You’re walking down the street, minding your own business, when you spot a cell phone abandoned on the pavement. You look around, hoping to alert the owner. But no one’s around. What do you do?
This question is at the heart of not one but three recent mobile games that take very different approaches to the same dilemma. (All three of these games are also available for PC, but due to the phoney—ha!—nature of the gameplay, they’re a natural fit on mobile devices.) What can you learn about the person who lost this phone? Can you guess their passwords and figure out how to access protected files? How far are you willing to go to help out a stranger?
A Normal Lost Phone
In this $2.99 download from French developer Accidental Queens, the lost phone belongs to Sam, a high schooler struggling with identity issues. As you power up the phone, a series of increasingly concerned texts from Dad tip you off that Sam has just run out on his eighteenth birthday party, and his family is worried.
The user interface in A Normal Lost Phone is distinctly cartoony but the themes are grounded in reality, with Sam’s texts revealing a recent break-up, familial conflict over a gay cousin, and secrets Sam is keeping from his parents. A bit of digging through text, emails, and eventually profiles on an online dating site reveal that Sam is not the person his family and friends believe he is. If you liked teen-centric games like Gone Home and Life Is Strange, you’ll probably be drawn into Sam’s personal drama as well.
Sara Is Missing
In this free download from Kaigan Games, the lost phone belongs to a young woman who disappeared after a mysterious rendezvous a few nights earlier, and Siri is worried. Okay, it’s not Siri exactly, but this game gives you a digital personal assistant named IRIS to chat with, adding a dimension of interaction beyond simply snooping on someone’s lost phone. In Sara Is Missing, you aren’t only trying to find out what already happened, you immediately get mixed up in a story that’s still unfolding.
The interface is hyper-realistic, with photos, FMV, and virus-related performance issues seriously blurring the line between the real device you’re playing on and the fake one you’re playing with. Once again you’ll mainly piece together the story by exploring texts and apps on the phone, but here you must also share your findings with the AI by pressing your finger on details you think are relevant. You even need to make a few time-sensitive choices that impact Sara’s fate. The game is dark and at times gory, with a “found footage” vibe reminiscent of Lexis Numérique’s MISSING: Since January and the movie The Blair Witch Project.
Replica: A Little Temporary Safety
A $1.99 download from South Korean developer Somi, Replica is a bit different in that you haven’t found a lost phone—it’s been handed to you by a government agency digging for dirt on ordinary citizens. Here you play not as yourself but as Tom Ripley, a high school student detained by Homeland Security at some point before you (the player) jumped in. Find proof that the phone’s owner (a classmate imprisoned in the next cell) is involved in subversive anti-government activities, and in exchange Homeland Security will set you and your family free from detention.
Replica’s interface is the least phone-like of the three games, with a chunky pixel art style reminiscent of the low-fi 1980s. I have no problem with pixel art in my adventure games (hey, I’m a child of the ’80s!), but I had a hard time wrapping my head around a smart phone interface that looks like an old Sierra game. It’s also hard on the eyes, which doesn’t bode well for a game that’s all reading. But the interface does make it absolutely clear that this is not the real world. It may remind you of another retro-styled, vaguely political game: Papers, Please.
These “lost phone” games understandably have gameplay elements in common. In all three, you’ll hack into password-protected apps, analyze personal photos, and try to gain access to protected files. You’ll even interact with the phone owner’s contacts, although the extent of this interaction varies a lot depending on the game. In A Normal Lost Phone, interaction is minimal because Sam’s phone doesn’t have any credits for making calls. In Sara Is Missing, you can “chat” with other characters at several points, but you do this by choosing among pre-determined lines, just like a dialogue tree in an adventure game, so it’s not truly a conversation. You do have the option to type responses, but if you don’t type the suggested words, the game overwrites your input with what it wants you to type, so there’s no freedom. Replica also includes text chats but these are totally scripted with no choice at all (think of them as text-based cutscenes).
While the phone-related gameplay seems clever and appropriate in isolation, playing these games in succession revealed a lot of overlap, such as passwords based on dates identified in the phones’ text messages and calendars. To be fair, anyone who owns a smart phone does the same basic activities with it, and it’s logical that the owners of these make-believe phones do the same sorts of things with theirs. But considering all three of these phone games start with essentially the same puzzle and the same solution, I have to wonder if this is a sustainable subgenre or a novelty that’s already wearing out its welcome.Continued on the next page...