By Anthony Khaiat
[This review has spoilers]
Smartphones were arguably one of the most impressive human feats: we are now able to access terabytes of information, contact anyone around the world, order food, play games, read books, and more. Without one, an individual has limited capabilities and functionality. Looking at someone’s smartphone and their digital information is an extension of themselves which reveals preferences, habits, relationships, and even their thoughts. The actions that individuals didn’t take, which are arguably more important than the ones they have done, provide more information about someone than ever before. The culmination of a person’s electronic information forms the “digital-self”.
Accidental Queens, the woman-lead team of developers of A Normal Lost Phone, received some backlash: players were meant to impersonate the protagonist Sam, and while the developers meant to create a more user-centric experience, users felt uncomfortable violating privacy rights for no clear purpose. Even co-founder Elizabeth Maler realized there were a few flaws in their first iteration of the game:
“We tried to put the player in the position of a witness. This, sending stuff, it undermines this position. It wasn’t good for what we tried to say with the first game.”
The developers provided a sequel of their original game with Laura’s Story and decided to create a narrative investigation where you piece together different bits of information from messages, emails, pictures and other forms of media on Laura’s phone. The objective of the game is not only to find out how she mysteriously disappeared but also why she chose to do so.
When searching for Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story on the Apple store, I quickly noticed two crucial things: the mobile game’s medium and its objective. The user interface was a smartphone simulator which emulated a simplistic android device and the premise was to learn more about a young woman by exploring the contents of her phone. The concept of playing a smartphone simulator game within my iPhone and looking through a woman’s phone was concerning, yet intriguing.
The focus on privacy is a key component of the plot and much of the content that the user reads is based around Laura’s abusive relationship with her boyfriend Ben. Once I started the game, I noticed a warning stating that the game is based on real events and that searching through anybody’s phone is an act of privacy violation. Maler explained the reasoning behind putting this disclaimer:
“We think it’s OK because it’s a game, and you should be able to do stuff in games that you don’t do in real life.”
At first glance, her relationship with him seems to be romantic and exciting. Ben appears to care about her emotional wellbeing; in earlier text messages, he supported her through rough times at work by sending her encouraging messages, planning romantic getaways, and offering her to move in with him. While scrolling through the photo album, I noticed a picture of a heart drawn on the sand with the following inscription “B+L” to signify Ben and Laura. I thought to myself how could she have disappeared when nothing appears to be out of the ordinary.
The user interacts with the game through hidden puzzles and investigative work (e.g. connecting to the phone’s Wifi requires finding the Wifi’s code within her notes). Other puzzles include getting access to PowerJob messenger, the game’s version of the professional social media app LinkedIn, by matching three of Laura’s colleagues and friends with their name. All of these tasks were done by carefully examining Laura’s photos, emails, texts, notes and calendar.
In most games, the dialogue between characters seems artificial and tacky; however, Laura’s Story involves very realistic interactions between individuals. Her flirty texts with her boyfriend, emails to coworkers, texts with her sister, and messages to her friends make the game even more immersive. Even small details such as the way Laura writes her notes provides an immersive experience for the player.
The fact that the game is a smartphone simulator creates a deceptively mundane environment: the simple user interface houses only twelve apps that are generic and part of every basic smartphone. Looking at the correlation between her relationship with Ben and her calendar revealed the negative social aspects of dating him. In 2016, when she first started talking to him, her calendar seemed busy with social outings such as going to “Space Bar”, travel adventures with her friend Emma, and attending conferences. However, in 2017, we see that her calendar becomes emptier and the only events that are happening are her doctor’s appointments. Even her text messages become sparse and limited over time as she stops responding to her friends and family members.
An odd thing I found in her calendar was a daily reminder for taking a pill; at first, I thought maybe this could have been supplements or allergy medication, but she was referring to birth control pills. Upon unlocking Laura’s “SecuryChest”, an app designed to hide certain applications such as a messaging app called “OUR Messenger”, it becomes clear that there are many issues going on in Laura’s life. Through her hidden conversations with her ex-boyfriend Alex, I found out that Ben sent an intimate video message of Laura to her co-workers and others as a way of sabotaging her professional career. Ben successfully ruined her professional relationships for many months: one male co-worker, who was involved in a relationship, was sickened by the video while another male co-worker tried to seduce her.
When I looked through the contents of the phone, I noticed a counter app which showed the date of each day followed by a number. These numbers appeared random, so when I looked for a correlation between the counter and her calendar, I saw no relation whatsoever. After synchronizing her personal and work accounts via “SecuryChest”, I discovered a hidden conversation with her co-worker Charlotte where the plot fully develops; Laura is horrified by Ben’s abusive actions and takes matters into her own hands by attending a domestic violence seminar, finding another job in a different town, and by downloading a counter to track each time Ben’s behavior is unacceptable. Innocent applications such as a daily counter, a calendar, and her email become a haunting reminder of domestic violence.
After unlocking her work account through “SecuryChest”, the story provides a happy ending: Laura sends an email to herself as a way of notifying the person who discovers her phone that she is safe. She proceeds to instruct the player to turn on the phone’s GPS as a way of leading Ben to a dead end and asks to erase all of the data on her phone. Once the game finishes and the end credits start rolling, the player sees text messages showing Laura admitting to others that she suffered emotional pain from Ben, and she thanks the friends who helped her along her tough journey.
Although I found the game to be a great piece of digital storytelling, the description of Laura’s life appears to be no as t in-depth as I hoped it would. The average smartphone user like myself has hundreds to thousands of pictures along with many text messages and a plethora of downloaded apps. However, the developers attribute the limited content on her phone to the fact that Laura recently got a smartphone. I completely understand that Accidental Queens didn’t want to spend a ridiculous amount of hours making minute details and creating a more complicated narrative investigation; however, skipping over unique aspects of Laura’s “digital-life” breaks some of the immersive qualities of the game design. For example, as I was exploring her phone, I only found 7 notes and a handful of photos. In another instance, when I tried learning more about characters besides Laura and Ben, the only details I got on her sister were that she was a 33 years old manager at a Fast-Food restaurant in Edgaton. Details of other characters were lacking as well, which made Laura’s relationship with other people at times one-dimensional. Unlike the case of many stories, I believe that adding more information about characters would be beneficial in developing the story’s plot and character relationships. More digital information on Laura would, in turn, create a sense of empathy towards victims of domestic abuse.
Furthermore, the game itself is not as participatory as one would think. Laura’s relationships, text messages, and her other digital aspects have already been established. The player is merely an observer in Laura’s world rather than a character. Unlike games such as Bury Me, My Love or even the natural language processing program Eliza, the user in Laura’s Story doesn’t have any impact on any outcomes. The developers, however, tackled the conventional norms of video games by intentionally restricting the game; in doing so, they are able to raise awareness of domestic violence among women.
Although Laura’s Story has a few flaws, the experience made me feel empathy toward the protagonist. Players pierce through different layers of Laura’s “digital-self” as they investigate her life, and each user will have a different perspective on the protagonist depending on when and where they examine her phone. The game turned a mundane item into an exciting new digital medium.