There’s a well-embraced fallacy that publishing is a dying enterprise. The truth is that publishing is more alive than ever, but it has spread out to a greater variety of outlets using new media. There are still plenty of books, magazines, newspapers, and journals, but now creative people are coming up with novel and exciting ways to share the stories they want to tell. The Internet changed the pace of news reporting, and print-on-demand has transformed fan-fiction zinesters into boutique book publishers. Now, with its latest app, The Sailor’s Dream, Simogo looks to reimagine the shape and structure of the novella for the smartphone generation.
The Sailor’s Dream tells the tale of a girl, a woman, and a man brought together by chance and torn apart by time. Players explore islands, cottages, and ruins, gathering remnants of the life these people shared and slowly assembling the larger picture of their relationships and motivations. The operative word is “slowly,” as The Sailor’s Dream practically demands players take their time and investigate at their leisure. New information unfurls itself over hours, days even, and the game isn’t shy about encouraging players to linger.
This new work abandons the intermittent puzzles of Device 6, Simogo’s previous game. The developer is confident that delving into this dream world and collecting scraps of its backstory will be compelling enough without the need for conventional “game mechanics.” Sliding between rooms, the dreamer comes across star charts, lanterns, runes, and other ephemeral artifacts of the people that used to live here. Some objects are little more than musical doodads to poke and prod, while others hold memories of the past, short scenes of prose that often raise more questions than they answer.
Remnants of the past haunt The Sailor’s Dream’s uninhabited locations and bring them to life. Sailors’ voices echo through the darkness as players search the memories of a wrecked ship. Stairs creak, and raindrops tap gently against the windows. The pop-up book locations explored here may not be technically spectacular, but they are anything but flat. With every new vignette, audio log, and ballad, the personalities of the characters grow clearer. Their voices are intimate and sincere. Their actions may be vague and left to interpretation, but our line to their hearts and minds is open and direct. Whether Dream draws you in may depend on your fondness for that degree of emotional honesty.
It’s all familiar territory: unlikely companionship, the desire to make time stand still, romantic expressions of youthful rebellion. If this sounds like any middle-grade coming-of-age tragedy, there’s a reason for that. The Sailor’s Dream recalls all of those tropes with uncanny precision, and they feel all the more immediate and personal with the added ambience of rich, Morphean art and sound. Everything resembles reality, but it’s a selective, idealized reality—much the way both dreams and the young readers of middle-grade novels present their own worlds.
As with Simogo’s other recent efforts Year Walk and Device 6, the art is luscious, and the writing is sharp. The breakout star of The Sailor’s Dream, though, is the original folk songs performed with devastating finesse by Jonathan Eng and Stephanie Hladowski. Eng’s work was a highlight of those previous games, too, but here, his acoustic ballads do more, actively tying together disparate plot threads with their lyrics and telling a whole third of the story on their own. Hladowski’s confident voice is warm and comforting, and when it begins to waver, my heart shatters along with her character’s.
The Sailor’s Dream is a novella, a folk EP, and an art installation wrapped into one app. Were they to stand on their own, those three components would still be worthy of attention, but as a single collected piece, Dream is a self-assured work of emotional deference. It’s an inspired example of what storytelling can be in the 21st century and the way modern technology can shine new light on well-worn conventions.
The Sailor’s Dream
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal)
Reviewed on: iPad