A Normal Lost Phone bothers me. As an adventure/puzzle game, it is experimental and intelligent. Players must learn more about a lost phone and its owner. But as the game begins to explore LGBTQ themes, it takes a turn for the uncomfortable.
The set up is simple. You have found a phone. Examining text messages and learning more about the owner unlocks more and more information. You’ll uncover wifi passwords, find hidden apps, and piece together a story by reading forum posts and text message. A Normal Lost Phone’s unconventional structure leads to genuine brainteasers that provide a robust test of your deductive skills.
As you progress, the game feels more and more invasive. It starts with the discovery of a dating app with two profiles: one for a man, another for a woman. They’re both for the same person, Sam, the owner of the phone. It turns out that Sam is a young transgender woman struggling to come out to her family and school friends.
Sam has been chatting with a friendly and helpful stranger through her dating app. He has sent a picture and asks that Sam do likewise. To proceed you need to use Sam’s personal information to find a picture of her on a transgender web forum, copy it, and send it to the stranger.
What the fuck?
The framing devices is already sufficiently invasive, but this moment allows the player an unprecedented and uncomfortable amount of control over Sam. You can choose to send a photo of her while she is not presenting as female. While the other participant is one of the few people aware that Sam is transgender, this feels dangerously close to outing a closeted trans person. Who am I to decide how much Sam would share with this person? A Normal Lost Phone claims to be a game where you “build empathy with the characters, allowing to explore difficult topics.” But it does so at the expense of the very character that you are supposed to care about. Sam has no agency. She is is absent, unable to consent or comment on your personal invasion. She is an object to be analyzed. She is also a damsel to save and protect.
I was told by the team that a trans person was involved directly with the project and that numerous trans people were interviewed about their experiences. I also acknowledge that this is a difficult subject. No one’s lived experience is the same. This structure is the vehicle the creators chose to tell this game. They clearly have less of an issue with it than I do.
For the team, the invasiveness was necessary “in order for the player to see the world through Sam’s eyes.” I can understand that desire. But I think the experiment fails. It is exploitative, fetishizing a deeply personal struggle and turning it into emotional tourism. If these are the techniques used to explore queerness in video games, queer games have a long way to go.
A Normal Lost Phone wants to say something. But for an empathy game, it doesn’t seem care that much about Sam. It cares about the player and satiating their curiosity. It’s a mistake. Queer games need to stop commodifying and exoticizing the queer experience at expense of nuanced stories. They need to craft narratives with queer characters that are not defined exclusively by their queerness and not positioned as curiosities. Only then will empathy games like A Normal Lost Phone will actually be empathic.