Video games are often defined by, well, video — the ability to create beautiful, visually compelling, even photorealistic representations of a digital world. This has become truer than ever with virtual reality, which is supposed to literally make you feel as though you’ve stepped beyond the screen. But in the real world, some of the most important moments of our life happen through nothing more than a few lines of text — on a medical form, a computer screen, or a smartphone. And that’s the entire idea behind Night School Studio’s small but excellent Mr. Robot mobile game, 1.51exfiltrati0n.ipa.
As I mentioned when it launched, Exfiltration (as I’ll call it, because I’m not adopting Mr. Robot’s 1337 h4xx0r naming convention) is a conspiracy-heavy game that runs over the course of a week, set toward the end of Mr. Robot’s first season. The entire drama plays out in a fake messaging app from fictional corporation E Corp, as you’re contacted by characters from the show and get drawn into their hacktivist group. But this isn’t a network-cracking simulator like Uplink or Hacker Evolution. Its brand of hacking is classic social engineering: you compromise systems by tricking the people with access to them into furthering your agenda. You’ll get the occasional executable program or picture, but the vast majority of the game is a series of prewritten messages that you’ll send to targets, probing for cognitive weak points.
No other medium would let you assume identities so well
This premise, at least the way it’s played in Exfiltration, couldn’t be done nearly as well in anything but text. Text is an easily searchable, bandwidth-light, and meaning-dense medium — you can pack a lot into a few characters. But text is also mysterious. Its austere symbolism can mask age, gender, race, or any other marker of identity. Unless you’re constantly exchanging passcodes or security keys, you can’t really be sure who’s on the other side of a conversation.
This ambiguity takes the term “role-playing game” to new levels. Ostensibly, Exfiltration is about “you” — the protagonist you’re encouraged to name after yourself — and Darlene, part of the Mr. Robot core cast. As you go deeper, though, you’ll constantly flip between identities. In one conversation, you’re a human resources manager talking to an employee; change threads, and you’re pretending to be the employee’s husband while talking to the HR department. Your facelessness encourages characters to fill in the blanks, assuming you’re someone they know using an unfamiliar number.
Go through enough of these conversations, and you’ll slip into an inoffensive corporate patois, like the self-deprecating "haha" that renders requests less threatening and deflects questions about who exactly is making them. Despite being individually distinct and well-written, your marks sometimes sound interchangeable — because without voice, tone, or body language, there are only so many ways to talk about company IT policy.
Like parts of Mr. Robot, Exfiltration occasionally feels like it’s playing up ordinary people’s gullibility a little too much. Characters can be strangely eager to assume you’re their friend or (in one case) hired escort. But you’re not just fooling a bunch of corporate lackeys to help Darlene. Since the game all takes place after your avatar picks up her phone, you’re also assuming Darlene’s identity with other hackers, including some of her closest confidants. It’s possible to inform everybody that you aren’t Darlene, although I never tried it. For the most part, though, they’re just as willing to forgive your inconsistencies as anyone else. Because really, how paranoid would it be to assume that your friend has suddenly been replaced by an imposter?
How paranoid would it be to admit that you don’t know who’s behind a keyboard?
About as paranoid as I started getting, as I played. Once I got used to analyzing every word my character read and wrote to play a part inside the game, knowing that nearly everyone she met was wrong to trust her, it was hard to stop myself outside the game. Every time I sent an instant message to a friend, I stared at it and wondered: Does that really sound like me? If a stranger walked up to my keyboard, how long could they replace me without anybody noticing? Every time they responded, I looked for distinctive tics in their writing — things that, if they were faked, would at least take some work to replicate.
It wasn’t that I worried about a conspiracy. (Although if you’re writing on the internet, or otherwise susceptible to phishing, paranoia is your friend.) It was just the dispiriting but ordinary feeling that we were all generic, replaceable, and that the interests that are supposed to make us unique — our fandoms, in-jokes, and quirky punctuation — have only made us more indistinguishable.
Mr. Robot protagonist Elliot is fond of furious screeds against mainstream, “normal” people, but Exfiltration somehow delivers the barb more effectively, just by laying out our own words in front of us.
The thing is, Mr. Robot is best when it admits that Elliot is wrong, and that treating people as the sum of what they show you online is a shallow, adolescent view of the world. Whatever writing strips out, text is the medium where I can work through my thoughts in their clearest form, and it’s where I’ve had some of my most interesting conversations, often with people I barely see in real life. Occasionally, though, I’ll worry that it lets me see people as simply aggregations of their opinions, who exist only as long as I’m reading their words — which, in Exfiltration’s case, is literally correct. If I’ve only written to someone, does this mean I know them more deeply, in a space without superficial distractions? Or, when you’re dealing with pure disembodied data, will something always get lost?
Disclosure: NBC Universal, owner of USA Network, is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company. Additionally, we are an independent editorial partner in the Mr. Robot Digital After Show hosted by The Verge.