Say what you will about all the advances and unique opportunities iPhone gaming has brought with it — indie dev accessibility, previously unimagined levels of direct touch-control — but one area that’s still essentially untread is story: an engrossing narrative behind all our quick-burst prods, flicks and pokes.
At first glance, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor [App Store link] — the debut game from Tiger Style, a collective co-founded by former Thief designer Randy Smith and Midway/Ubisoft/Ion Storm developer David Kalina — follows suit. But just first glance.
At its core, Spider is the game you’d expect from any led by an arachnid star. As you start your micro-epic journey through the titular Manor — one that takes you from its front porch, though its foyer, down into the bowels of its plumbing and up, finally, through its attic and out — you’ll be doing what it is spiders do: ridding the long-since abandoned house of its insect infestation by building cohesive shapes out of your finger-flicked threads.
Three or more interconnected silk strings linked around — or in the path of — the bugs will snap a web into place, where they’ll be caught and ready to be eaten and converted into more silk in your bank to spin further webs.
Taken just on this level, the game’s an absolute success: Tiger Style have managed to make simply moving through and exploring its environment fun in and of itself, and to make a rewarding skill out of building tight, precise shapes from the hooks each room gives (or denies) you.
But it’s in the course of this very simple pleasure that you — if you’re paying attention, anyway — begin to realize that the house was abandoned perhaps more quickly than you’d originally thought, and that its inhabitants left behind the story of a lifetime, literally: clues to who they were through the generations, and why, perhaps, they left.
And this subverted story is where Spider begins to really shine, because, as you plumb further into both the house and the story’s depths, you realize that there truly is a Secret in Bryce Manor, one that’s quite possibly been right under your nose the entire time (and quite possibly hinted at somewhere in this very write-up itself).
That moment of discovery, and the subsequent search for more clues, is what makes the game stand apart from nearly all others on the App Store: it’s certainly one of the smartest games on the device in making you an active — if originally unwitting — participant in its unraveling narrative, and especially for embedding that in an otherwise entirely approachable and accessible mechanic.
Because the story of and adventure through Bryce Manor isn’t the beginning and end of the game: Tiger Style have also included a number of challenge modes that test those learned web-building skills with a time-limited Feeding Frenzy mode, a silk-limited Precision mode, and Hunger Mode, a section that requires you to spin and eat more, faster as time wears on.
All of these, including the story mode, are smartly built on top seamless Facebook/leaderboard/achievement integration, rendered in a gorgeous storybook-illustrated style that’s remarkably unique for any game, let alone on the iPhone, and made up of mechanics that are perfectly, irreplaceably suited for the device itself.
Like Eliss, Drop 7, the Rolando series, and a very, very small handful of other games wading in the App Store’s vast polluted sea, it’s one of my most unreserved and heartfelt recommendations: it’s an unmissable experience, and a game that gives me hope that the iPhone still has many surprises and secrets left to offer.