Storytelling and Advocacy in ‘A Normal Lost Phone’

Reading Time: 4 minutes

A Normal Lost Phone

You’ve just found a lost smartphone. Can you find out what happened?

That’s the premise of A Normal Lost Phone, a game by Accidental Queens that’s available from the App Store, Google Play, or Steam.

A Normal Lost Phone menu
Normal Lost Phone menu screen

When you start the game, you’re presented with what looks like a smartphone menu (though it has an illustrated look to it)—and you have 4 messages from “Dad” asking where you are.

As with a real phone, you can poke around in the apps a little bit—you can browse the (relatively small) music library and choose a different track, read text messages, poke around in the photo gallery, and do some arithmetic on the calculator. But apparently Sam—the apparent owner of the phone—doesn’t have a data plan, because you can’t open anything in the browser or check e-mail until you figure out the town’s wi-fi password.

A Normal Lost Phone screens

Still, there’s a wealth of information to be found just by digging through the messages: you can see from the message history that the phone is fairly new—only about two months old—because all the conversations begin with Sam texting somebody so they have the new number. There are contacts from school, a board game group, book club, and family members. Some conversations are really benign, but there are a few that stand out, and you can tell that something significant has happened in the past two months. But what?

A Normal Lost Phone screens

Once you manage to get on the wi-fi network, you’ll have access to Sam’s e-mail, which fills in some of the blanks from the text messages, but raises new questions and leads you to access other parts of the phone, or helps you interpret some of the things you’ve already found.

Without giving away too much of the story, I will say that Sam’s life has been pretty tumultuous during the two months recorded on this phone, and by playing the game you find out why. It’s not really a huge mystery—there are some hints there right from the beginning in the text messages—but the exact details are filled in over the course of the game, painting a fuller picture of what happened.

I did find that there were a couple of places where I got stuck and had to look for some hints, and part of it was that although most of the dates are written in a dd-mm-yy format, there are some passwords that use mm-dd format instead, which really threw me off. That, and I kept realizing that I was misreading dates on messages and getting the timeline all out of order. Although there are some parts that don’t function the way a real phone would—for instance, you can’t make new appointments on the calendar, or compose new messages—for the most part it does feel like poking around in somebody’s phone, which gives you the sense of invading Sam’s privacy and seeing things that wouldn’t necessarily be shared otherwise.

It does take some time to get used to, because it’s non-linear. You can read the texts in any order, or you can jump around from texts to e-mails to other parts of the phone. There are some things that get unlocked in a particular order, but for much of the game you can choose what to do next, which makes it feel a little more real.

It’s a little tricky to give a more comprehensive review without spoiling more of the details, but I did find A Normal Lost Phone pretty intriguing, and I think it could be a good conversation starter. I should note that the game is rated for 12 and up because of language and some thematic content about sexuality; it seems targeted at young adults primarily.

Ultimately, I think the game is intended to inspire empathy and perhaps provide advice for young people struggling with things like peer pressure, depression, relationships, and homophobia. It’s not necessarily all practical, how-to advice—though there is some, in the form of an online forum—but more about preparing somebody for potential outcomes and reactions, and the game portrays both the bad (discrimination and rejection) and the good (acceptance and hope). I do wonder if it will work—if a videogame can change somebody’s prejudices or assumptions, or if the player would instead stop playing when the storyline (or a character in the story) challenges their beliefs. But that is one of the things that I think storytelling is capable of, whether that’s in a book or a movie, and I think A Normal Lost Phone is simply a different form of storytelling, and it’s a story worth reading.

For more information, visit the Accidental Queens website.

Disclosure: I received a download code of this app for review purposes.

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