In college, I took one of those classes designed to help humanities students pass their science requirements. It was called “The Physics of Light and Color.” While not quite as egregious as your classic “Physics for Poets” or “Rocks for Jocks,” the class delivered cool facts about the universe without asking for too much raw numeric analysis. When the professor wanted to explain the unusual properties of the photon to us, he did so in a suitably figurative way. He said, “If you ask a photon, ‘Are you a wave?’, it says, ‘Yes.’ If you ask it, ‘Are you a particle?’, it says, ‘Yes.’ So that’s why we say light is a wave and a particle.”
That’s how I felt when I played Device 6, the latest iOS app from virtuoso game developer Simogo. If you ask it, “Are you an e-book?”, it says, “Yes, I tell a story through sequential prose and some bits of multimedia.” If you ask it, “Are you a videogame?”, it says, “Yes, to complete me you must successfully navigate several interactive elements.” The funny thing about Device 6 is: it’s right. It’s a book and a game, and a damn fine example of each to boot.
I’ve been happy to see widespread agreement on the nature of Device 6. Critics like Andrew Webster at The Verge and J. Nicholas Geist at Kill Screen quickly assent to its dual identity and then evaluate it for what it is, rather than wringing their hands over what box to put it in. That’s the right approach because the interesting question about Device 6 isn’t whether it’s a book or a game. The interesting question is: why is it both?
At first, the division between book and game in Device 6 seems tidy. It’s divided into six chapters, and you experience each of them as a book first. In plain prose, this book tells the story of Anna, a woman who wakes up on a mysterious island and wants to find her way off of it. The book’s layout is unconventional — you must scroll around wildly and contort your device in every direction to follow the path of the words, which mirror Anna’s movements. When she walks down a corridor, the text extends off screen in a long single line. When she turns a corner, you rotate your iPad (or iPhone). As you read, you hear odd voices, moody music, and sparse environmental sounds. You see snips of the world in small photographic collages that evoke the covers of spy novels from the ’60s. Occasionally, you run across an interactive set piece, but these don’t hold much interest until some obstacle bars your progress.
When you hit that roadblock, Device 6 flips effortlessly into game form. You wander back through the chapter, searching for visual, audio, and (rarely) textual clues to help you solve a puzzle. You decrypt the strange dialogue between animatronic bears, search for hidden messages in graffiti using special goggles, and even snoop on someone’s smartphone. Once you crack the code, you input it on any variety of old fashioned digital keypads. Then the next chapter begins, and you slide right back into book mode.
This pattern holds during your first time through the story. Oddly though, near the end there don’t seem to be any more puzzles to solve. The whole last chapter and epilogue pass without a single confounding code. The only interaction comes during a section where the nefarious scheme behind the story is revealed, and you’re given a simple binary choice.
This is where Simogo pulls their greatest trick. The ending of Device 6 is beautiful, startling, somber, and completely baffling. Without giving too much away, it’s also quite dark. It certainly doesn’t feel like a reward for conquering a rather devious videogame. Then the credits roll, and it invites you to begin the story again. I defy any breathing soul to say “no” to that offer. Because unless you’re a phenomenally astute reader, you’ll be dying to go back through the whole thing again and figure out what the hell just happened. And then you realize: the book has become the puzzle.
Puzzle game or mystery novel? Perhaps we should call Device 6 a puzzle novel. As I explored it a second and third time, my experience transformed completely. I didn’t need to read the text to progress; instead I scoured it for clues to unlock the secret behind the ending. Six pieces of technical documentation are scattered throughout the text, describing “Devices” with corresponding numbers. These almost seem like non-sequiturs on first run, but figuring out how they all work together is the key to the mystery. As I sorted out the plot, I noticed that I didn’t need to solve the puzzles again. With their solutions saved in my notes, inputting them felt more akin to turning a page. The book was the game and the game was the book.
Something curious happened after I finished Device 6 the third time. The English major in me found his resolution. He sorted out all the pieces of the plot, and when the sad finale splattered on the screen, he smiled because he could see those pieces moving in grim harmony. But the gamer in me grimaced. He still felt like the puzzle could have a happier solution, if he just looked a little harder.
That’s why you’ll find phrases like “device 6 ending,” “device 6 secret,” and the comprehensive “device 6 secret ending” in my Twitter search history. I suppose I wanted to find something like you’d see on the “cheats” tab of GameFAQs, but Device 6 doesn’t lend itself to that type of coverage. It wouldn’t have helped, anyway. No matter how much I gnashed my teeth or shook my iPad, the story never compromised.
I’m glad it didn’t. If Simogo included an alternate, happy ending for my lazy internet sleuthing to uncover, I might have felt clever and in control for a few minutes. Instead, I actually had to think about what Device 6 meant. That’s not much of an accomplishment for a book; it’s impressive as hell for a game. And if we meet Device 6 in the middle like it asks us to, then I suppose it’s just right.