ANDROID / iOS / STEAM (ANDROID VERSION REVIEWED)
Note: This is a plot-heavy game that deals with a sensitive topic. Those who have already played through the game will have noticed that I have deliberately not used certain words and descriptions in a way that may seem ignorant. I have only done so in order to avoid spoilers and to ensure the player goes into the game knowing what they’re supposed to know at that stage.
Would you hand it in to the police and hope it made its way back to its original owner? Would you search its address book for a number called ‘home’ or something similar and call it to let them know you found it?
Or would you search through the user’s messages, emails, dating app and photo gallery in order to find out more about their life?
A Normal Lost Phone works on the assumption that you’d go with the last of these options, and that’s really the only major problem I have with it.
The idea is that by trawling through the personal data of the owner, a boy called Sam, you’ll eventually find out about his life and, ultimately, discover why the phone went missing in the first place.
It soon becomes clear as you work your way through Sam’s messages that all is not rosy in his life. His girlfriend’s pissed off at him for some reason, his dad’s wondering where he is and some of his board game chums keep referring to a big secret.
Revealing what this secret is would sort of ruin the entire point of the game, so I won’t. Needless to say, though, Sam is struggling to deal with an awkward situation a number of people encounter in their real lives.
A Normal Lost Phone, then, is an attempt to show you what life is like for people who share a similar ‘secret’ to Sam, and how it affects their relationships with friends, family and… um, fornication associates. Sorry, I couldn’t think of a word for ‘partners’ that started with an ‘F’.
The text messages only form part of Sam’s story, and by the time you’ve read through them all you have more questions than answers. This is where the game’s puzzles come into play, as you use the information in the texts to figure out how to access other areas of the phone.
Can’t get into Sam’s dating app because there’s no internet connection? You’ll need to read through the text conversations to figure out what the town’s free Wi-Fi security key is, then work out the password for his account.
For the most part the answers to these puzzles are strongly hinted at throughout the text, email and forum communications you eventually gain access to, though one or two of these solutions are a tad tenuous.
A couple of times I found myself trawling back through all the messages again, in case I’d missed something obvious in my quest to unlock the next part of the story. This wasn’t a massive issue, mind you, because I did eventually manage to reach the end on my own.
You probably will too, and it’ll probably only take you an hour or two to beat it. This is a game that wants you to reach the end for obvious reasons: it has an important message about society and it wants to make sure you get it.
While this message is undeniably one that more people need to be exposed to, the game does wander a little close to preachiness than some will be happy with, including those who already sympathise with Sam’s situation.
It’s also difficult to accept a game that tries to extol the virtues of decency when the central mechanic is snooping on a stranger’s private and extremely personal information to a degree that’s downright intrusive.
At one point you send a draft email on Sam’s behalf in order to get a reply. In another you post a private photo of him to someone else. These are actions that, morally, are shakier than riding a bike on cobblestones, no matter how noble the consequences are.
If you can put up with this ethical quandary, A Normal Lost Phone is a finely constructed game. The story is paced well and does a good job of slowly revealing the plot to you in a non-linear fashion similar to Her Story (though it’s far less ambiguous).
For only a couple of quid it’ll keep you intrigued for an hour or two, and the message is still a worthwhile one even if it’s told with all the subtlety of a slap in the dick.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is just how comfortable you are with the idea of doing a Piers Morgan and snooping through someone’s phone without their permission to find out more about them.
At the end (without spoiling any plot points), the game implies that you may want to wipe the phone’s data to protect Sam’s secret, thereby essentially telling you that what you’ve been doing for the past hour or two was dodgy as fuck.
This would be alright if it was a spy game and you were a secret agent trying to find important information that could prevent a global terrorism event. But it isn’t: it is, as the game itself points out, A Normal Lost Phone, belonging to a normal boy who’s found himself in a difficult personal and deeply private situation.
The result is a game that has you wondering whether the end justifies the means, because even though the final message is undoubtedly important, the way you get there is questionable.
If only he’d just put a bloody security code on his phone.
A Normal Lost Phone is available for download now on Android, iOS and Steam for £1.99 / $2.99.
In order that I could write this review, I received a free download code for the game from the developer. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.
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