WORD/PLAY: An Interview with Simogo
In our ongoing series WORD/PLAY we look at the fusing of literature and games. The link to the the written word is almost as old as the videogame itself, and recent developments both on the side of literature and the videogame have shown that the relationship between the two media is as vital and strong as ever.
It's no secret that we here at Videogame Tourism are smitten with the work of the Swedish development studio Simogo. After all, we dedicated several thousand words to Year Walk, one of our favourite games of 2013. What we didn't talk about in such a verbose way, though, is that Simogo released a second game in 2013, Device 6, which is equally intriguing: A stylish fusion of classic graphic design, Cold War-thriller chique and typographical text that, thanks to Simogo's trademark cleverness in using the features of mobile devices, becomes navigable in hithero unknown ways. We talked with Simogo's Simon Flesser about literary influences, finding your work on the other end of education, going tactile, and much more.
When talking with Leigh Alexander, you mostly cited non-literary works as an influence (“1960s spy fiction, the unique surrealism of The Prisoner, and the texture of Judy Schlansky's book Atlas of Remote Islands.”) However, there is also a tradition of “playful literature”. I’m thinking of things like “concrete or shape poetry”, the formalist experiments done by the Oulipo, or even things like House of Leaves. Were you aware of that tradition when you created DEVICE 6? Was it an inspiration? Even if it’s not, could you see yourself as walking in the footsteps of those people?
We were indeed aware of the culture of ergodic literature, but are not very traversed in it at all. And I didn't want to start to get into it during the development of DEVICE 6, either. I wanted to us to create the game with a clean slate, without drawing any direct inspiration from for example House of Leaves. I love the concept of that type of thing and have always been curious about it, though.
Of course, there are also other lines of tradition which are more often cited as an influence on game designers when talking about the links between literature and games: the Fighting Fantasy-books and, above all, the golden era of text adventures. Did you encounter those things when you were younger? Were they maybe a (conscious or not) source of inspiration for DEVICE 6, even if it's in a “let’s do something else entirely”-way?
I didn't play any text adventures at all when I was young – because I quite frankly found them boring. One of the reasons we wanted to make DEVICE 6 was to try and make something text based a little more inviting, for people like ourselves. So having that ”contrary”-inspiration was indeed a factor!
In DEVICE 6, the clues for finding solutions are often hidden in the images, the sound, and so on -- but rarely in the text itself. (This is clear in one of the first puzzles, where you are looking at pictures of the words "HOPE", "FIVE", and "LIES", instead of the actual text.) Was this deliberate? Did you experiment with more “text based”-puzzles? Do you think it’s more difficult to direct players’ attention towards textual clues than, say, aural ones?
I'd argue that we have a good chunk of puzzles that are very based on text, or at least require the reader to digest and interpret the text as well. That said, we strived to have the puzzles as multimedial as possible, but always falling back on the player being able to interpret text in some way.
Talking of which: On Gameological, there was a comment suggesting that DEVICE 6 can be used to teach Close Reading, since it encourages readers to study the text repeatedly in a playful way. Any thoughts or feelings about the fact that your game is used in education? Also, did you have reactions in the line of “I usually don’t read, but…”?
I love to hear it. It makes me really happy if a thing we made can make people more interested in reading. Especially if they haven't been into reading books. There really is nothing like reading a good book. I think the way the written word stimulates the imagination and creative thinking is unique.
Do you follow the recent renaissance of text-based games, being lead by Twine? Do you have any thoughts on that? Do you read/play them? Do you maybe even have thoughts on that most unholy of questions, that is, how those games fit into the existing notions of “What is a game”?
I haven't actually. I do know of it, and read a few articles about it. I should really do that.I don't have a good answer to how it fits into the question of what a game is. I'm actually not to concerned about putting labels on things or genre definitions. If a work is interesting in any way, it doesn't really matter what it is labeled as.
In academic studies of literature, space was often neglected because the important dimension for the medium was thought to be time. However, one of the remarkable things about DEVICE 6 is the sense of space and place that you as a player get. Did you find it hard to communicate that? Harder than in, say, Year Walk? What did you find to be the most essential aspects for succeeding in creating that sense of space and place? Did you experiment with different “solutions” to that problem?
We didn't think too hard about communicating it. I was honestly surprised myself about how well it worked after we had created the first chapter. When reading, I can sometimes find it hard to visualise spaces. Sometimes I don't get enough information, and I get the feeling that sometimes the author hasn't thought enough about what the place looks like.I think part of the reason why space is so communicated well in DEVICE 6 is that I drew maps of every place of the island before we started creating the chapters. I think sound is a big factor as well. We use ambient sounds, echoes and that kind of thing to communicate the size of spaces as well.
Good question. I'm really really interested in this, and hope to create more multimedial type of things in the future. Again, I am not to concerned about the label it gets. I think what is great about digital work is that we can mix medias in such interesting ways, it doesn't have to have the same limits as analog media (even though we could do much more there as well!).
When we here at Videogame Tourism talked in length about Year Walk, one of the aspects that we admired was how the game put the intimate relationship that people have with their device (you “touch” it, you have it in your lap and so on) into a narrative context where that somewhat cold object takes on aspects of an ‘artefact’, or even a device used to perform rituals. You guys are obviously very conscious of that ‘material’ aspects of works of art. Do you sometimes miss working with more tactile materials and media? Could you imagine working in other media, or even transposing elements of your games into, say books? (I’d buy an expanded book version of the Year Walk Companion in a heartbeat!)
Oh yes. This is a big dream of mine, and one I really hope I can do someday.
Me and Jonas were actually talking about how we could do that. We had a concept for a small spin-off project for DEVICE 6, that we called "The Doll Disappearances". It involved a USB stick, and lots of different types of media to create a non-linear story. It didn't evolve into a full project but some of the materials slipped into this poster.
So you could say we've actually touched upon it a little. That poster actually holds a lot of stories in itself. I find that concept really interesting, trying to tell a story on an analog piece of media, without it being a traditional piece, as for example a book.
Even the descriptions of those two posters have a narrative, tied to the bigger narrative of DEVICE 6.
There is that old cliché saying that the reading horizon of most game designers stretches roughly from Stephen King to Tolkien. Do you think that this is true? Do you think that games could benefit from being influenced more strongly by literature, or, more broadly speaking, books?
Yup, that's probably true.Game developers mostly being influenced by other games and mainstream films is a big problem. It creates a culture when a lot of the work ends up looking the same and touching upon the same subjects.
Oh, tough one. It doesn't feel fair to name just one thing ... But perhaps just to stay on track, I think anyone that enjoyed DEVICE 6 would find The Magus a really interesting read.
As for a game ... Very tough one too. I'd try to stay on track here as well. If you enjoyed DEVICE 6, like reading and have a DS, you should definitely try to track down a copy of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.
Thank you so much for your time!