You're likely someone who spends a considerable amount of time around technology like your smartphone, and, because of that, you’ve possibly experienced phantom vibration syndrome.
Phantom vibration syndrome is a term coined in 2003 — although some will argue it goes back to Dilbert in 1996 when the term "phantom pager syndrome" was used — that refers to the feeling that your phone is vibrating somewhere on your body even when you don’t have it on you or it's shut off.
Night School’s Mr. Robot mobile game is a title that feeds our incessant need to check our phones and relies on our compulsion to respond to notifications. It’s the type of experience that could only exist in an era of push notifications and constant communication. It's a game for people who think there is something vibrating on them 24 hours a day.
I need to respond to that text
Night School, the studio behind Oxenfree, released the game on iOS and Android devices last week. As someone who’s obsessed with Mr. Robot, I downloaded it as quickly as possible, pleasantly surprised to hear the show’s actual score ringing out from my phone.
Before I could even dive into the game and answer the first messages that were waiting for me, I had a couple of updates that needed my attention. It's like getting a new phone; everything is fresh, everything needs attention. It already didn't feel like playing a game.
The messages are berating and derogatory, but there’s a compulsion to read each one
As you get more into the game, or experience, rather, it remains equal parts frustrating and enthralling. You play as someone who has come across this phone, only to realize that the person who wants it back is part of fsociety. Not only are you in possession of the most wanted phone in New York’s hacker community, but you have the file they need to launch one of their attacks. The messages you receive are vulgar, antagonistic, harassing and most importantly, constant.
Each message is more compelling to read than the last, and reading them is like venturing into the comments section of an article or a particularly nasty subreddit. I felt myself dragged down by the messages I was receiving but, with each vibration and notification that came through, I continued to open the app.
Reading the texts would alter my mood, but not knowing what had been sent to me was even worse for my anxiety. We live in an era of constantly needing to know what’s being said. We spend hours digging through Twitter threads on a specific topic or hours going back and forth with friends over text message or Facebook Messenger to get caught up on the latest drama. As much as this behavior aggravates us, the anxiety that builds up in not being a part of the conversation seems far more damaging.
Night School Studio seems to be acutely aware of this desire to be constantly engaged and delivers upon that, providing an abundance of updates and starting new conversations to keep you entertained and active. While it may seem annoying at times, it’s also the most accurate addition to what I imagine the experience would be if you were a part of fsociety in Mr. Robot.
Mr. Robot’s main character, Elliot (Rami Malek), is someone who suffers from crippling depression and anxiety. It’s one of the first aspects of his character that we’re introduced to and it’s a major reason Elliot often commits the acts that he does in the show. Like us, he’s addicted to information, constantly searching out more and spending as much time connected to the online world while disconnecting himself from reality. He thrives on the internet’s shadiest nooks, engaging with harsh people that he’s never met, all in the search for being a part of the larger conversation.
Also like us, he’s very aware of how bad this routine is for his psyche, but he’s just as addicted to the devices and the online worlds in his life. The studio could have made a simpler game that requires less attention, but this feels like an authentic portrayal of the lifestyle creator Sam Esmail worked to capture in his show. There are a couple of Mr. Robot games floating around, and only a couple are licensed, but this feels like the definitive experience, even if using it actually feels more consequential than beneficial.
It's not fun, but it feels authentic in a way few tie-in games manage. This is a tiny glimpse into what it might feel like to be a part of this world.
The lesser of two evils
While writing this, I received a couple of notifications from the app stating there were new messages to respond to, new contacts to check out, and while I tried to ignore them, my anxiety over not knowing what was occurring within the world Night School created got the better of me. One was a constant string of joking insults from a group chat I had been invited into. I spent a couple of minutes getting caught up with the barrage of messages, scrolling to the very top and reading each one thoughtfully, despite knowing that none of the information was useful to me.
I needed to know what was being said.
I eventually left the group because, like I had found multiple times within my own daily life, being a part of more than one or two group conversations sent my anxiety into overdrive. I felt a wave of relief wash over me after the window closed, but it didn’t stop me from wondering what they were talking about. I wanted to know, maybe even felt like I needed to know, but I also understood that I couldn’t devote that much attention to a fictional world within an app.
Night School’s game feels like more than just a casual escape that you can dive into, because push notifications have taken that casual aspect of a game and tossed it out the window. It now feels like something I have to engage with constantly, and despite the anxiety I get over reading the insulting messages — which in many ways, feels like being unable to tear your eyes away from your Twitter notifications when people are attacking you— I know that it’s something I’ll keep around for quite some time.
I’ve said before that Mr. Robot feels like a dystopian world set within a very realistic interpretation of the society we live in, and this game feels like an exaggerated look at the most anxiety-inducing social aspects of our lives that we voluntarily choose to deal with constantly.
It’s the same formula, over and over again: Read. React. Respond. Repeat.