'Assemble with Care' sets the standard for Apple Arcade exclusives

A short but wonderful game about fixing old technology and relationships.

I've never been much of a tinkerer. I look after my favorite gadgets -- new and old -- wiping them down, swaddling them in cases and backing up whatever personal data they might hold. But I've never been part of the 'maker movement' and rarely use a screwdriver to pry them open and make more than simplistic repairs.

If, like me, you have unrealized dreams of becoming an electrician or antique restorer, you should check out Assemble with Care. The latest title from Ustwo Games, the London-based studio behind Monument Valley and Land's End, is all about fixing sentimental items. Throughout its roughly two-hour adventure, you'll repair a dozen-or-so objects including a cassette deck, film camera and handheld game console. A few of the items aren't electrical -- there's an old camping stove, for instance, and an analog watch -- but the most memorable and challenging involve some buttons and colorful circuitry.

Ustwo Games prides itself on making games for a broad, so-called "casual" audience to enjoyed. "The strategy for the company has been to take what's great about games and deliver them to a casual audience," Dan Gray, chief creative officer at Ustwo Games told Engadget. Each object, therefore, is simpler than its real-life counterpart and has fewer components to contend with. Still, it takes time to break down an object, understand how it works and what needs to be replaced.

Ustwo Games has clearly designed Assemble with Care with touchscreens in mind. It's an Apple Arcade exclusive, though, which means you'll be able to play with a mouse or trackpad on your Mac and a touchpad remote on AppleTV. I played the iPhone version, which uses a portrait orientation exclusively -- on other platforms, the entire game will be flipped sideways and reorganized a little bit. "It's not the same thing, but with dead space left and right. We went through the effort of rebuilding it in landscape and having to maintain different versions," Gray explained.

On a smartphone, the top half of the screen shows the tools and components at your disposal, while the bottom section is saved for whatever you're currently working on. The limited number of parts mean that somehow -- miraculously, even -- your virtual workbench never feels cramped or overwhelming. Everything you need is on a single screen, too, so you never have to dig into sub-menus or secondary pages.

"The 'meditative head space' was really important."

You can rotate your partially completed project and long-press parts you wish to pull off and discard or examine separately. Some elements you can trigger with a single tap -- pressing the play button on the cassette deck, for instance -- to check whether they're working.

Every repair is a multi-step process. With the unashamedly Game Boy-inspired handheld, for instance, I had to take off the rear panels and carefully remove a broken screen and A button. Some of the LEGO-like hardware chips were fried, too, so I swapped those out and reattached the stretchy wires. "The 'meditative head space' is the thing that was really important," Joel Beardshaw, lead game designer on Assemble with Care told Engadget. "It's having something that lets you get into the rhythm of just being with this object and spending enough time to get to know it."

Assemble with Care

How a typical repair looks on iPhone.

It's not the first time Ustwo has focused on a feeling of zen-like chill. The company's Nordic studio worked with Pauseable, a Danish mental-wellness company, on an "interactive meditation" app called Sway in 2017.

There's an almost indescribable joy and satisfaction to each step. To loosen a screw, for instance, you have to grab the screwdriver and swipe your finger in a clockwise (or was it counterclockwise?) direction. The part will then fly to a nearby cup for safe keeping, almost like a room tidying itself in the Harry Potter universe. "If you pull [the stretchy wires] to their extremity, the phone will start to vibrate a little bit and you can pop them off," Gray said. "It's nothing like how [real] wires work, but it's fun."

The game has plenty of signposting, too. Areas for gluing have a distinct crosshatch pattern to highlight them, and a white silhouette will appear if it's possible to place a part in a particular area. These small visual elements point you in the right direction without giving the entire solution away. "We spent months at the beginning [of the project] trying to get the feel right," Beardshaw said.

Assemble with Care

Dan Gray, chief creative officer at Ustwo Games.

At first, the team experimented with puzzles that had more tools and 'red herring' parts to play with. "We could have unfurled a tool belt that had six different things in it," Gray said. "[But] that comes with the expectation of being able to glue everything, and screw everything, and use all the tools and the wire, everything. Actually, it made it a spider web of options. It wasn't that enjoyable to play unless you facilitated literally everything."

Clearly, Ustwo Games isn't shooting for absolute realism here. You won't be spending hours with a Haynes instruction manual (a couple of the later puzzles do come with a single-page doodle, though) or learn the difference between a Phillips and hex screwdriver head. "Make no mistake, you will learn nothing about how any of these objects work," Gray said with a chuckle. Each chapter, though, successfully imitates the most important or memorable design features of each object. That makes the repairs delightful and satisfying to solve, even if you know that what you're doing isn't *quite* the real deal.

"We did loads of research up front," Beardshaw explained, "and were like, 'what are the most interesting things in-among these things? What are the bits that are quirky or surprising?' Also, what creates an interesting reaction at the end? What is the [one] thing that you want it to do once it springs to life and you've restored it?"

Fixing an object will reveal more about its owner.

Tying the puzzles together is a story told in a colorful picture-book style. You play Maria, a frequent traveller and antique restorer who has recently arrived in Bellariva. The illustrations and low-key soundtrack, which includes occasional birdsong and cafe chatter, conveys a relaxed and sun-soaked town. Running low on cash, Maria puts up some flyers that get residents to approach her with broken goods. With each restoration, you learn a little more about the owner and their relationship with another character in the game. Before too long, you realize that your repairs are helping these people to open up and 'fix' their lost or fraying relationships.

Assemble with Care is ultimately about empathy and learning to appreciate someone else's problems and perspectives. Gray said: "When you look across the world, whether it be the UK or US, there's a massive problem [because] nobody is taking the time to empathize with people they disagree with. Right? You might not see eye-to-eye with them. It might seem untenable, your relationship with them." In the game, he explained, Maria becomes a therapist for the people attached to each object.

Your repairs are helping these people to open up and 'fix' their lost or fraying relationships.

"There's something fascinating about when you go to the barber or you get into a taxi, and you end up in these strangely intimate conversations with somebody you don't know and isn't your friend," he continued. "There's this weird service-level stuff and it's like, 'How would [a game] work if somebody brought something into your shop and you spoke to them while you assembled this thing [for them]? That seems really amazing."

The story and its 'fixing' analogy can feel a little on the nose. The game's short length also means that relationships seemingly repair overnight. Still, the characters are complex, likeable and superbly voice acted. By the end, I couldn't help but feel optimistic about society and, cheesy as it may sound, encouraged to call up friends and family members who I've fallen out of touch with.

Assemble with Care

Joel Beardshaw, lead game designer on Assemble with Care.

Assemble with Care is a wonderful way to spend a morning or afternoon. If you're looking at Apple Arcade and wondering what to play next, this should absolutely be near the top of your list. Who knows, it might encourage you to grab a toolbox and repair some of the old or broken technology lying around your home. Alternatively, It could nudge you to pick up the phone and call someone you love. "The metaphor is exact between those two things," Gray said. Maybe you won't figure out how to, you know, help these objects precisely work. But you might figure out [that you want] to pick up a phone and call someone who maybe you've not seen eye to eye with, and see if you can reconnect. That would be amazing."

Assemble with Care is available now on Apple Arcade.