What would you do if you found a stranger’s phone in the street? This simple question is the starting point of A Normal Lost Phone, a short game that was released last January. In an unexpected turn of events, Sam’s phone ended up in your hands. Who is Sam? This is something you will have to figure out by yourself, along with the reason why that phone was abandoned in the first place. Short messages, dating apps, passwords and WiFi settings – you will have to make your way through the phone’s data, with only one goal in mind: discovering the story of its owner. Welcome in Sam’s private life.
Curiosity killed the cat
What could have easily been an unoriginal manifesto against the dangers of social media and the Internet actually manages to find the right balance and the right tone. A Normal Lost Phone does interrogate us about our somewhat unhealthy desire to sneak into other people’s lives, even the lives of total strangers. But the game remains quite neutral about it, by putting the player in an ambivalent situation, between curiosity and guilt. Here you are in front of a normal phone, absolutely ordinary, in which several apps are available for you to runmage through. Soon, without the game forcing your hand, you’ll find yourself reading through Sam’s messages. Sam’s father, Sam’s girlfriend, Sam’s classmates, Sam’s cousin – you’ll discover everything and everyone. And the more you read, the more you’ll want to read. You’ll read more than just the last messages and find yourself scrolling back to much older dates.
Then with a sort of compulsive curiosity, you’ll want to explore the other apps of the phone – the ones that are protected by a password. The frustration you’ll feel about not being able to access all applications won’t stop you – on the contrary, it will stimulate you and push you to search through the phone and find the passwords that’ll allow you to progress. Progressively, the game allows you to read more and more private contents, which will question your morality – to what extent is it okay for you to view this phone’s content? On that point, the game’s strength is its capacity to question your relationship to voyeurism, something where other “big” titles failed miserably, such as Watch Dogs which, even though its main gimmick was hacking and stealing private data, never allowed the player to think about the consequences.
A nice art direction
When I bought the game, I had only a vague idea of its concept in mind – a game that replicates a phone screen – and I wasn’t expecting a very exciting art direction. However, in spite of the game’s minimalist interface, the French developers of Accidental Queens do make an interesting proposal in terms of aesthetics. The game opts for an art direction that goes far away from the photorealism that might have been expected in such a game, in favor of “hand-drawn” graphics. The phone’s icons look like they were drawn with a pencil, the game’s palette is soft and watercolor-like, and the musical player keeps looping a playlist of original songs reminiscent of the melancholy of the “young adult” phase that Sam belongs to. The overall tone of the game reminded me a little of Life is Strange, with its pop/folk soundtrack, its washed-out colors and Max’s handwritten diary, as well as its use of exploring people’s private lives as a plot device.
A game about sexuality
A message warns you at the very beginning: the game may contain discriminating and homophobic contents. From there on, I was expecting Sam’s story to be related, one way or another, to the theme of homosexuality. I was under the impression that I knew exactly what to expect from the game, and that I had a clear idea of the story I was about to discover. I was wrong, however – the game does deal with LGBT themes, but it did manage to surprise me. I won’t say more for I don’t want to ruin the surprises for you, but as I explored this Normal Lost Phone, I discovered facets of Sam’s life that I did not see coming, even though they made perfect sense once the puzzle was complete.
Sexuality issues are a pivotal element of A Normal Lost Phone – how to accept one’s sexuality, in front of your friends, in front of your family, but also, and above all, in front of yourself. A Normal Lost Phone‘s best quality is its capacity to put the player at the heart of these interrogations. You get to live this work of self-acceptance, these doubts, these fears, through the eyes of the main character, or, in that case, through the main character’s phone screen. Every time you discover a new element in Sam’s phone – either a recently downloaded app, or an account on forums, you know from what you’ve read how exactly Sam felt at that very moment. By making the player use familiar interfaces – phone apps, web browsers – the game makes Sam’s issues feel familiar, even though they might have seemed far away at first sight. Whether or not you feel personally concerned by the LGBT cause, this game will make you feel involved. And better yet, it will inform you, educate you and change your point of view on important matters. It will open your mind in a very smart way. Open as it may seem, A Normal Lost Phone‘s narration is linear, as every main action in the game corresponds to the next step of the story, the next piece of truth about Sam’s disappearance. The developers lead you, through the narration, towards a very touching and interesting message about gender and sexuality, that feels quite new in the world of video games. You feel connected to Sam’s story – even more so because, unlike in other games, you don’t play as the hero, you are the hero. You found the phone, and only you can understand what happened. Up until the very end of the game, the player feels responsible, like he has a part to play in Sam’s story. The game makes you feel protective and benevolent towards Sam, this total stranger whose phone you happened to find.
A Normal Lost Phone
It isn’t easy to talk about this game without spoiling too much of it, so I can only advise you to play it and discover a surprising experience, with an original narration and a very instructive message. Although it looks simple and easy, A Normal Lost Phone is a breath of fresh air in the game industry, in that it talks about issues that were pretty much never mentioned in games before. Besides, that’s a French game. So there’s that.