A screenshot from Year Walk
One of the biggest obstacles in getting newcomers into gaming is the vaunted difficulty of the most acclaimed experiences. There's no hardship in hanging on until the end of even the most nerve-shredding movie, but when revered games like Dark Souls and its sequel, XCOM: Enemy Unknown and FTL: Faster Than Light are sold near-exclusively on how taxing they are – on how easy it is to lose – many look the other way.
Of course, tough games are nothing new. Battletoads for the NES was (and remains) notoriously frustrating, responsible for innumerable instances of pad-smashing fury. When Ninja Gaiden was revived for the original Xbox in 2004, grown men who'd mastered its older 8-bit iterations openly wept at their ineptitude. Even games that presented no discernible threat to player avatars could wind participants into a frothing rage: think back to the befuddling puzzles of The Secret of Monkey Island, or worse still the purely illogical problem-solving of Discworld.
But as smartphones have become commonplace, the casual games they support have bloomed into market heavyweights – the time-wasters are the new killer apps, titles like Angry Birds, Temple Run and Cut the Rope offering minutes-long sessions that anyone, of any age or ability, can dip into. They still challenge, but progress isn't measured in narrative terms – nobody is running from demonic monkeys in the hope of finding a finishing line, a closure to their adventurer's story.
Malmö-based studio Simogo is an unusual player in the mobile market. Their games sit beside the aforementioned as highly praised apps that would look pretty on anyone's handset. But unlike many mobile developers, their releases are not ones that you're supposed to close 10 minutes in, when your station's reached or the bus shows up. Its two 2013 releases, Year Walk and Device 6, offer deep narratives wrapped up in innovative design – these are puzzle games, but so very far from Candy Crush Saga.
Awarding Device 6 its Best Mobile Puzzle Game award for 2013, IGN wrote that it "pulls off a great feat by managing to tell a multi-layered story that relies on plot, control and puzzles to elicit an emotional reaction – and comes together as one of the most rewarding puzzle games in years". It's a tremendously tough game to describe simply, an exploration adventure where your footsteps literally follow the text of the story playing out as you proceed. It's best, really, that you just play it.
Rather easier to get a conceptual grip on is Year Walk, a spooky, first-person tale drawing on Swedish mythology to decorate its eloquently engineered puzzles with macabre embellishments (read more about it on The Creators Project) It, too, was rapturously received: "elegant, artful" and "unmissable" was Eurogamer's verdict, one echoed across the games press. But both Year Walk and Device 6 present their share of hindrances. They ask the player to fully engage with their devious designs, with difficulty spikes that necessitate full concentration to overcome. Neither has a game-over state; neither can "kill" the protagonist. Yet many have fallen at the gates of Year Walk's cemetery, babbling something about bark-carved symbols, unable to proceed.
A screenshot from Device 6
Simogo's next game is very different, though. In fact, you might not even call it a game at all. The Sailor's Dream is, the studio hopes, going to be released for iOS devices this side of Christmas. Its page on their website states: "The Sailor's Dream is a challenge-free experience in which you explore a non-linear story through words, music, sounds and illustrations." Sounds delightful. But there's a catch, surely? Otherwise it's just a jumbled up... book? Maybe?
"There aren't any puzzles that halt the story progression, like in Year Walk," says Simogo co-founder Simon Flesser – the "go" of the name comes from his business partner, Gordon Gardebäck. "Most of the game is available from the start, albeit in a non-linear fashion. The story itself is sort of a little labyrinth; you could say that piecing together the story becomes a puzzle."
Now it's sounding like a choose-your-own-adventure deal – turn to chapter 285 to battle this ogre, and so on. But those fantasy novels, so popular in the 1980s, could end before the denouement was reached, before 400 was read. The Sailor's Dream will present no such threat – progress is down to the player's intuition, but nothing in the game will be excruciating.
The trailer for The Sailor's Dream
"There are some elements through which the story is told that need to be figured out," continues Flesser. "Calling them puzzles might be a stretch, but let's just say there are some small mysteries that need to be figured out. It just feels right to not have any trials in this little story box we've built."
This has The Sailor's Dream drawing parallels with risk-free rambles like The Chinese Room's Dear Esther, a Hebridean-set walkabout that never asks the player to avoid traps, to dispel ghosts (although you may see some) or to leap chasms. Its story unfolds through monologues, which don't always arrive in the same order. Flesser says that he's never played Dear Esther, but adds that "a big part of the experience is piecing it all together from small bits, and filling in the holes yourself". Which is what Dear Esther was all about.
And that'd be just fine: a comparative experience on a mobile would be a wonderful thing. Simogo won't be rendering their tale in high-definition 3D – the trailer for The Sailor's Dream seems to make that clear – but you can guarantee the visuals will be charming. And their storytelling is of a high standard, too.
"I think games can do so many things that other mediums cannot," says Flesser, when asked about the studio's growing reputation for narrative nous. "I'd argue that the things we made with Device 6, and to some extent Year Walk – in which the participator becomes part of the narrative – is unique. There's also something interesting about how you can mix media in a game, or any interactive digital creation."
The mixed media element is something, as outlined by the game's own promotional literature, that will be of great importance to The Sailor's Dream.
The Sailor's Dream – "Broadcast"
"It's not so much about the written word as Device 6 was, even though it has portions that are largely text," explains Flesser. "It's much more of a mixed affair, drawing inspiration from things like musicals, folk singing and even radio theatre. It was encouraging [to receive praise for our storytelling], but mostly I think it was just what we wanted to make at that moment. So with The Sailor's Dream, it's not as much, 'Hey, people like this, let's do more of that'; it's just something we want to explore further."
Simogo's approach to making immersive interactive entertainment is comparable to that of thatgamecompany, whose 2012 game Journey remains among the most compelling but entirely challenge-free console experiences ever created. In that game, a story comes together through physical clues, remnants of a once-mighty society shattered by confrontation – but no words are ever spoken. The same is true of another mobile hit of 2014, ustwo's Monument Valley, which utilises tactile puzzles and ambient music to subtly imply a tale of desertion and, eventually, redemption.
And yet, I sense that Simogo – just as Flesser suggests by saying he's never played Dear Esther – operates within something of a bubble, unaware of what other studios are doing, or who might even be ripping them off – something sure to happen as their profile grows. Flesser's ideals haven't changed since day one, and are unlikely to as more people enjoy his games. And that's potentially anyone and everyone, of any age or previous gaming experience, in the case of The Sailor's Dream.
"It's wonderful indeed that we have been able to reach a lot of people with our creations," he concludes. "It's hard to judge and see from the inside looking out, but we're still two guys in an office making what we want to make. That's the most important thing for me, personally."
The Sailor's Dream is out, in Flesser's words, "hopefully this year". Find Simogo online at simogo.com.