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Illustration by Dami Lee

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Why more video games look and feel like text messaging with friends

Games capture the look, feel, and meaning of texting

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A combined 80 billion text messages are sent each day, and yet storytellers are still working out how to best capture the experience of jotting a message and hitting send. Hollywood only recently began to figure out how to convey texting on film. The agreed-upon solution is not to shoot a close up of a phone screen, as was done at first, but to have the text message pop up in the film’s world, similar to a speech bubble in a comic book.

The solution successfully portrays the look of texting but not the feel. For that, you have to turn to video games, which use player interaction to put some weight behind the act of texting, both tactile and emotional.

The 2011 visual novel Catherine was one of the first video games to explore how we behave when we text. Through the screen of a smartphone, the writers capture the mixed emotions of a love affair. Each time the protagonist, Vincent, received a sexy photo from his mistress, he bolted to the restroom so he could open the message in privacy. When replying to texts from the two women, Vincent wrote and rewrote sentences before sending them. The iterative process of writing those texts visualized his inner debate.

Years later, Kyle Seeley built on this design with Emily Is Away, which tells its story through nothing but texting. The game follows two students who maintain a long-distance relationship on a fake 2000s-era instant messenger, like MSN or AOL Instant Messenger. You choose responses during the conversations and then hit the keyboard to have the character type them out.

The one-to-one relationship that messaging interfaces allow is something Seeley finds powerful. “I think interface games can really capture the feeling of a specific time period or generation and help us all empathize with each other,” he says. To make his characters feel real, Seeley considered how long they idled before responding, or whether they deleted words while typing. He helps us build an impression of his characters through the small signs we pick up on when chatting online to gauge someone’s reaction in the absence of body language.

Both Catherine and Emily Is Away take into account actual texting behaviors — writing, deleting, considering one word over another — to make their characters feel real and three-dimensional. We can spot ourselves in their anxious, self-doubting hesitations.

Emily Is Away.

The texting adventure Lifeline turns the familiar “...” icon into a dramatic waiting game. It tells its story through texts between you and an astronaut stranded on an alien moon. What makes it remarkable is how it unfolds in real time. Let’s say the astronaut texts you with a dilemma, you text back telling him to hike to a location, he’ll then let you know when he arrives there a full Earth hour later.

During that downtime you’re left to worry about the astronaut’s fate. Will he make it there alive? That delay not only adds suspense, but also gives a sense of distance, as if the astronaut is actually walking from one point to another. On top of that, the use of real time in Lifeline lets you play without interrupting your daily life. In fact, it becomes a part of it: the texts from the astronaut blend in with other conversations on your phone. The game’s mimicry makes it easy to care about the astronaut as if he were anyone else on your contacts list.

Your phone contains your story

While this method of storytelling may sound original, it’s actually derived from the larger tradition of epistolary novels. Epistolaries aren’t told to the reader by a narrator, but shown to them through letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings. Texting is the modern take on a classic form. It makes sense for games, specifically, to pick up this narrative technique given the game-like process of going through each document to piece together a story.

Apply this format to the entire smartphone interface and what you get is the emerging genre of the smartphone thriller. Sara Is Missing, Replica, and A Normal Lost Phone are three recent examples. They task you with breaking into and exploring the contents of a stranger’s phone to find out more about the owner. By piecing together clues across text messages, emails, photos, and video clips, you’re able to figure out PIN codes and passwords. As you dive deeper into each phone, their stories unfold through the owner’s relationships and secrets. Despite these games being released within months of each other, they arrived at their common meeting point from different roads.

Sara Is Missing.
Sara Is Missing.

Sara Is Missing is a descendant of the found-footage films that emerged with VHS technology. It’s a horror story about a young girl who goes missing, and you discover her fate through her corrupted phone. Comparisons to The Blair Witch Project are appropriate, not only for the murderous plot, but also for the way the game gives its story a sense of authenticity. The Blair Witch Project did this through marketing that claimed it was real footage of a documentary crew who went missing. Sara Is Missing uses real photos, text messages, voiced phone calls, and amateur video footage to a similar effect. In both, the horror is amplified by the plausibility of their technological mimesis: either an amateur documentary or a missing person’s smartphone. You could lead people to believe it wasn’t fiction.

