2017 has been a varied and exciting year for games, but the two games that hit me the hardest brought me to a place I didn’t expect to go: inside someone else’s phone.
A Normal Lost Phone and its sequel, Another Lost Phone, are two mystery games that unravel inside the confines of someone’s smartphone. After discovering an abandoned phone, you dig through various text messages, emails, photos and other apps to learn what happened to its owner. In doing so, you end up witnessing how personal struggles can ripple through every part of someone’s life — and how easy it is to peer into someone’s entire world with unrestricted access to their phone.
The concept requires the player to violate the privacy of the phone’s owner. The original game’s premise, in particular, became an issue among players who had concerns about its treatment of privacy, and how it dealt with the lead character’s identity and secret. The latter of the two games does a much better job, bending the story so that it doesn’t feel so invasive and disrespectful of its characters.
Playing A Normal Lost Phone and its sequel felt like tiptoeing through an ethical minefield. Finding out how I felt about the game’s setup was almost part of the process. I had to dive deep into the personal lives of people I didn’t know to find out what happened to them. I felt icky, and yet I kept going. To play the game is to commit to that, no matter how uncomfortable it made me.
When I look through my own phone, I find so much personal knowledge about me buried in every text message exchange or email thread. Seemingly boring conversations or inconsequential calendar appointments take on new meaning when I remember their contexts. In both of the Lost Phone games, there’s a similar level of intimacy I had to develop to complete each story. Each game starts you off at the lip of a rabbit hole and my curiosity to understand what happened was so strong. Getting the answers I needed required me to do things I would never do in real life.
Looking into the life of someone you don’t know is, admittedly, a big part of the games’ appeal. But it also posed a big problem for me, ethically: Is it OK to peek through a stranger’s phone and learn all of their private thoughts and secrets? These questions got more difficult to answer as I uncovered the circumstances of each owner’s disappearance. Their struggles are surprising, and surprisingly real; I’ve had friends go through similar issues to those of the Lost Phone characters. It’s eye-opening to get a hint of what was bubbling under the surface of their lives, all hidden in the unseen places that exist in our phones.
I felt a deep sense of relief when I found out, after unlocking certain apps and piecing together messages, that the main characters are safe in the end. I didn’t do anything to help them get there, but I still found some satisfaction in being a witness to the process. They didn’t lose their phones; they left them behind. It’s as if this is the only way for them to start anew at a time when so much of ourselves is confined to our devices.
Each game ends with you wiping the information from the abandoned phone, setting it free and making sure no one else can snoop. The only actual intervention you take in that character’s life helps them take the final step in leaving their past life behind. It’s a weird first and final interaction to have with the main character. After putting together all the pieces of a story I had no right to know, I felt like I owed the owners’ something, so I erased their phones. It was the least I could do, ethically.
As a bystander looking into someone else’s phone, I got a rare bird’s-eye view of a life. That’s a situation that almost never happens in reality, which might be for the best. If you want to feel how vulnerable it makes you, try handing your unlocked phone to a stranger and letting them go through it for a night or so — see what they learn about you. Maybe that sounds odd, but complete access to someone’s phone may be as close as we can get to unfiltered honesty. In our smartphone-dependent age, the truth of who we are lives somewhere between our calendars, to-do lists and emails. And just like the stars of the Lost Phone games, we may only be able to escape it by ditching our phones entirely.
That’s my takeaway, although maybe the real lesson is even simpler: just remember to password protect your phone.