Released earlier this year, A Normal Lost Phone subverted typical methods of narration, only giving players the content of a found smartphone to learn more about its owner, their identity and their life. Players could rifle through messages, take a peek at what they’d been doing on their installed apps, and find out how they live their life through the rectangular bit of technology.
*spoilers for A Normal Lost Phone follow*
But although the game was praised for being a modern take on the narrative game genre that raised the bar on video game storytelling, A Normal Lost Phone was also criticized for being far too ‘invasive’ in how players could interact and even interfere with the owner’s life. The owner of the phone, Sam, is a transgender woman, and it raised many questions about the wrong and right way to include LGBTQ characters in video games, about the agency of NPCs, and how the player themselves can relate to that.
Last month, Accidental Queens released Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story. A spiritual successor to the first game, it focuses on another young woman, exploring her disappearance and the struggles of her life. Once again, the game pits the player as some sort of determined detective with all of the clues being held by her smartphone.
In an email, I spoke to the developer to find out what it learned from the first game and the criticism it received, as well as how the new game addresses social issues.
How Another Lost Phone Changed Due to Criticisms of LGBTQ Themes
J Station X: How did the team address criticisms of A Normal Lost Phone‘s LGBTQ themes in Another Lost Phone? Did that criticism change your approach to including LGBTQ characters in the new game?
Some aspects of this specific article led us to rethink our game design choices. The part of the game where the player must send a picture from Sam’s gallery especially, was rightfully pointed as problematic. Our original intention was to put the player in the position of a witness to a story that had already unfolded. Sending drafts was already a step in the wrong direction, and letting the player choose the content of the message that was going to be sent was definitely a mistake in that sense. This served the game’s puzzle and mechanics, but was counter-productive on the narrative side, as the article highlighted.
The invasion of privacy in the game was also heavily questioned, and deemed a “failed experiment” by the reviewer. According to other reviews, from journalists and players alike, our experiment has managed to strike its goal: helping the player see the core subject of the game from a different perspective, and questioning their own biases and prejudices on the matter. We received a lot of positive feedbacks, from people who identified with the main character, as well as from people whose opinion shifted to become more tolerant and positive.
That doesn’t mean the game was entirely free of problems, and we did rework some of the core aspects and mechanics for Another Lost Phone. The “player as a witness” intention was kept intact, and we tried to enforce this as a definitive rule in our game design process.
The players never have to act on Laura’s story, except when she explicitly asks them to. Even then, Laura – like Sam – can hardly be described as a damsel in distress, as both characters lived through their stories on their own, and the players are only invited to see it in retrospect, after any distress is gone.
A Normal Lost Phone’s intent was purposefully “unclear”, in the way it was trying to be both immersive and unrealistic at the same time, inducing a feeling of uneasiness in the players. This clumsy balance has been criticized, and made us rethink what was our main intent: building an introspective space for the players, allowing them to reflect on their beliefs and position on a subject matter.
This introspection is inherently uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean the game should reinforce this feeling of uneasiness. So instead, for Another Lost Phone, we reworked the introduction of the game to feel more like an invitation, explaining immediately and clearly what is to be expected. It is definitely a game, as explicitly stated upfront, along with the core mechanics, and a foldable list of spoilers and content warnings.
All in all, there are many small changes in the way Another Lost Phone was designed, thanks to articles like this one. The theme is very different, so the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters is not as prominent as it was in the previous game, but the broader issues about the way the game delivered its narrative – regardless of its actual content – were definitely improved with the constructive criticism that we received.
JSX: Another Lost Phone includes “social themes not often discussed in games” – what sort of social themes can players expect? And why is it so important to tackle these sorts of issues?
Revealing the whole theme would definitely spoil part of the experience, so it’s hard to answer extensively. Some important questions are raised regarding relationships in the digital age, the feeling of isolation and its contrast with today’s over-connectedness, and the porous barrier between professional and personal interactions. The game was once again designed and written with the help of organisations and professionals from a specific subject – and once again, our goal is to shed light on a subject, while providing key elements to discover or understand the core theme, that they may or may not be familiar with.
We think it’s important to tackle these issues because games are a powerful medium today, and will become the basis of tomorrow’s society shared culture and references. Whether we want it or not, almost any game teaches something to the players: what today’s world is made of and, in parts, how its creators see the world. In order for our society as a whole to move towards something better, our games must never underestimate the impact that they can – even inadvertently – have.
Additionally, it’s important that at least some of them try to actively send a better message, and teach some form of lesson to the current and future generations of players. So not only do we think it’s important to tackle these issues, we also think that it’s vital to realize that many games give a certain point of view on these issues – and this point of view should be harmless at worst, and extremely positive at best.
JSX: For those who skipped A Normal Lost Phone, why do you think they should take a chance on Another Lost Phone?
There are many reasons why one might have missed A Normal Lost Phone. Multiple games with a similar setting were released around the same time, it was the first game from our studio, its visuals, writing, length or subject matter may have driven away some players…
Perhaps it’s best to summarize what the new game, Another Lost Phone, has in common with its predecessor: it’s once again a game where the player finds a phone and tries to understand what happened to its owner. It still relies on puzzles and investigation mechanics to unfold the mysteries that the phone holds. It still has a great soundtrack.
So if there’s anything in that list that drove a player away from A Normal Lost Phone, they can probably try to find other qualities in Another Lost Phone to balance it out. If it’s something that’s not on that list however, chances are it’s been changed – and most probably improved – in Another Lost Phone.
Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story is now available on iOS, Android, Windows PC, Mac, and Linux.