I first broached the topic of GUIness in the context of talking about cinema and television. In recent years, everyday, quotidian technology has thrown visual storytellers for a loop. Telephone conversations are well-built into the foundations of cinematic storytelling. Even the most mediocre director can successfully weave a phone conversation into a variety of scenarios, from suspense to romance.
Texting presents far more of a challenge. It’s sort of ironic, really: Even working within the medium of silent film, D. W. Griffith realized how powerfully cinematic a telephone conversation could be, as illustrated in his 1909 film The Lonely Villa. Today, though, texting makes some directors pine for the intertitle, that vestigal bit of cinematic vocabulary that lost most of its relevance with the coming of sound. The most advanced forms of experimentation along these lines have thrown out the traditional language of moving image storytelling altogether, instead telling stories by directly throwing GUIs on the screen.
Google’s 53-second “Parisian Love” ad for the 2010 Superbowl marked an early instance of this trend, but the style soon leaked out of advertising and into commercial narrative filmmaking. The experimental student film Noah (Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg, 2013) seems to have been a bellwether here. In its wake, both The Den (Zachary Donahue, 2013) and Unfriended (Leo Gambriadze, 2014) used the technique as a twist on the “found-footage” horror trope. The Modern Family episode “Connection Lost” (2015) brought the GUI style to mainstream television.
When I first considered this trend, I connected it to videogames in only the most slantwise manner. 2017 made me reconsider this, though. We are very clearly in the middle of a GUIness trend in gaming.
A Normal Lost Phone and Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story
(Accidental Queens, released January 26 and August 3, respectively)
There were two games from 2016, Orwell (Osmotic Studios) and Replica (Somi) that I initially read as evolutionary offshoots of Papers, Please. Now it’s pretty clear that Replica, at least, was the start of something else: a whole new genre of phone-snooping puzzle games. It was followed up in 2016 with Sara Is Missing (Monsoon Lab, 2016) and Mr. Robot:1.51exfiltrati0n.apk (Night School/Telltale, 2016). In 2017, French developers Accidental Queens made not one but two forays into the nascent genre, establishing what I guess now should be referred to as the Lost Phone franchise.
Both games are built on a very strong mechanical foundation. I found Replica to be a bit too obscurely “puzzle-y” for its own good, especially when chasing the alternate endings. Normal Lost Phone and Another Lost Phone, though, keep their roadblocks grounded in reality, gating content behind fair obstacles that can be easily surmounted with a keen eye, good memory, and some decent educated guesses into character psychology.
Not being content to just put together well-constructed “phone snooping puzzle” games, Accidental Queens have an additional signature: they blend the phone snooping mechanics with socially-conscious tales of people fleeing prejudice and abuse. Of course, in 2017, intersectional identity politics had become a circular firing squad of call-outs and one-upsmanship, so this was a pretty thankless task on the Queens’ part.
The backlash against A Normal Lost Phone come pretty quickly, with what I think is a fair critique: the game delves into matters of prejudice and the forced “outing” of a sexual minority, all the while asking us to violate this person’s privacy even more in order to progress. Another Lost Phone seems to slyly acknowledge this critique, more directly tying the phone itself into a tale of surveillance, control, and privacy-shattering harassment. I’m never one to turn down a layer of delicious irony, but I still don’t think that Accidental Queens have solved the essential conundrum of their chosen formula. Replica was unrelenting in presenting its central mechanic as villainous. It never missed an opportunity that we are being forced to horribly invade someone’s privacy. This made it over-the-top, yes, but at least it solved the central incongruity of using privacy-invasion to sell a progressive agenda. Despite their noble efforts, Accidental Queens haven’t quite worked this out.
A Normal Lost Phone is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux on itch (DRM-free), on the Humble Store and on Steam. It is also available on iOS and Android, for maximum confluence between platform and game mechanic.
Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux on itch (DRM-free) and on Steam. It is also available on iOS and Android, for maximum confluence between platform and game mechanic.
