'A Normal Lost Phone' Is Anything But a Normal Dive Into Video Game Storytelling
A conversation about curiosity and consequences with the game’s programmer Diane Landais.
Heads up: This article contains light spoilers about A Normal Lost Phone.
Have you ever thought about trying to unlock a friend's phone while they're not looking? Frantically, quietly typing in their birthday, their locker combination, an aesthetically pleasing set of numbers like 1234 or 2580, none of which are right and usually result in you locking their phone for 60 seconds like a total dickhead?
Yeah. Of course you have. You've at least felt the temptation. Other people's phones are like chocolate you aren't allowed to eat: tantalizing, mysterious, filled with secrets and/or caramel. You want to know what's inside. You want to break it open and have the minutia of another person's life spill out in emails, sexts, passwords and Tinder conversations. You want to be nosy. You want to eavesdrop.
A Normal Lost Phone, released back in January, is a safe place to explore these fantasies. In real life, being so invasive is unthinkable, a total taboo since phones added the ability to hide secrets behind a lock screen. It's a game best played on phones, although you can also play it on Steam, and it places you in the shoes of someone who has just found a "normal" lost phone.
That phone belongs to Sam, a young transwoman struggling to come out to her friends and family. You don't know Sam at first, but by exploring this stranger's secret feelings, their web of texts and lies, and their two separate dating app accounts, you start to unravel a story about who they might have been, who they want to be, and why they don't have their phone any more.
It's incredibly uncomfortable. Sifting through the baggage of someone's personal life without permission is something we've been taught not to do, in the same way you wouldn't read someone's diary.
It's almost too invasive. But it's a narrative device that allows the writers to tell a story in a new way, and it uniquely fits the subject matter—the owner's reluctance to share their life with anyone around them.
"We wanted to explore innovative ways of presenting a narration," says Diane Landais, the programmer of A Normal Lost Phone and co-founder of Accidental Queens, the studio behind the game. "The character behaves differently with different people, which means that the player will probably have a varying perception of the world they're presented with depending on the order in which they choose to read the content."
"We had to make sure the game didn't turn into a tool for fulfilling some sick curiosity." — Diane Landais
Having the narration take place inside a phone also means less work to immerse the player into the world. It's a familiar interface to most people for whom smartphones are an everyday part of life, and there's no role-playing involved, either—the player isn't part of the narrative; they are merely a witness to someone else's story. Their only input is using what they already know about smartphones to unlock more and more of the secrets hidden inside.
In more traditional RPGs, we're used to the standard vocabulary of a game—the interfaces, the dialogue between us, the players, and the people who made it. And in most cases a game allows us to step into the shoes of a pre-existing character and behave how we think they would behave.
In A Normal Lost Phone, that vocabulary is subverted. You are not a character—you are yourself. And all the decisions and story actions that you'll witness have already been made by someone else, somebody that you will never see or hear from—but that you will get to know, intimately. Our input as a player is not to change the world, but to discover it; not to make our mark on events and people, but leave no trace at all as we unlock more of Sam's private life, using her own passwords and information as keys.
"The player isn't acting on the world or the characters," notes Landais, "but only on the interface that lets them discover this content." By subverting what we expect from a game of this kind (think of Her Story or Cibele, other story-based games based on familiar interfaces), A Normal Lost Phone opens up the possibility of surprising us, of making us behave and react differently as ourselves rather than a character we will never fully be.
If we are playing as ourselves, the game asks, what do we actually feel? Are we feeling invasive? Are we feeling worried about the phone's owner? Are we feeling uncomfortable about the level of knowledge we have about a stranger's life—and why doesn't that stop us?
"We had to make sure the game didn't turn into a tool for fulfilling some sick curiosity," says Landais. There are a lot of incredibly personal details in the game—not autobiographical ones, but Sam's story is one that could be real, about anyone you know. The team consulted with a number of French and Belgian LGBTQ organizations, including OUTrans, Centre LGBT de Touraine and Les Enfants d'Arc en Ciel and individuals such as Selene, president of CGLBT Rennes, when writing the game to ensure that it was as informed and well-researched as possible.
Testing and writing went through several phases, in close cooperation with these invaluable advisors, addressing questions like: Who is this game for, and, What topics aren't we addressing, that we should be? Interviews were conducted to help the team produce an end result that, while just Sam's story, helped people to realize there is not a single way of living one's identity.
"This medium is one where we're invited to 'pretend'. What, how and why we pretend though, are the important questions." — Diane Landais
But there's still that layer of invading someone's privacy—at the heart of it, this game is about snooping through someone else's secrets. Landais argues, however, that this aspect is a vital part of the narrative.
"This medium is one where we're invited to 'pretend', and we've had plenty of time to realize how liberating this is. What, how and why we pretend though, are the important questions. And there's as many answers as there are players, to the questions of how and why would you look through this phone, and they're invited to reflect upon them."
It certainly is an interesting argument—if no one is being hurt, and the story is entirely fictional, is a video game a safe space to play out that fantasy of snooping through someone else's phone, which could be damaging in real life?
It's a question that can't be answered succinctly and perfectly right now. We're all still learning the limitations of this medium, and how it plays into our real-life thoughts and behaviors. It's vital to have stories that represent LGBTQ experiences, and it's really interesting to have these stories told through an outsider's perspective—as with A Normal Lost Phone—to help people understand and build empathy for people's lives outside of their own.
Maybe we'll make mistakes as we go, but trying new things is the only way we can learn. Even if those "new things" are someone else's phone passwords.