Last year, Simogo produced Device 6, a game I found myself stubbornly disliking despite its massive app store popularity and the number of people hailing it as the next big thing in interactive fiction. Unquestionably a beautiful piece of typographical design with a 60s style evocative of the Prisoner, Device 6 disappointed me both as story and as puzzle collection.
As a story, it told about a largely unknown character in a surreal and unexplained environment: long on mystery, low on meaning. I tend to think of this as “Lost Syndrome”: writing that offers the player or reader a lot of suggestive and intriguing hints but does not demonstrably have any plan to resolve them all. In the end, it turns out that the entire business has been — oh, I won’t spoil it, since the evidence suggests that most people enjoy this piece more than I did. But let’s just say that the ending falls into a standard category that annoys the heck out of me.
As for the puzzles, they were not that well integrated into the story and varied widely in style and difficulty. More often than I liked, they turned on whether or not you had noticed some particular image or some particular correspondence between images: in my puzzle taxonomy, they’re basically all puzzles of surprise, typically without a lot of extra hinting available. If you got stuck, that meant a lot of time wandering around looking at things trying to have the perception shift that would reveal what you’d missed. Meanwhile, for a game requiring a lot of exploration, Device 6 didn’t make the process comfortable: you had to swipe back and forth (and back and forth, and back and forth) along long passages of shaped text. Over time the initially pleasing architectural nature of that text became a burden. By the time I got to the end I was thoroughly grumpy.
Now along comes The Sailor’s Dream.
The art, again, is really lovely, though completely different in style from Device 6: small intricately pictured buildings on islands, lapping waves, everything seen through a soft sea mist. It’s a romanticized ahistorical ocean, the dream of a simple and beautiful fishing life, which reminded me of nothing so much as the fictional cookbook The Feasts of Tre-mang. Inside the buildings are objects with attached stories: a smoking pipe, a star chart. There are some dreamy Myst-like machines that make sounds or produce minor animations. The result is something between explorable space and toy.
The story itself is yours to assemble from the recordings and object-related texts, which fits thematically: memories are flotsam, and we sail without knowing exactly what we will encounter. Parts of the tale are open to some interpretation, but the results were nonetheless (in my view) both more coherent and more emotionally rich than the story of Device 6.
There’s still some scrolling and swiping to do in order to get from one explorable area to the next — indeed, the prevalence of swiping and the parallax when you do so is arguably the most distinctive trait shared by The Sailor’s Dream and Device 6. But The Sailor’s Dream provides fewer reasons to need to revisit the same spaces over again, and offers a more branching structure, so that the burden of navigation is much reduced.
There’s also very little pressure about this piece. The Sailor’s Dream forces you to take your time in order to explore fully: each day of the week you will find a new bottle bobbing on the waves of your little ocean, which can be opened to release a song; in a tower there is a sort of radio system that broadcasts only on the hour. There’s no urgency about this, and if you miss a chance to see the content on one hour or one day, you can come back later. (Or you could monkey with your system clock, but I feel like that’s kind of obtusely missing the point.) I’m generally a bit skeptical of games that want you to come back at particular real-time intervals, but in this case it’s not that you’re going to miss out on a spectacular carrot crop if you wait too long. Rather, the pacing device encourages you to take things easy, to visit and revisit the Dream, to treat it as a vacation spot. Although there are certainly dark things in the story, the experience overall suggests a gentle remembered happiness, rocked by the sound of waves.
The Sensational December Machine is a tiny holiday piece from Simogo, a minimally interactive words-and-images experience that takes just a few minutes to traverse. It tells the story of a woman who wants to make a machine that can touch people’s hearts, a fairly unsubtle parable about creating interactive art and interactive fiction in a world dominated by games and functional apps. In that vein, it felt a little odd to me — it’s not as though Simogo’s own interactive art/fiction goes unappreciated, I’d say — but I’m sure they nonetheless get enough “what’s it FOR?” feedback to feel like they wanted to respond somehow anyway.
Unlike the other two, “The Sensational December Machine” is a) able to run on a PC and b) free — so if you’re curious about Simogo’s work but not set up to run things on an iPad, this is a possible way in. Though the experience is short, the atmosphere is highly characteristic.