Place and Space in 'Device 6'

by Nick Dinicola

18 April 2014

Device 6 does a wonderful job conveying the physical layout of an environment, but does a relatively poor job conveying the unique characteristics of a location.

Device 6 is a puzzle game wrapped in a text adventure. Most of the story is expressed through text, while sound and an occasional picture are used to facilitate interactivity and add flavor to the environment.

The excellent sense of space comes entirely from the presentation of the text. Chapters begin like a normal book, in which the story is split into paragraphs meant to be read from left to right and top to bottom. Soon the text changes, and it’s no longer organized into paragraphs, it’s organized into shapes that correspond to the layout of the environment. If you’re moving through a hallway, the text is displayed as a single long line, if you’re going up stairs, the text is cut into steps and the screen automatically pans up, or if you reach an intersection, then the text splits off in multiple directions. It’s a clever trick that makes the act of reading unusually physical. The end result is that we have a stronger sense of space than text can usually convey by itself.
Unfortunately, that trick that gives us a strong sense of space is also why Device 6 can’t convey a strong sense of place. Since the text is an environment that we physically move through, it can’t be very long. The puzzles require us to constantly backtrack through the world, so the bigger that world is, the more space we have to backtrack through. In order to prevent this from being a problem, the descriptive text of Device 6 is kept to a minimum. You’ll get a lot of practical descriptions of space in order to justify the unique presentation and more practical descriptions of puzzles or clues, but very few descriptions exist for the sole purpose of conveying the feel of a place—how it looks, how it sounds, or how it smells. Device 6 boxes itself into an interesting corner. How do you convey “place” when the text itself is all about “space?”

The game tries to resolve this through a smattering of sounds and pictures. It’s another clever idea from Simogo, using the multimedia capabilities of the medium (iOS) to offset the limitations of the text. That would be enough for any other story, but the places depicted by pictures and sound in Device 6 are so bizarre that the depictions feel inadequate. Throughout the game, you’ll explore an empty hotel, an old missile silo, a garden with invisible pathways, and more. These places beg for a detailed description, but again the game is so focused on its gameplay—the puzzles—that it misses the opportunity to add texture to its weird world.

The pictures do convey some sense of place, though. We get to see the talking bear statues in the abandoned silo, which highlights how out-of-place they are, and we get to see the old computers everywhere that further the retro-futuristic vibe of this world. But when the pictures effectively highlight the weirdness of the world, it’s only because the world is built around weird puzzles. Every photo is a hint: both the bears and the computers, also the paintings, the flowers, the graffiti, and the statues. It’s all purely practical. Once again the “place-building” comes second to the puzzles.

The sound design of Device 6 is its best tool for establishing place because it’s not always related to puzzles. Most of the time the sound is specifically meant to convey “place.” The sound of our footsteps change when we move across carpet or grass or wood, the whirr of computers and machinery echo through empty buildings, and recorded messages play on a loop that we’re unable to stop. It’s all very effective, but it’s just not enough. The weird world of Device 6 can’t be brought to life through sound effects alone.

Each component, the text, the pictures, and the sound, does its bit to convey a sense of place. Some are more effective than others, but they all ultimately fall short of their goal. Maybe that’s part of the point, that the island of Device 6 is meant to be vague and dreamy, but that doesn’t make for a very interesting setting.

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