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Left on read: the nail-biting mobile games that leave you waiting for texts

Left on read: the nail-biting mobile games that leave you waiting for texts


You’ll be compulsively checking your phone for notifications

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It’s been over an hour since I’ve heard from Nour. She’s left the Syrian city of Homs, our home, and is making her way to Europe in hopes of a safer life. When her name finally lights up my iPhone screen, I hold my breath and hope for the best. “He’s not answering the phone,” she messages about the man meant to smuggle her across the border. “Nor to my texts.” There’s nothing I can do. I tap through a few message options before selecting an angry emoji, and send it off through the game’s fake phone interface. Then I settle in to wait, unsure when I will hear from her again.

Interactive fiction game Bury Me, My Love is played on your real phone, using an interface similar to messenger WhatsApp. It unfolds through a series of texts between a husband and wife; as Majd, you encourage Nour from afar as she attempts to escape from war-torn Syria, while you remain with family at home. Sometimes this means telling Nour stories to help her fall asleep; other times, it’s advising her on whether or not to trust a specific smuggler who could help her cross borders.

The interactive story takes place in “pseudo real-time,” which means that minutes or hours could pass between texts from Nour. When she’s off hunting for food, it’s a welcome respite. When you’re waiting to find out if something’s gone wrong, the minutes painfully stretch. While I was working or hanging out with friends in my real life, Nour would pop in with commentary or cute selfies to show off new cities or supplies. These check-ins, however brief and out of my control, helped me feel connected to her. Despite the severity of her journey, reading about her eating breakfast or looking at her selfies added normalcy to our exchanges.

There’s an option that allows you to remove the time limitations and brute force your way through its story more quickly, though this eliminates much of what makes the experience meaningful. The impatience and anxiety you feel as you check your phone between updates becomes as much of a gameplay mechanic as the messages themselves, and one that feels familiar. It’s exciting to get an update on your phone, the same way you might eagerly await a text from a loved one. It can also feel excruciating as you wait hours to learn whether you gave her good advice in a life-or-death situation, or if you’ve doomed your fictional lover.

This sort of “hurry up and wait” element has appeared in other interactive text games before, most most notably 3 Minute Games’ space-based story, Lifeline. Like Bury Me, My Love, Lifeline is played entirely through texts with a fictional character. Instead of a distant loved one fleeing a war-torn country, Taylor is a student whose spaceship has crashed on a distant moon, leaving them frightened, alone and in desperate need of help. Is it better to push through the exhaustion, or take time to rest? Where are the best places to look for rations? Your input has the potential to save Taylor’s life.

Nour is using the same emoji my mom does

By using literal time to prod curiosity and impatience, games like Bury Me, My Love and Lifeline change the way players build a relationship with the game—and the “person” on the other end. The advice you give them makes you feel invested in and responsible for their well-being, especially when the stakes are life and death. The platform also adds to the believability of the exchange; when I see Nour pop up on my iPhone with a text that uses the same emoji my mom does, it’s easy for my brain to read their messages the same way.

There’s a level of intimacy to these exchanges as well that mirrors my own life. I rarely make phone calls anymore; texting is the default, a medium where I can talk about everything from what I’ve eaten that day to my struggles with anxiety. It feels comfortable, even normal to pop in and out of serious conversations over short-burst messages. Games that capitalize on this are exploring the intimate layer of interaction that most people have already built into their daily routing — checking texts.

Like many of my real-life friends, Nour and Taylor may disappear on me from time to time. They leave me to worry and wonder, but I don’t hold it against them. After all, I’ve fired off dramatic messages of my own before, only to vanish for a hours as obligations sucked me away. That’s the nature of texting, in real life or in a video game. You respond when you can.