At the end of the game, we're offered an illusion of choice, but no matter which way we choose, Device 6 brings us neatly back to the beginning of the story to wend the same path again. Why do we bother?, the game seems to ask.

Device 6 is asking an interesting question -- albeit an odd one that it answers itself. Why do we prize games that give us an illusion of choice when there really isn't any choice at all? In Device 6, the answer is that the ride through that illusion is very lovely indeed, and well worth taking. Simogo must get that, or they wouldn't have put so much effort into making Device 6 so visually and aurally attractive.

Like all Simogo games, Device 6 has been made with an eye for craftsmanship that few game developers on iOS possess. Being mostly text, the game entices us with occasional windows into the physical world of the island through which we see the puzzles and the odd prop. What little we're allowed to see through the holes that have been cut in the pages we're reading is often disturbing, sometimes beautiful, and I always wanted to see just a bit more of it.

I wonder if Simogo is actually collecting these answers. I wonder if Simogo is actually collecting these answers.

As extraordinary as Device 6 is, playing it is quite ungainly. It's a game that demands the sound to be on and benefits tremendously from a dark room and headphones where it can be given the attention it deserves. Flipping your phone or tablet around to pursue the text gets a bit old, but it's worth putting up with to see the puzzles, a couple of which are quite memorable -- the "Welcoming Words" conundrum elicited a stand-up-and-fist-pump Eureka moment when I solved it.

So did I actually choose anything in Device 6? No, but that didn't stop me from enjoying it. In Breakfast of ChampionsVonnegut writes: "[I]t is exhausting, having to reason all the time in a universe which wasn't meant to be reasonable." There's nothing wrong with taking a ride once in a while.

Review: Device 6

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