I've spent much of the past week in a quaint little cottage by the sea, listening to the same seven songs over and over — and I've enjoyed every minute. The house is empty aside from seven mysterious turntables, each playing a different, beautiful song. It's also one of several locations you can explore in The Sailor's Dream, the serene new release from Swedish developer Simogo. It's hard to say exactly what The Sailor's Dream is; it may come from one of mobile gaming's most talented studios, but it's not really a game in any traditional sense. But whatever you want to call it, it's an undeniably wonderful experience that feels perfectly at home on your iPad.
Simogo calls The Sailor's Dream "a peaceful narrative experience," but it might be better described as a mixed media concept album. You're presented with a series of different locations, each floating on a calm, quiet sea, and you can drop anchor and explore any of them, ranging from a seemingly normal lighthouse to mystical ruins that look ripped from a fantasy novel. You can enter these buildings in any order, and once inside you're free to explore at your own pace. Some rooms contain strange musical toys to play around with, while others are home to important objects that you can read about through a series of short stories.
When I first started playing, The Sailor's Dream felt like a series of unconnected places, stories, and objects, all tied together with a nautical theme. But as I explored and read further, important moments and characters kept recurring — a young girl who dreams of being a sailor, a terrible fire at a peaceful cottage — and slowly things started to make sense. It's almost as if someone took a story, ripped it apart, and scattered the pages in the water. It was my job to put them back together and make sense.
It's almost as if someone took a story, ripped it apart, and scattered the pages in the water
The Sailor's Dream doesn't feature any traditional game-like challenges; there are no puzzles to block your progress, or mini-games to challenge your reflexes. It's an experience that's entirely about the narrative, but one uniquely built for smartphones and tablets. The peaceful visuals, the wonderful music, the sharp writing, and the simple interactive toys all go towards creating an atmosphere and telling a story. I found myself re-reading sections to glean new insights, and sometimes I'd just sit and listen to the music I'd unlocked.
It's an experience wholly unlike anything else on iOS (or any platform, really), and it's one that Simogo has been slowly building towards. While the studio started out making charming mobile games like Bumpy Road and Beat Sneak Bandit, last year the two-person team branched out with the eerie game Year Walk, a creepy adventure based on Swedish folklore that even included a separate compendium app where you could read up on strange myths and mysteries. The success of Year Walk — the game sold more than 200,000 copies and was later released on Steam — was followed by Device 6, an even bigger departure that was essentially an interactive mystery novel.
"We had a loose idea of having three games that had the same DNA."
In that context, a quaint little app that combines short stories, music, and musical toys doesn't seem like too much of a stretch. "We had a loose idea of having three games that had the same DNA, or spirit if you will, so in that way it was kind of intentional," says Simogo's Simon Flesser. The basic idea for The Sailor's Dream started last year, when Flesser found himself becoming increasingly interested in sea shanties, but the concept evolved quite a bit since then. At one point the game even had you taking the wheel of a ship and exploring the seas, but it slowly turned into something less game-like. Working with musician Jonathan Eng and writer Jonas Tarestad, both of whom collaborated on previous Simogo games, the studio refined the concept into what is now The Sailor's Dream.
Many game studios gain a following because their work is recognizably unique. I play Level-5 games like Professor Layton because they're so whimsical, and will always check out a new Rockstar release because of the amazing world-building. Simogo has a following, and a few Apple Design awards to go with it, but it's hard to think of a unifying theme for the company's work. The studio has jumped from charming mobile games to creepy mysteries to musical books, all with very different themes and styles. So what makes a Simogo game a Simogo game? Even the creators can't really say. "I think that feeling of something being recognizable because it’s made by certain people, is kind of an intangible magic," says Flesser. And the next project to feature the Simogo game will likely be just as different. It all depends on the inspiration.
"When you're drawn to an idea, you just know it," says Flesser. "You can almost physically feel the excitement in the chest, and that's always a good sign."