We need more empathy today. We need more opportunities to understand people around us, how they feel, what they fear, and where they find value in themselves and the world as they see it. When created with thoughtfulness and authenticity, narrative games, like other character-driven experiences such as movies or plays, have the potential to provoke meaningful empathy in their players.
The creators of A Normal Lost Phone, through mindful workshopping, community feedback and compassionate character development, have developed a game that addresses challenging issues of coming of age, sexuality, and gender, in an engaging interactive experience that feels completely natural. Consider how much of what you think about, what you struggle with, and what you love can be found on your phone, and what would someone learn about you if they found it?
A Normal Lost Phone is based on the premise that you—your actual self as you are, reading this article right now—finds an unlocked mobile phone. Based on frantic, unanswered messages from concerned family and friends, you quickly learn that Sam, the owner of the phone, has disappeared. You must navigate the phone’s operating system, including social apps, wifi access, even the weather forecast, to learn about Sam and try to figure out what has happened.
Those who enjoyed the mechanics of discovery in murder mystery Her Story will find similar enjoyment in exploring Sam’s phone, opening up apps and reading through messages to find connections. Those connections become clues to unlocking other areas of the phone. Fans of gamebooks such as the Lifeline Series will also enjoy sending and receiving real-time communications.
I do recommend dedicating some focused, distraction-free time to playing the game because you’ll need to read everything carefully to catch details that reveal how to unlock new areas. There were several times when I had to tediously go back through several long message and email threads which I didn’t read closely enough the first time. I would have loved some kind of optional hint system that was cleanly integrated into the fictional OS because I can imagine folks getting frustrated if they are unable to figure out certain passwords to progress. For example, a push notification of an in-game text message with optional hint,24-hours after an abandoned play session would be a great way to keep people moving forward through the narrative. Additionally, the ability to flag certain messages to go back to later would be really helpful to mitigate some of the irksome scroll-throughs and repetitive reading.
Ultimately, the desire to keep searching for clues to solve each subsequent puzzle comes from caring about the phone’s owner, Sam. As I learned more about the character, by way of these private conversations to which I now had access, I became increasingly more invested in the story and more concerned about Sam’s abrupt disappearance. The opening screen of the game provides a warning that “some characters express homophobic, misogynistic and generally bigoted views” which certainly heightens anxiety around Sam’s mysterious disappearance. Sam’s struggles and all of the aspects of Sam’s life as they are revealed are both moving and motivating.
After solving all of the puzzles, opening up all of the locked apps and accessing all of the incoming and outgoing messages, a resolution is provided and you have an opportunity to honor Sam in one final, meaningful action. Altogether the game functions as a holistic experience with a natural intuitive interface that feels like a real operating system. Progression through the game, along with Sam’s character development feels authentic and true to life. A Normal Lost Phone is thoughtfully designed, leveraging voyeurism, curiosity, responsibility, and compassion to tell a strong, character-driven story unlocked through satisfying puzzle-solving.