Taking Mobile Narrative Seriously (Part I): Rayark International

Mobile games. Just take a second to recognise the preconceptions and bias that phrase has conjured in you. I’m not here to tell you that you’re mistaken — there is more than enough rough in which to dig for diamonds. This post however is the first in a series designed to highlight the most innovative mobile games and the studios behind them; games that are great in isolation and/or because of being playable on mobiles, not despite it.

Rayark International is a Taiwanese developer, focusing on beautiful experiences whose gameplay often incorporates narrative in some kind of innovative structure. I’m going to focus on their two most recent releases, although their whole catalogue is worthy of study.

First up is Cytus II, a a touch-screen based rhythm game with an awesome narrative that is well realised and delivered in a fascinating manner. I just completed the game’s main narrative after approx. 5 hours of hugely enjoyable touch-rhythm/finger-melting play, and I’m hugely impressed.

The game’s story is told primarily through forum style posts from a wide array of fictional fans of the three main artists whose songs you play through. This is very much a case of storysense– not much happens to each character in a linear fashion, but the picture really builds up through the various posts and replies of the commenters.

What I love about this system is that, first and foremost, it’s totally diegetic, and therefore immersive. Rhythm games aren’t usually known for their storylines, although in something like the Persona: Dance All Night series, narrative exists but is very much a kind of cartoon shell protecting the actual gameplay nutmeat. Here, it’s seamless, can easily be ignored, and almost as easily absorbed.

Also, it’s impressive how many themes such a system manages to tackle. It’s all a satire on fandom really, but also the dangers of the cult of celebrity. It casts a wry eye on the culture of internet-addiction, has some hilarious nods to gaming culture at large, and even manages to ask a few subtle questions about the value of music that’s been created by an AI, and therefore in comparison what humanity brings to the table. It briefly flirts with celebrity-beef, swings by the irony of classical music having become cool again because of its scarcity and somehow even manages to sneak in a critique of online censorship.

Rayark’s other recent release is Sdorica Sunset. Yes, it’s technically free to play, but it really doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with others of that ilk, as it’s primarily a narrative adventure game, with no PvP that just happens to have a micro-transactions model.

The game’s narrative — along with the the hilarious writing and vibrant characterisation throughout — can all be experienced easily without paying a cent. And the gameplay, which is side-scrolling RPG with a riff on match-3 elements, is surprisingly fun into the bargain.

The overarching story of Sdorica is, admittedly, the usual stuff and nonsense, but what makes it brilliant is the relationships between the heroes you can collect. These characters — from the princess slumming it in disguise to the foppish, cowardly and conniving courtier — are wonderfully sketched, written and animated. It doesn’t help that it’s all set against a gorgeously realised watercolour fantasy kingdom. Delve into their codex entries and you’ll be rewarded with colourful flavour text, that carries neatly into their visual design and evolved forms.

There’s something the game does too, which is very clever in the way it riffs on usual mobile game conventions. There are timed events — in other games, an excuse to make you pay to be powerful enough to complete them in time– that allow you to hone in on one character’s backstory, or what they’re doing while the core narrative progresses through other characters. It encourages you to try out playing as the whole cast, including characters you’ve not unlocked yet, and often reveals another heartbreaking or wry perspective on events.

There’s also an episodic nature to the core story — which makes sense for production reasons and is also easier to swallow when each one is actually free. And it’s something to look forward to!

All told, Rayark are doing something in the casual and free to play space that I can’t see anyone else doing. They’re creating high production value, brilliantly written games with fleshed out stories that actually work with the device in your hand — and the way you typically use it — rather than exploiting or shoehorning something into it.