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The challenge-free seascape of Simogo's The Sailor's Dream Exclusive
August 4, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

August 4, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive, Video

"We think a lot about what to show and not show," Simogo's Simon Flesser says. "I think just getting the feel and tone across is more important than describing exactly what the game is."

The trailer for the popular mobile studio's latest game, The Sailor's Dream, is wonderfully evocative; gentle music plays as the sea, from the expanses of its geography to intimate beach architecture, unfolds. Snippets of text. It feels strong and gentle at the same time.

The game promises a "challenge-free" experience, focused on storytelling instead. "Things like the reveal trailer... with a lot of text snippets, has actually quite a lot of thought behind it," says Flesser. "It's there to communicate that it's a game with a lot of little scenes that are part of a lot of story, that it is a game with quite a bit of text. That it's fractured."

Simogo, the partnership between Flesser and his colleague Magnus Gordon Gardeback, has produced a remarkable five highly-polished games in three years from the colorful Beat Sneak Bandit to folkloric horror Year Walk, making regular appearances among Independent Game Festival nominations all the while.

Last year, DEVICE 6 -- a touchable story game that is surreal, haunting and funny in turns -- won an Excellence in Audio award for its unique sonic environment, and the striking music of collaborator Jonathan Eng.

But Flesser says it also won the studio an audience of brand-new players, those eager to enjoy interactive entertainment without necessarily bringing along the traditional literacy.

"Even without a focus on puzzles, I hope people who enjoyed our previous games will embrace [The Sailor's Dream]," says Flesser. "It does share that element that Year Walk and DEVICE 6 have, in that there is a larger story told with small pieces of information. But one thing we talked about when starting this project was how game-literate you have to be to enjoy a lot of games."

"It was such a positive experience for us to hear from people who had never touched a game before, and played DEVICE 6 as their first game," he continues. "So we want The Sailor's Dream to be as welcoming as possible for people who haven't played games before."

It all began with a song -- "somehow, it always seems to start with music," says Flesser. "There's just something very romantic about old sea shanties, and specifically the one called Lord Franklin struck a chord, and got the ball rolling."

The song in the trailer was one Jonathan Eng showed Flesser years ago. "It's been on my mind, and I wanted us to make something that captures the feeling that song has," Flesser says. "I really wanted it included, and using it in the trailer feels sort of like a full circle."

"We want to create something that feels romantic, very human, warm and quiet," he continues. "We don't see a lot of that in games... It's hard to describe and I think maybe bittersweet isn't quite right, but the closest. Things like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, which is a pretty sad, but has really happy and very human moments in it."

"We want it to feel both relaxing, like diving into a tiny little world in which you can enjoy just interacting with, looking at and listening to things," Flesser continues. "But then there's also this element of exploring a quiet story, and tying it together in your head. So in that way it is like a dream, exploring a strange world, with tiny bits of reality breaking through in different ways."

Both Year Walk and DEVICE 6 managed to capture the experience of walking, with just a touch of the player's finger -- snow creaks as Year Walk's unsettling world unfolds, and DEVICE 6 feels like a jaunt along sprawling pathways represented abstractly by words.

"This time around, we want it to feel like you are floating, possibly flying, through the environments," Flesser says.

"Structurally, there is an ocean and in the distance there are islands with structures that one can travel to, to explore. Within those structures there are abandoned objects, which hold memories," he explains. "There are also other elements in which the stories are told, both on the ocean and within the structures. We don't want to talk about it quite yet, but some of the things we're drawing inspiration from are folk music, musicals and radio. I think we want players to find out about the characters themselves!"

It's exciting for Flesser, Gardeback and Eng to see new ideas take shape under their hands. "Personally, what excites me is that we're bringing in the talent and new elements that we haven't worked with before, and just getting new material from collaborators is very exciting to me," says Flesser. "I think we all feel that making something that feels unique is exciting too."

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Theresa Catalano
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That's weird language to use, "challenge free." They may as well say "gameplay free." If what they're making is essentially a story focused visual novel, there's nothing wrong with that at all, I enjoy those kinds of products. But someone needs to learn that "challenge free" is a really negative description.

Piers Hopkins
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Not sure I agree with that sentiment. A lot of individuals who have smartphones or tablets are put off games by the difficulty in playing them. If it's a story-driven experience I see no absolutely problem in removing any gameplay 'challenge' in order to appeal to the broadest demographic possible.

There are already an infinite number of 'challenging' gaming experiences for those who are more inclined to that sort of thing.

Nick Harris
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Experiential Adventure?

Theresa Catalano
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Of course, there's nothing wrong with purely story driven products. Like I said, I love visual novels, and other totally story focused experiences that are light on gameplay. But the strength of those products isn't that they are "light on challenge." That's a weakness, not a strength.

Let me give you an example: take Phoenix Wright. Very story focused games, but they also find a way to blend challenging puzzles in with the gameplay in a very natural and smart way. They don't necessarily need this... they'd still be good experiences even without these puzzles, just for the stories alone. And there'd be nothing wrong with that. But if the developers released them that way and bragged "there's no challenging gameplay to get in the way of the story!" that would be very strange. That's not something to brag about. Phoenix Wright is fine without challenging gameplay but finding a way to include it only makes the game better; it only makes it stronger as a *game.* It's totally backwards to think otherwise.

I know this is a cliche and said too much, but if you as a developer seriously think that all that "gameplay" is getting in the way of the story you want to tell, there are seriously better mediums to tell your story in. Books, movies... if all you care about is making your story accessible without any barriers for entry, then those are the way to go. Games are the wrong line of work for you.

Dave Hoskins
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As a guess, I'd say "challenge free" means you can walk about anywhere you want and not have puzzles or dexterous elements to "challenge" the player.
"Gameplay free" just means Machinima.

But I agree, it's not a very positive phrase.

Theresa Catalano
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I'm sure that's what they mean. But any way you slice it, that's just not a thing to brag about. I happen to enjoy visual novels. The strength of visual novels are the stories, so not having challenging gameplay isn't a terrible thing. But it would be monumentally silly for the maker of a visual novel to brag "it's challenge free!" "There's no puzzles to tax your brain, don't worry!" It's like taking a healthy food and bragging "it's low on flavor!"