With how much personal data cell phones carry these days, the thought of losing one is terrifying. There’s a lot of damage one can do with even just a bit of access to someone’s life. With full access? I don’t even want to think about it. A Normal Lost Phone from developer Accidental Queens plays with this idea. It’s a game about searching a phone you randomly find on the ground to learn about its owner.
A Normal Lost Phone sees you digging into the life of Sam. You find their phone and are immediately greeted by panicked messages from their father asking where they are, pleading for some kind of response to know they’re safe. By reading text messages, e-mails, and poking around their various online profiles, you piece together who Sam is and what happened to them.
Every new text message you read, every e-mail you open, every photo you examine carries a clue to help you move forward. Maybe that’s figuring out passwords for Sam’s various social media accounts or simply helping point you toward where you need to look next. The game maintains a careful, steady hand at guiding you through its tale, leaving you plenty of clues without them feeling too obvious. Crafting puzzles for a game like this is never easy, but A Normal Lost Phone makes them feel natural.
As you can imagine, digging around Sam’s phone feels invasive. Your intentions may be good – making sure its owner is safe by seeing if they left any kind of indication of where they went – but the process feels transgressive. The deeper I got, the more uncomfortable I felt. Things only get more private and personal the further you dig, such that it’s hard to avoid the sense that I shouldn’t be reading any of this, no matter my intentions. As engaging as it is to slowly piece together who Sam is and what happened to them, it never stops feeling wrong. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider just erasing the phone’s data a couple of times rather than see things through.
At some point, it all becomes a bit too much, you know? Fictional or no, the it still feels weird to delve so deeply into someone’s personal life. To see their pain and struggles, to see them open themselves up to their closest friends, observe the parts of their life they keep secret. It’s one thing to read the stuff that’s easily accessible; it’s another to unlock accounts and poke around in them. After all, at what point do you cross the line? At what point do you move from searching one’s phone for the sake of finding them to browsing through it purely for the sake of voyeurism?
A Normal Lost Phone crosses that line in trying to tackle LGBTQ themes. Sam is eventually revealed to be a transgender woman. She can’t come out to her friends and family due to living in a city that’s largely unaccepting of queer folk, which acts as the central conflict in the story. In one scene in particular, you find that Sam has been chatting with someone via a dating app. He’s generally helpful and supportive, but the conversation was cut short after the two try to exchange photos. The man on the other end already sent one, and you, as the player, have to send one of Sam over to progress the plot. It’s at this point the game moves from merely reading about someone’s life to directly influencing it.
The game tries to make it OK by making the recipient be one of the few people who knows Sam is transgender. There’s some level of implied trust between them. But even so, by making you be the one to send the photo, the game goes from simply feeling invasive to being outright controlling. A Normal Lost Phone states that it wants its players to build empathy with the characters. But it’s hard to feel like the game is achieving that goal when it’s willing to let the player take charge of Sam’s private life. How are we supposed to build empathy when we’re essentially supposed to dismiss however she might feel about this situation and declare we know what’s best?
It’s a shame, because the general premise works. The framing is clever and effective, and the general process of piecing together who Sam is and what happened to them is engaging. It does a lot of things well, but it’s hard to ignore it’s faults toward the end.