I admit it, I’m bad about checking out browser-based games. Brilliant titles like Depression Quest often slip past me for months even when I’ve read numerous articles about them and made a point to play them. That was what happened with A Normal Lost Phone. I read about it, thought “that sounds amazing, I need to check it out” and then… just didn’t, even when it started coming up in my alerts for “games like Gone Home”. So when I saw it available on the App Store, I had to download it immediately, and I’m glad I did.
The premise of A Normal Lost Phone is both simple and incredibly innovative. You have just found a phone and you are looking through it. That’s all. The entire interface of the game is a simulated phone with a handful of apps, and the puzzles are essentially just figuring out various passwords and finding where to type them. But as you do that, two things start to happen: you begin to get drawn into the story of the person whose phone it was, and you become increasingly aware of the fact that you are role-playing an invasion of privacy, effectively hacking a particularly vulnerable person to find out more details about their life.
Warning: spoilers for basically the entire game after the break.
That story and that life belong to Sam. Initially, all you know about him is that his father is worried that he’s missing, he just turned 18, and he seems to like books and board games. The phone has no internet and all you can really access is the calendar, messages, and some old emails. As you read through the messages from various people in Sam’s life, the picture of whose phone you found begins to fill in. Sam is a composer and a harpist. He has just had a birthday party, as has his father. He is Hispanic. He has a serious girlfriend that his parents love and are pressuring him to start considering marrying.
But as you scroll through more and more conversations, you begin to suspect that something is amiss. Sam abruptly ended his relationship with his girlfriend. He stopped going to his board game group after some sort of confrontation with another member. Eventually you learn that he is likely bisexual (possibly asexual) and that his older cousin, who he was told had joined a cult, is gay and about to get married. It’s at this point that the game puts you in the position of intentionally going from “figuring out whose phone this is” to “basically hacking this kid.”
In order to find out more details, you realize you will need access to the dating app on the phone. There are two profiles, “Sam-Thing” and “Sam-Thing-Else” on the app and they have different passwords. The first profile’s password is easy to guess and is a man seeking women, the short profile apparently an honest one based on what we know of Sam. He has a few conversations going but seems to be ignoring one person who is very interested in meeting up. When you eventually gain access to the second account (through similar password-guessing puzzles), you find that it is a woman seeking men, also with what appears to be an honest profile of Sam. When you read the first conversation, you find out that Sam is actually a bisexual trans woman. All the characters you have encountered in all Sam’s messages have used male pronouns up to this point. This message thread is the first time Sam is referred to, and refers to herself, as female. There is still some ambiguity as to exactly what Sam’s gender identity is at this point; trans woman, nonbinary, and bigender identities are all still possibilities based on Sam’s words. While both identities continue to use Sam as a nickname, the male pronouns used so far, not only by the characters in the game but in this article as well, no longer seem appropriate.
Luckily, the first person Sam meets is also bi and not at all transphobic. He tells Sam to check out the LGBT youth group and she responds that she already has. You then see a link to a trans youth forum, enabling you to utilize the previously useless browser (you can’t type a url). When you read through Sam’s posts you learn that she has parents who are extremely homophobic and transphobic and she would certainly be thrown out if she told them. You learn that Sam has been educating herself and reaching out. You learn that though she’s a trans woman she’s also nonbinary and doesn’t want surgery or likely even HRT. You realize that to get the whole story, you will need to access the private section of the forums which requires a password you cannot guess.
This is where the game really messes with you and starts to show the effectiveness of its narrative format. In order to get the story, to find out who Sam really is and what’s become of her, you need to send a password reset email to Sam’s phone. You need to go from hacking her phone to hacking her. You have started to care about Sam and want to know what happened to her, but you need to directly invade the privacy of a vulnerable trans teen to do it. It’s creepy, but that creepiness has nothing to do with Sam’s gender or sexuality; it has to do with the actions you the player must take to learn about her.
Mercifully, you learn good news. Sam has recently attended a trans pride parade (as Samira) and had a fantastic time. She has received a paying gig as a composer for an indie videogame studio. She has come out to a few select people and made new friends who know her real identity. And here the game drops one last secret on you. You learn that the calculator app (previously only useful to quickly solve a puzzle that required figuring out a birth year) is a “hidden vault” app. Inside is Sam’s journal, revealing the reality of everything you’ve learned directly from her perspective up to the day the phone was lost.
The game ends shortly after when you see an email and response between Samira and her best friend (who she was out to). You learn that she has left town to start a new life and that she’s already doing well. She threw away her phone as a symbolic gesture, but now is worried that someone may hack into it, as all her passwords are easy. Her friend responds that if it wasn’t a thief who just wanted the phone, it was someone who probably looked for a way to return it and maybe got curious, but that such a person would understand her situation and that in either case they would erase the phone. In order to “beat the game”, you then need to go to Settings and erase all data. You perform the final act in Samira’s story, erasing any trace of her old life left behind and completing her (metaphorical) transition to a new one.
In the end, you not only get to experience the story of a vulnerable teen in an organic and relatable way, but you also get a sort of meta-commentary on the nature of privacy and safety in the age of the smartphone. If the character you represent in the game characters’ world (yeah, mull that over for a second by the way) was a hateful bigot, they could do massive amounts of damage to Samira and possibly drive her to harm herself. You realize how powerful the title is. This game simulates something that could easily happen almost anywhere to almost anyone: you find a dropped phone.
I previously mentioned that this game has a similarity to the brilliant Gone Home. Both games are arguably not “games” at all; they are interactive nonlinear literary experiences. While that description can apply to many video games as well, we generally also associate the term game with something that requires action to achieve a goal, and this only barely qualifies. Like “choose your own adventure” books, we aren’t actually doing anything, we’re just reading a narrative in a new and interesting way. But both games also tell the story of an LGBTQ+ youth in a rough situation through an organic process of discovery. You don’t just read their story; you get to know them and relate to them. That is a powerful process, and it allows A Normal Lost Phone to serve as an example of why video games can be such a valuable artistic medium. We get to experience the vital stories of marginalized people as if they were a real person we care about. We connect to the stories, and they have a real and often profound impact, generating greater empathy along the way. While Lost Phone may not hit quite the emotional high of games like Gone Home or Life is Strange, this entry in the (hopefully) ever-expanding category of “LGBTQ+ protagonists in narrative-heavy games” is one I’m really glad I finally got around to playing.