A Normal Lost Phone Review
I pick a phone up off of the ground. It is not my own, but I unlock it instinctively. It looks and feels familiar, yet its contents are foreign to me. Four new notifications flash on screen: a father wondering where their son is and why they will not respond. Perhaps the phone was lost; or perhaps it was abandoned.
I explore in an effort to find out. Reading through the phone’s long lines of messages from a wide assortment of individuals, I discover the name of the owner — Sam — and that today is his birthday. His party is currently underway and his family is eager to celebrate; however the star of the show is missing.
Suddenly, a history of the preceding months is recovered through his message interactions. A girlfriend becomes an ex-girlfriend for unknown, mysterious reasons; a close female friend is the subject of suspicion; a variety of “characters” entitled by his association with them reference book clubs and music groups. I am locked out of the internet because I lack the Wi-fi password; however a few messages imply it is the city’s zipcode. I exit the page of seemingly-endless messages and enter the Weather app screen. The zipcode appears. I type it into the Wi-fi password box. Suddenly the door to the email app unlocks.
These early interactions which initiate developer Accidental Queens’ A Normal Lost Phone, this introductory ‘sequence of events,’ as they may be described; they suggest an involved character study by way of puzzle solving. An approach to familiar game design under the guise of a relatively innocuous occurrence — in this case, finding someone’s lost phone. Where the effectiveness in its creativity lies is in the game’s refusal to ever attempt to convince the player otherwise that they are indeed playing a game; and that by solving its intricate but accessible riddles, they are simultaneously working towards a conclusive endgame as well as an enlightening revelation regarding its existentially-befuddled birthday boy protagonist.
Logic and proper judgement are the key to progressing the rather linear course of action. We discover more and more about Sam’s emotional grievances as we delve deeper into his informational textbook of messages, emails, pictures, databases, and online personas. A Normal Lost Phone brilliantly captures the similar methods of storytelling apparent in Gone Home, but through an external and more collected — though certainly not smaller — lens, allowing the game to focus on more effectively preserving its mystery and manipulate the narrative in any direction it so chooses.
But for as enthusiastically-experimental the game is, it remains just that: an effective experiment. Its length is appropriate given the small scale (and low price); however, much of the experience involves a bevy of reading and interpreting, as opposed to sophisticated puzzle design. A more ambitious title could lengthen the experience, adding further player involvement through more oblique riddles or contextual phone apps (ie. levels); but as it stands, A Normal Lost Phone is more interested in pitting the player in the roles of a bystander. This is not necessarily a problem given how successful the game is in satisfying this approach. It is just a disappointment how little our nameless player character is actually given to do.
Also notable is the game’s obsessive political motive. Throughout, Accidental Queens are clearly — often rather blatantly, particularly in one sequence involving an online forum — motivated to explain the complexities of gender, and the current generation’s progressive aims to socially institutionalize them. Part of the game’s underlying goal is to teach the player the intricacies of personality, expressing the notion that identity is indeed a presumed role, able to shift and be manipulated by the particular individual by any means they deem fit.
By pitting the player within the role of a stranger, tasked with exploring a person’s character by taking a walk in their shoes, so to speak — note: this is a character who grows interested in the idea of assuming the role of their opposite gender — a narrative parallelism is constructed, ruminating on the inherent human attraction towards becoming comfortable with and enlightened of one’s self through observing and/or mimicking others.
Apart from a relatively effective method of pacing, the ending is most unfortunately the most disappointing aspect to the game. An entire evening is spent growing to understand this complex character, yet a contrived and rather uninspired finale forces the player out of the experience with little more than direct initiative to quit. The exquisite preceding climax feels far more invested in comparison, and the hastiness seems to take away from the weight of the emotional reveal.
However, it can be argued that such a brief finale satisfies another important reveal: the fact that the player-protagonist is indeed a stranger, happening upon this abandoned phone, further stressing the pivotal themes regarding enlightenment of others through personal exploration. By the end of the game, we come to realise Sam as an entirely different human being than when we first ‘meet’ him, and the abrupt conclusion suits the intimate aspirations which fuel this political character study.
So A Normal Lost Phone facilitates an intriguing basis of expansion, however it remains unclear how much further the concept could be taken. It therefore prevails as a successful and conclusive experiment, as mysterious as it is accessible: an intuitive take on the Gone Home formula of storytelling and adventure game design. A simple method of progression guides its impressively linear plot, but the narrative implications which arrive more than satisfy the modesty. A game so impelled by humanity’s emotional intricacies deserves contemplation, and Accidental Queens manage to properly provide a reflective experience within.
To describe at length what makes the game succeed would be to spoil much of its delicately-climactic approach to narration. The small-scale setting activates a much broader area of consideration, offering any player intrigued enough by its cryptic approach to storytelling, to delve deep into the psyche of a complicated individual, whom they never truly meet, yet grow to understand more than any of the individual’s closest companions. Immediately entrancing, in spite of its formulaic build, A Normal Lost Phone offers an experience simultaneously familiar and revolutionary. One needs only to relieve any predetermined biases, offer up equitable mode of enlightenment, and allow the raw communication of kinship to form a conscious tolerance so predicated within.