The most popular mobile games don't demand much from you. You can zone out to Candy Crush Saga, and games like Threes only require your attention for short bursts. Out of sight, out of mind is a fine summation of my mobile gaming habit. TouchTone goes in a different direction. At its core it’s a series of logic puzzles, much like every other game on your smartphone; the difference is how they're framed. In the game, you're not solving puzzles in search of a high score to best your friends, but instead hacking into the personal emails and texts of ordinary citizens. The surveillance theme makes it feel completely different than anything else on the App Store.
"It just didn't feel complete, or like it had much of a soul, if it was just going to be puzzles on a grid," says artist Greg Wohlwend. "It just wasn't compelling."
The game puts you in the role of a citizen recruited by an NSA-like organization, where your job is simply to solve puzzles; the game features a clever mechanic that involves bouncing different colored lasers around a grid using mirror-like devices in order to get them where they need to be. Solving a puzzle feels sort of like a cyberpunk hacking scene from a 1990s movie, and that's precisely the point: as you complete levels, you're actually slowly hacking away at the personal information of a particular target. The first chapter deals with a budding Silicon Valley entrepreneur with ties to Iran, while the second ventures into the world of Wall Street. You'll read text messages and emails, and you're required to report suspicious behavior to your superiors by ticking a box on a form. While you see the story unfold from the perspective of the NSA-like group, the narrative that they tell is incredibly critical of the organization.
TouchTone started life as a simple prototype by designer Mike Boxleiter, which he initially built over the course of 48 hours. "Then we spent the next two and a half years figuring out what to add to it to make it interesting and meaningful," he explains. Boxleitter and Wohlwend had previously made games together under the label Mikengreg, including the colorful skiing game Solipskier, and work on TouchTone was sporadic for a while. During those two years Wohlwend also worked on mobile hits like Threes and Hundreds, while Boxleitter developed a number of personal projects that have yet to be released. It wasn't really until the Edward Snowden revelations happened that they realized the potential of TouchTone. "It just sort of all seemed to fit together," says Wohlwend.
"The more I researched about the Snowden stuff and the NSA, the more I started to get angry."
The game differs from most puzzle games, mobile or otherwise, in that it has a real story that unfolds as you play. Written by Boxleitter, it's a dark, clever tale that not only shows what it's like to live under NSA surveillance, but also touches on everything from startup culture to misogyny in the tech industry. According to the developers, TouchTone was originally a snarky, satirical game packed with jokes, but that didn't really fit with the message they were trying to communicate. It ultimately turned into something much more serious. "The more I researched about the Snowden stuff and the NSA, the more I started to get angry about it and felt that we should really try to say something," says Boxleitter. "While I was writing it, Gamergate was happening, and so I couldn't help but throw some of that into it, too."
Mobile isn't exactly the most welcoming venue for politically charged games — Apple has even gone so far as to ban games that touch on darker themes like Foxconn suicides. That makes the game a bit of a risk for the two-man team, whose biggest successes have come from much lighter, App Store-friendly fare. TouchTone's clever game mechanic is up there with the best smartphone puzzle games, but its theme and story telling make it a very different experience, both more compelling and potentially a much tougher sell. The duo’s previous game, Gasketball, experimented with different kinds of payment options, and it proved to largely be a failure. TouchTone is shaping up to be a similar risk.
"It's a huge experiment for us, and we won't know how well it turned out until it's out and people have reactions to it," says Boxleitter.
You can check out the game now on iOS.