A Normal Lost Phone is a non-linear exploration game that places in your hands a discarded mobile phone that, to the naked eye, appears quite ordinary. But throughout your time exploring the device, you discover more and more about its previous owner, and it becomes an investigation to find out what happened to them.

WARNING: This feature explores some themes present in A Normal Lost Phone that will inevitably spoil the game. If you would like to play the game for yourself and retain the feeling of discovery, I would advise that you do not scroll past this weather report.

Throughout the course of the game, you find out that the previous owner of the phone, Sam, is Transgender. She has applications locked by hidden pass-codes, a second profile on a dating app called ‘Lovebirds,’ and a small group of close friends who know about her gender identity. And it’s handled really well.

“It was very important to get to know multiple stories of people dealing with the intolerance issues we were trying to depict.” In January I spoke to Accidental Queens, the developers of A Normal Lost Phone, who originally created a prototype during the 2016 Global Game Jam. Since then, leading up to the full release, they had worked to ensure that their representation of a queer experience was executed with sensitivity and accuracy. “we got in contact with various LGBT organizations, as well as friends and relatives who could help us see our own story from a different point of view.

“We believe these steps (researching the subject, and having our own interpretation read by someone more knowledgeable) are very important to take when writing on a subject where it’s easy to say bad things inadvertently. Doing no harm is always more important than doing good.”

 

What I found especially fascinating when playing A Normal Lost Phone for myself was its very real portrayal of the relationship that queer people like myself have with their mobile phones. And what began as a side-effect of player-friendly UI design blossomed into a primary theme of the game. “That is not something we had fully realized when the idea was pitched…Almost everybody knows how to use a smartphone, as we all use it to communicate widely in many different ways.”

Mobile phones and their proliferation among the younger generation led to a boom in queer people discovering themselves and others like them, thanks to internet connectivity on a much more personal device than, say, the family PC. “Our generation built online communities, safe-spaces, and self-expression havens, places that were too often denied to anyone who wasn’t reaching the general ‘acceptance threshold’ of the society.”

There’s something else about A Normal Lost Phone. And that’s the inherent invasion of privacy that the game is built on. I felt… uncomfortable, about digging through another person’s phone, regardless of it being fiction or not. According to Accidental Queens, this was intentional. “Some people just aren’t comfortable with invading the privacy of another, and with a setting that tries so hard to feel like “the real thing”, they simply refused to play the game or felt really bad doing it.

“This feeling was definitely something we intended, and it’s great to say players questioning their own right to actually play the game: it means we gave an opportunity to reflect on this behaviour through our game.” But Accidental Queens had an interesting time trying to balance this often very strong feeling of discomfort with actual compulsion to play. “we didn’t plan for it to be so strong that players might be driven away, and we had not entirely thought out the message it could send, which is why the question of privacy invasion is actually addressed at some point in the final version.”

 

Accidental Queens feel that this element of A Normal Lost Phone really enhanced the primary narrative of the game, which is why, rather than remove it entirely, modified the pacing and progression of the game to deliver a strong message about invading people’s privacy alongside its queer narrative. “It’s impactful indeed, and while it gives you the opportunity to invade someone’s private space, it also tries to remind you that this isn’t something you should do in any other situation.”

And this combination of an exploration of queer identity and life, and a kick in the head about invasions of privacy and the inherent immorality involved in that invasion, is what makes A Normal Lost Phone such an impactful experience, and one that has potential to shift perspectives.

“If the game led the player far enough to question their opinion and perspective on LGBT topics and issues, hopefully, they’ll also understand that this whole experience was a carefully constructed setup; once the questions have been asked and answered, the goal is to start breaking the immersion again and bring them back to reality, where reading someone’s phone is rarely a good idea, where these characters don’t actually exist, and where the lessons they might have learned still apply, but to real persons instead.”

Accidental Queens knew that A Normal Lost Phone would cause a lot of discomfort in its players. But they felt that in this discomfort, they conveyed an important message more powerfully than they could have done otherwise. “In a slightly oversimplified way, ‘if you can’t solve all the problems, exploit one to try to solve another.’ As long as no harm is done and no problem is amplified, of course. There’s a delicate balance to find there, and we hope A Normal Lost Phone nailed it.”

  • Karl Tissen

    That was awesome a very good read, I wanna try it for myself now.