The old adage, ‘There’s an app for that,’ which Apple applied to its marketing in the early days of the iPhone following the launch of the App Store is well worn. There truly is an app for everything – one to give you directions, help you cook, monitor your fitness, or help with DIY. If you need to do something, someone will create an app for it. However, when it comes to games, the best approach is a little grayer.
On the one hand, developers have swamped the App Store with free-to-play titles with micro-transactions and ads, because it’s the quickest and easiest way to make money from game. But is that condusive to the best gaming experience? There’s also the sub-section of iPhone users that have enjoyed the revival of classic games or characters. Be it Sonic, or Rayman.
But are these ports remastered games or do they lack attention and arrive full of bugs? For a true retro-experience, it’s worth looking at the adventure game, because the App Store has also revived a whole genre, which doesn’t require hunting down an unreliable Mega Drive from a second hand games shop. This is what we’re looking at in this article – the emergence, and reemergence of the adventure game on iOS.
But first, a retrospective. Adventure games, or Point and Click games, started life in the 1980s and 90s. They largely focus on a central character and are generally investigative in nature. Early on you’d generally explore a static or enclosed scene for items which you can use or combine to solve puzzles. As time has gone on and graphics and game mechanics have improved, worlds have opened.
On a base level, adventure games are essentially single-player experiences, largely built around a complex narrative. Right there, we can already see why they’re perfect for the iPhone. They first came to prominence on the PC because of, well, the clue is in the name – personal computer. Super Nintendos and Sega Genesis’ were far more communal gaming devices, coming with multiple ports and joypad for multi-player gaming. The iPhone, however, returns to that ethos of personal experience. Though the opportunities for multi-play are there, reliance on internet connections and having enough users or over-the-air support hinders this progress.
As a result, games developers for iPhone have been making huge steps towards releasing more and more narrative-driven games, whether in the form of the storybook like the Lifeline series, or reboots or ports of classic games. We’re talking the likes of LucasArts’ Monkey Island series which started in 1990 and hit iOS in 2010 in the form of Monkey Island Tales. It tells the tale of Guybrush Threepwood as he struggles to become the most notorious pirate in the Caribbean.
But there are only so many ports of old games that can be made. Though the recently released Kathy Rain piqued our attention with its story of a young journalist investigating the death of her grandfather. It looks and feels like a classic point and click game and its throwback intentions are clear. It’s even set in the mid-90s. However, other contemporaries are reviving the genre for the 21st century.
One of the out and out successes is easily 2014’s The Silent Age, developed by Danish developer House on Fire. It started life on iOS before adding a new voice cast to the game and jumping to the wider Steam platform for PC and Macs, before finally making the leap to the Apple TV in October of this year.
The story is set in the Cold War America of 1972 and sees the game’s protagonist Joe, who, after making a remarkable discovery, embarks on a quest to save mankind using time travel to jump between ’72 and 2012.
Following the game’s Apple TV release, we went back to House on Fire and spoke to Uni Dahl, co-founder and CEO of the game studio to find out more about its origins, their motivation, and the state of games output on the App Store.
Tapsmart: When did you first start developing the Silent Age and how did the idea come to you?
Uni Dahl: Me, Linda and Thomas started House on Fire back in 2011. All three of us found ourselves out of a job, and thought: let’s try making a development studio. The idea itself is inspired by one of Thomas’ hobbies, urban exploration, which is exploring and photographing old abandoned buildings.
What was the first platform that you first starting creating the game for – was iOS where you originally envisioned it ending up?
During development we used Android devices a lot, as it was easier to deploy test builds as we progressed. We also did a lot of testing on the PC itself, so the game was always functioning on PC. But the plan was always to make an iOS game. The iPad to be specific. It was always envisioned as a game to be enjoyed on the couch, so releasing on Apple TV seems a perfect fit for that purpose. But since the iPad was very new at the time, it seemed stupid not to support and adapt the interface to iPhones as well. Their smaller screen did pose a challenge though, but I think it has worked well.
Tell us a little more about adding a voice cast to the game – what made you decide to continue the development of the existing game?
After our mobile release, we met with a publisher, who loved the game, and wanted to bring it to PC and Steam. So we wanted to up the quality, and provide something more for the Steam release. We redid the graphics in UHD and added voice overs. Of course that changes the experience a lot, giving voice to our character, who previously had been silent, but we’re very happy with the results.