Emily Is Away Too
(Kyle Seeley, released May 5)
One of my favorite examples of the GUIness trend has been Spotify’s brilliant 2014 #NowFeeling ad campaign. I’m not usually one to gush over commercials, but the ads in that series together form a masterclass in how to use text boxes and other everyday UI elements to tell stories about human communication.
Take a look at the ad “Can’t Find the Words?” for instance. The ad hinges on the pregnant pauses of text conversation. We type something personal, erase it, replace it with something more impersonal, erase that, and so on. Then, once we’ve finally sent something, we can see that damned ellipses bubble, that most pregnant of all pauses, appearing and reappearing, indicating that our conversation partner is choosing their words carefully, as well. IM conversations aren’t just about what ultimately ends up on the screen. They’re also about the spaces between, and the things that get erased on the way to saying what we mean to say, balancing nonchalance and vulnerability. The “Can’t Find the Words” ad is the freakin’ Mystery of Picasso of Facebook DMing.
Kyle Seeley’s Emily Is Away (2015) drew from this same well. A piece of interactive fiction based around the aesthetics of late-1990s AOL Instant Messenger, it productively mined the gap between player and player-character. Sometimes we, as players, would chose a certain response to a line of dialogue, only to watch our typed responses disappear, as our unseen player-character deletes an embarrassingly personal sentiment, replacing it with something more boilerplate. Without ever seeing anything but the UI of an instant messaging application, we get a feel for the fictional character we’re guiding, their nascent and unspoken crush, and the differential that creates between our knowledge and intentions and theirs. It’s a wonderful bit of character-building that stands alongside Cibele (Star Maid Games, 2015) as one of my favorite examples of intimate UI storytelling.
If Emily Is Away was Seeley’s riff on “Can’t Find the Words,” than Emily Is Away Too is his version of the “Music Takes You Back” Spotify ad. Too ups the nostalgia factor by roughly a factor of twelve by introducing a faux-YouTube. As you chat with the game’s characters, they’ll occasionally send you link to the song they’re listening to, providing a historically-accurate soundtrack for the game’s mid-2000s setting. (In my memory, jury-rigging YouTube to behave as a music streaming site wasn’t really a thing yet in 2006. But the game is very deliberate in its use of anachronisms, blending late-2000s music and video streaming technologies with early-2000s IM UI aesthetics to establish a specifically unspecific nostalgic haze.) The fact that the game takes over your desktop, OneShot-style, with multiple windows contributing to its overall milieu, is all the more intoxicating.
Seeley has proved himself adept at both UI-based storytelling and nostalgia-drenched design. I’d be interested in seeing the former finally divorced from the latter, though. Christine Love tread similar nostalgic ground in Digital: A Love Story (2010), but she quickly grew as a developer, and branched off into some very different aesthetic directions for her subsequent visual novels. Emily Is Away Too is a delight, but I would be disappointed if Seeley’s next game went further down the 2000s-nostalgia rabbit hole, instead of pursuing some new ambition.
(Andrew Morrish, released July 18)
I haven’t played this one. I’m bad enough at rougelikes/roguelites in general, even if they’re not encrusted in high-concept UI designs. Still, though, it was most definitely a part of this trend, so I would be remiss if I failed to mention it here.
(Xiltilion, released October 31)
ШП (which is apparently pronounced “shp,” in all its vowel-less glory—the game has been translated into English but the title remains in cyrillic, purportedly because it is an untranslatable pun) falls squarely into the lineage of games that mine difficulty out of obtuse UI. Ostensibly, it is a puzzle game. I’d have to take others on their word on that, though, because that is fact is not immediately apparent. Or, indeed, apparent at all. Truthfully, nothing at all is apparent in ШП. It is an intravenous injection of undiluted obscurantism.
I clicked around on the various Windows alert boxes that popped up on the game’s first “puzzle,” and could get nowhere. More than a “game,” this seems to be an engine for producing Dadist poetry. And you know what? I’m perfectly okay with that, and will happily keep it installed. We could all use more Dadist poetry in our lives.
ШП is available for Windows on Steam.