A Normal Lost Phone brings a more intimate story to the smartphone thriller. Without giving too much away, it concerns a teenager who has to hide their true identity online due to the disapproving environment they live in. What makes it believable is how this identity is revealed: text messages, emails, dating apps, and online forums. These are exactly the places you’d expect an oppressed teen to talk about and experiment with their identity.

That kind of story feels so native to the smartphone interface — not just the texts, but the notion of our smartphone as the vault in which we keep a majority of our experience — that it’s hard to imagine the game without it. “The specific story we tell in A Normal Lost Phone [...] can't be told by a narrator or a third-person and have the same impact,” says Diane Landais, the game’s programmer. She’s right: it’s a rare example of an interface allowing for new types of stories in games.

A Normal Lost Phone.

Walking a mile with another person’s smartphone

Sara Is Missing and A Normal Lost Phone are smartphone thrillers that are made to speak to us on a personal level. But the award-winning Replica demonstrates how the genre can also be bigger than that, tackling global political issues made all the more urgent by smartphones. Somi, the game’s South Korean creator, was influenced by the anti-terror bill passed in his home country on March 2nd, 2016. It allows the Korean National Intelligence Service to collect the public’s personal information and wiretap their phones if they’re suspected terrorists. The game has you imprisoned by a fictional government and ordered to hack someone’s phone to find evidence of their involvement in a recent terror attack. Do that and you clear your own name. The smartphone interface works well here as it makes it easy to imagine someone hacking into your own phone, exposing your private life, and using it against you.

While the game’s story can be understood globally, its creator found it had unique reactions in different regions. That is to say, the political context of a player’s nation seemed to affect their reaction to the game. “Most players in my country and some other countries like China and Turkey said it felt real,” Somi says. “But many reviews from America and Europe say Replica is much too childish even though it is describing real issues.”

Despite these mixed reactions, what’s important to note is that the ubiquity of the smartphone interface helped a local story transcend borders. This is something that Kenyan game studio Leti Arts is hoping to achieve with its text adventure Africa’s Legends: Reawakening. The aim is to kindle conversation around a range of issues pertinent to audiences across Africa: drug and alcohol abuse, the lasting effects of European colonialism, aid addiction, systemic corruption, ethnic tension, the value of cultural heritage, and more.

Africa’s Legends: Reawakening.

Recognizable and relatable contemporary characters derived from African legend and culture help the game have the wide appeal it needs to meet its goal. But that’s not enough. It’s also necessary for Leti Arts to ensure that even the low- to mid-end Android phone owners increasing in number across sub-Saharan Africa can access the game. Hence the game is playable in a range of formats, with SMS text being the least demanding, and PC and consoles at the higher end. “Whatever device one player is using, they could easily find themselves playing alongside someone on a totally different device, bridging the economic divides that are so visible in sub-Saharan Africa, whilst they combat issues affecting them both,” says Jake Manion, CCO of Leti Arts.

Researchers tell us texting reduces the quality and quantity of face-to-face conversation, decreases our vocabulary, and diminishes our attention spans. But what often goes unsaid is that texting is more subtle, sophisticated, and important than its crude shorthand lets on. Its ubiquity can help foster important discussion across an entire continent. Its accessibility encourages minority voices to speak up and tell more diverse stories.

Texting speaks to the experiences of today’s average people, of the agony of long-distance relationships, our growing fear of surveillance states. It makes us all participants in interactive storytelling these days, so it makes sense for our fictions to reflect that, and video games are the ideal medium for it. They are able to connect us directly to the minds of others, beginning with our fingers tapping on the glass, and taking us to a space where we can share our experiences and think on the matters that shape our lives.

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