Many developers never get round to creating Apple TV compatible apps. Why was it important that Silent Age has a presence there?
Developing for the Apple TV does pose some challenges with the hardware limitations. So we did spend some time porting the game, so I understand developers are reluctant. I think Apple needs to push it more as a gaming platform, but let’s see what the future brings.
Why do you think the game has had such a strong response? Is there something about the subject or the character that people grasped onto?
I think the combination of a very unique art style by Thomas and the brilliant writing by our writer, Anders Petersen is what has kept people engaged.
The App Store is full of games that copy popular trends or easy puzzlers or platforms that can be churned out. Silent Age is obviously far more unique – do you think other developers should be looking to create more games with a focus on narrative and storytelling and would you say there’s enough of an audience to sustain more games like this?
I think there is an extreme challenge in creating games like this, because the market is flooded with free-to-play games. Even on iOS, where players are maybe 4 times more likely to pay for a game, succeeding with an adventure game is a very difficult, and a risky business. The earning potential is limited compared to a never-ending free-to-play game, so investors are less likely to invest in such games. But it’s the kind of games that I prefer.
In the end, I think most developers focus on what can bring food on the table. And for the most part, that’s not story-driven games.
We reviewed The Silent Age following its iOS release and gave it a solid four and a half stars out of five, praising it for its attention to characters as well as puzzles. We’ve tried out the Apple TV version too and it’s well-worth playing the game on the big screen if you have access to one. However, we believe The Silent Age holds its own across all Apple devices.
Download The Silent Age for iOS ($4.99 / £3.99):
Of course, The Silent Age aside, there’s a tonne of great adventure games on iOS besides the ones we’ve already mentioned. But where do you start? If you want a list of top, narrative-driven games to keep you entertained through 2017, here’s our list of five top titles:
1. Day of the Tentacle: Remastered – $4.99/£3.99
A classic title that’s finally made it to iOS. This is one of the better point and click ports on the iPhone. The game sees the player guide a gang of misfits through a time travel adventure full of comic moments as the group attempts to prevent a giant purple tentacle from taking over the world. The graphics have been fully remastered but all of the classic fun is there.
2. Broken Age – $4.99/£3.99
Broken Age is very reminiscent of old point and click titles, and is a clear homage. This game is an original title released just a couple of years back. It was originally crowd-funded and has a voice cast featuring a number of famous names including Elijah Wood and Jack Black. It’s hand-animated, filled with puzzles and tells a beautiful coming-of-age story between two teenagers in similar situations across different worlds. It also features barfing trees and talking spoons. Awesome.
3. Gemini Rue – $4.99/£3.99
Another adventure game with a strong narrative. This is a beautifully-paced noir thriller that tells dual stories that eventually converge. There’s an engaging sci-fi adventure at its heart, too, as former assassin Azriel Odin embarks on a journey to find his brother. Meanwhile, Dealt-Six is an amnesiac trapped inside a medical institution.
4. Mutants vs. The Chosen – Free
An odd one. Mutants vs. The Chosen tells the story of Earth in the future, where many suffer from poverty, disease and genetic mutations. Gunmen from The Chosen (those without mutations) invade a small village near a ruined city to attack the mutants that live there. Riam, a mutant, decides to standup to the chosen. The game was created on GameStylus.com which allows the creation of point and click adventure games. It’s not as silky smooth as some of the other titles, but that in itself gives it a retro sheen. The artwork is retro-apocalyptic and everything adds up to a very odd, but unique title. Plus it’s free, and there’s a sequel waiting for those that enjoy the title.
5. Facility 47 (Free – unlock full game for $3.99/£2.99)
Another great title set in the 70s – clearly the most mysterious decade so far. You wake up alone and freezing in a cell, with no windows, and few clues. What you do have is a letter, and a bottle of sleeping pills. What’s going on? The letter is a recurring theme to the game which uses journal entries from others to steadily unveil the story, while various puzzles which range from finding keys, fixing things, or using a dart or taking samples, keeps the player engaged. It’s difficult to say much more without giving away the mystery, but when we reviewed this game a year ago, we gave it a full five stars.