A Normal Lost Phone: Player Experience and the Art of Discomfort
A little while ago, I found out about an indie game called A Normal Lost Phone from the company Accidental Queens. In it, you are yourself, finding a lost, unlocked phone belonging to a person named Sam. As you explore the phone, you find that Sam has mysteriously disappeared, and have to dig deeper into the phone to find out why. The game is an uncomfortable experience, and that’s a good thing. I want to talk a little about why that is.
Warning: There will be discussion of in-game content beyond this point, including spoilers and mentions of homophobia, transphobia, sexual assault, and general problems with society. If you want to avoid those topics or be able to experience the game yourself, step away now.
First, a quick plot summary: As you dig through this person’s phone, you start to notice various things. A person named Lola calling Sam a monster. Sam’s ex-girlfriend calling them toxic and saying to never speak to her again. A girl talking to Sam about a guy sexually assaulting her, then the guy telling Sam “you and your stupid girlfriend can fuck off too I bet you don’t even screw her you f**got”. You realize that there’s something about Sam that you don’t know yet. You find wi-fi passwords, read emails, guess passwords. Suddenly you’re breaking into Sam’s two dating app accounts and you find out Sam’s big secret: Sam is a transgender woman. You just forcibly outed her to yourself. You stop and ask yourself, What am I doing? Why am I doing this? The game just excels at making you feel uncomfortable with what you’re doing, but drawing you in so much but you just can’t stop looking through. One of the people on Sam’s female-identified dating profile is asking for a photo, and it seems like Sam was interested in sending one; Sam had written a draft message for it before she disappeared. Here’s where I ran into my problem with the game: As far as I had gone in it, I had only found photos of Sam while she was presenting male. I had missed the clues earlier on that directed you in the right path. Having to send masculine photos of someone who identified feminine was entirely too much for me, so I deleted the app. I messaged the game’s developers about my concerns about what I had to do, which I interpreted as outing a random person against their will, and they gave me a very good reply, which completely changed my perspective on the game.
After learning you could find photos of Sam presenting femme, I set about to do so. It turned out that to find a picture to send, you have to go to an LGBT forum Sam went on, figure out her dad’s age from Sam’s photo of her dad’s birthday, figure out which photo Sam posted was actually her, then send it to Phil, the person asking for photos. Once I hit the in-game send button, I had another moment where I had to stop myself and ask exactly what I was doing. I had just used personal information to break into an account for the third time, downloaded pictures of people I didn’t know, and used one of those pictures to impersonate a stranger. I had to put the phone down for a second to think to myself about why I was doing it. What do I gain out of doing this? Yeah, I get further in the game, but what’s the point of doing that if I have to break open some random person’s deepest secrets to do so? Couldn’t I just wipe the phone and go on with my life? I thought for a little while, and decided that for the sake of the game I would continue to keep playing. Keep solving puzzles. Keep breaking into the phone. Keep prying into the deepest, darkest secrets of someone I didn’t even know.
I finally got to the end of the game. I had broken into Sam’s secret diary and read every entry, learning how she didn’t feel safe in her town because of all its homophobia, and how her having to have a double identity had ruined most of her social life. Then, Sam’s phone got an email. It was a conversation between Sam and Alice, happening while you were snooping through all of Sam’s stuff. Sam had run away to another nearby city, which was much more open and accepting, and had thrown her phone away to leave her old life behind. Alice makes a comment about whoever finding the phone erasing it to keep Sam’s trail clear, and I went to do just that. The credits started rolling and I took a deep breath. The game was such an uncomfortable experience. I had to violate someone’s privacy to the very core, outing them to me and even impersonating them, and it just gave me an overwhelming sense of discomfort. However, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The game uses discomfort as a method to get across a message, and it does so beautifully.
When games want to have a message, there are a few ways to go about showing it. Games can draw parallels to modern world, use metaphors (my favorite example of this is Doom 2016, with hell energy being a metaphor for capitalism), or state the message outright. Having an outright-stated message can seem like it’s forcing an agenda if done poorly, but if done well it can enhance a story in incredible ways and give it more depth than it could ever have without. If you have an outright message, it’s good to give it a vehicle as well, something to help convey the message in a way that doesn’t seem jarring or forcing it in. A good message fits within the narrative and world created by the game, and has a strong vehicle to deliver with. In A Normal Lost Phone’s case, the vehicle for the message is discomfort. The game lets you look at whatever you want on the phone. You can see any conversation, any email, any photo. You can break into accounts using information from other places, and absolutely nobody will stop you. That’s what’s so uncomfortable about the game. You shouldn’t be able to do that. You shouldn’t do that, period. At every step you’re telling yourself I shouldn’t be doing this. I should turn back before it gets any worse. At a certain point, you just start ignoring how uncomfortable it feels and keep going just for the sake of completing the game.
