The public library in my hometown holds an art competition for grade-schoolers that has them drawing bookmarks with pro-reading messages. The best ones get photocopied to high heaven and distributed at the check-out desk. Seeing as how that’s not a particularly appealing prize to a seven year old, when I was forced to take part in the competition, I decided to spend as little time on this nonsense as I could and drew the first thing I thought of: a giant train cruising the globe under the words “Reading can take you anywhere!” Despite the lack of effort, my entry was picked. If I had to guess a reason why, it would be that it regurgitated what all the teachers and colorful laminated posters that hung in the library wanted us kids to know: Books are magical portals to any place you can imagine.
Device 6, the latest iOS game from Simogo, takes a slightly more literal approach to that old educator’s adage. As your fingers slide the game’s text in and out of your touchscreen, you’re not just reading Device 6. You’re also traversing its world. There’s not a lot more to Device 6 than text. It’s as much a novella as it is a game, telling its six-chapter tale primarily through black text on a white background with the occasional illustration and audio cue. It’s the story of a woman named Anna who wakes up in a castle on an island with little knowledge of how she got there. (All she can remember is that an ugly doll had something to do with it.)
The island is a strange place, but it’s a manufactured strangeness. Anna picks up on this early on, pointing out how carefully placed each toy seems in a child’s messy room. Someone has been here, decorating each room and hallway with surreal paintings and statues, the most memorable of which depicts a gentlemanly elephant in a suit and top hat. But who would do such a thing, and what do they want from Anna? Whoever they are, they seem to be big fans of the classic ’60s TV show The Prisoner: The unseen curators’ love of psychedelic whimsy, knockout gas, and men’s formalwear all stem from Patrick McGoohan’s heady sci-fi allegory, and elements of the game’s dastardly plot echo the show, as well.
As Anna stumbles around the island’s gardens and twin castles, the layout of the text you’re reading follows her path. She might take a left into a new hallway, at which point the words snake around the corner of your screen with her, forcing you to turn your iDevice to follow them. If she reaches a dead end, the text wraps around two corners of the screen. So you turn your iPhone or iPad 180 degrees and read on as Anna heads back the way she came. The prose, even if it leads to a hard stop, never disappears. Instead, it forms a map of interlocking paths and paragraphs. Ghostly arrows appear occasionally to point you in the right direction and clear up any disorientation. It’s a unique technique that clicks immediately. You’re reading about Anna as she explores these interconnected paths. Why not use the freedoms afforded by reading on a touchscreen to reflect the actual geography of her world?
You’ll get to know these paths pretty well. Each chapter revolves around one or two puzzles. Inevitably, Anna will reach some hi-tech keypad or lock, and you will have to backtrack to search out the combination. The solutions are cleverly hidden, often in some illustration or staticky audio clip you’ve already encountered.
All the backtracking can be tedious, but the puzzles make up for it. Despite the literary presentation, Device 6 has more in common with Myst than a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Its logic-based head scratchers require a pen and paper for notes, scribbles, and any stray observations that a mind frenzied by the game’s eerie conspiracy theory vibe might deem important—which, in my experience, was everything. The puzzles feel organic, not contrived. All the clues you need are hidden in plain sight (and sound). It’s just a matter of finding the pieces strewn about the chapter and figuring out how they fit together. And being that this island seems built to serve some devious machinations, it makes sense that the solutions you’re looking for—secret codes and cryptic instructions—are waiting for you to find them.
The same could be said about Device 6 as a whole: It all makes sense. The dark yet whimsical trappings produce the perfect mood for the story it wants to tell—mysterious and occasionally unsettling but never morose. As that mystery unravels and the narrative delves into sci-fi themes like the nature of truth and free will, the player’s relationship to the events at hand is questioned and redefined. It even accounts for that futuristic slab of glass and rare earth elements you’re using to peek into its world. It may not be a book per se, but it feels more like a magical portal to another world than anything I’ve read in a while.