Before the Clue
by HELEN SCHUMACHER
creators Simon Flesser & Magnus Gardebäck
It opens with Anna waking to find herself in a castle tower with no recollection of how she got there. She begins to wander through the structure’s stone corridors searching for a clue that will explain the where and why of her predicament. But before there can be a clue, there must be a labyrinth; any proper labyrinth must have its island. And so, like the puzzle-based video games before it and like those still to come, Device 6 — an iOS app by the Swedish game developer Simogo — has set Anna in a labyrinth on an island to gather clues and solve the game’s brainteasers.
While the game may be rooted in the Greek mythology of Minos, its posture is more le Carré-ian. As the plot moves forward, the player comes to learn that the labyrinth and its puzzles are an obstacle course for new recruits to join the HAT organization, an intelligence agency dedicated to experiments into free will. HAT is seemingly run by a character with a bowler hat fetish and penchant for turning children’s toys into weaponry — a demented version of James Bond’s Q. Device 6 has fun with espionage tropes. Between levels, players are asked to answer reading-comprehension and pseudo personality-test questions (“Try to picture someone looking at you from a window. Who is it? a) A friend, b) A stranger, c) Yourself”). It’s a cute trick that enriches the player’s experience of being vetted for an elite corps of spies while also spoofing the genre.
The air of exclusivity the game cultivates via self-aware spy jokes is enhanced by the player’s accomplishment of solving a toilsome puzzle and by the exceedingly slick design. It is here that the game sets itself apart. The labyrinth of Device 6 is one built from text. Like a work of concrete poetry. The text narrates Anna’s progress while also serving as a wall, a bridge, a spiral staircase for the player’s movements. The writing itself is far from the gin-soaked prose of Dashiell Hammett, but serves its purpose with no detriment to the player’s enjoyment as it leads them through the game and its six levels. The poetry is in the programming rather than the text.
Eschewing 3D renderings and a Skittles-inspired palette, Device 6 boasts its sophistication with a dusky color scheme of slate gray, deep carmine, and glaucous blue. Instead of animation, the screenscape is peppered with flickering photos. Sound rises and fades as the player scrolls, past classical statues that weep, animatronic monkeys that speak with French accents, and an echo that is stuck in a wishing well. The opening credits unroll like the title sequence to a Steven Soderbergh movie, which is to say with a heavy Saul Bass influence of geometrically choreographed silhouettes.
Device 6 is not groundbreaking in concept. It seems invented for childhood fans of Myst who’ve grown-up and now work in design. Like Myst, the player must recognize the game’s riddles then deduce its rules before solving. The puzzles perplex, but are hardly incomprehensible, especially as play progresses. The final steps of the game are too easy, too quick. Beating Device 6 brings no epiphanic climax, but wandering through its maze is really fun. The six levels can easily be conquered in a week and the satisfaction that comes from solving each puzzle only comes once — an inevitable limitation. Indeed, the game’s primary drawback is its lack of ad infinitum playability. However, once Device 6 has been conquered, know that Myst and its sequel Riven are now available as apps, for those who finish with an urgent need to return to a mysterious island.
Helen Schumacher is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and here. She last wrote in these pages about Harry Smith.
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