However, once you beat the game, you realize that you could just end it as soon as you start by erasing the phone. The end of the game was right at your fingertips, but you just kept going. If you make it to the very end of the puzzle, you get the message: you should have just wiped the phone as soon as you got it. It taps into all the discomfort you feel breaking into every facet of someone’s life, and hits you hard by telling you “you shouldn’t have done any of that”. That’s part of what the game dev, Miryam Houali, wrote to me: “The game doesn’t promote outing or impersonating, but you *can* do it -or not, because you could also just erase the phone’s data and stop playing. That’s a valid ending and one we knew some people would choose.” You don’t have to go through the whole experience to get the best ending. You just have to wipe the phone. I mentioned how I didn’t feel comfortable with having Sam outed to the player without Sam’s permission, Houali replied saying that “This is a game that is supposed to make people uncomfortable. Because it IS morally wrong to peer into a stranger’s intimate life, and the game says nothing else than exactly that.” The level of discomfort I felt playing A Normal Lost Phone is something I’ve only once gotten from a game before, with the genocide ending of Undertale. It has that same air of discomfort, of the game telling you at every possibility that this is wrong, that this is the wrong way to play the game. At a point, like with A Normal Lost Phone, you just have to distance yourself and devote yourself to completing it purely to find out what happens. That’s not a good thing to do, and the game makes absolute sure you know.
As I mentioned before, After Houali messaged me, my perspective on the game changed completely. I think it’s interesting how one missed clue flipped me between thinking it’s a transphobic mess and thinking it’s a brilliantly-designed story that uses its discomfort to drive its message home. Why did one piece of information have that much impact on my perspective? I think it might be related to how LGBT characters are typically treated in media. Trans narratives typically have a lot of emphasis on having to hammer home the fact that the person is trans over and over, and they often deadname trans characters repeatedly to do so. I guess that being required to send a photo of a trans woman presenting masculinely is exactly what I expected from a game that has a trans character in it, so missing the fact that you could get a feminine-presenting picture of them made it seem like sending a masculine picture was the only option, confirming my expectations. That’s definitely a problem with myself for expecting for the game to be just like all the others and that affecting my interpretation of events in the game, but there is the long-standing issue of poor treatment of trans issues in games and media.
I’ve seen some good trans narratives in the past, but also a lot of bad ones. Some of the most common bad narratives and general poor trans reatment I’ve seen are:
- “Trans people are rapists” narratives. (Narratives like this are the sort of story that transphobes used to get North Carolina House Bill 2 passed, banning trans people from using the right bathroom because the proponents said trans women were going into women’s bathrooms to spy on/rape cis women.)
- “Deceiving trans women” stories, including “guy in a dress” jokes, guys pretending to be girls, and similar narratives. (This shouldn’t even need to be explained, really. Those sort of jokes make it seem like trans women are just pretending to be girls, which invalidates their entire existence.)
- Deadnaming or misgendering trans characters to show they’re trans. (Deadnaming is calling a trans person by their birth name, and misgendering is referring to someone as the wrong gender. While they can be rarely used to prove points about transphobia, a lot of authors prefer to use these liberally to introduce someone as a trans character. It’s really invalidating to the character’s identity and just is overall tasteless.)
- Casting cis men to play trans women. (This is more of a complicated issue, but it falls under guy-in-a-dress, making it seem like trans women are just men pretending to be women. The decision for actors mostly comes down to casting agencies, but if possible, cis men should never be cast to play trans women.)
Running into those same narratives and experiences, over and over again, is the primary reason I didn’t trust A Normal Lost Phone to treat its trans character well. Games, and media as a whole, are slowly making progress towards having good trans narratives, but they really aren’t there yet. (this article is by trans woman Laura Kate Dale and is a good look at how some recent games have treated and mistreated trans characters, I recommend you give it a read.) There are some really good indie games out there that treat trans issues well like A Normal Lost Phone and 2064: Read Only Memories, but they’re still few and far between and there are practically no AAA titles that have very good trans treatment. Hopefully, more games will have good and thought-provoking narratives around trans people like A Normal Lost Phone does in the future, and there can be overall better treatment of trans characters and stories in media as a whole.