Accidental Queens’ A Normal Lost Phone (2017) exists alongside the likes of Gone Home (2013) and Her Story (2015) as the latest in what can be described as politically aware epistolary adventure games. Having found a (ahem) normal lost phone, the game proceeds as an investigation of sorts into whose phone it is and what their story was leading up to the moment you entered the picture. It echoes the similar “phone within a phone” concept of found-footage horror game Sara Is Missing (2016), but its narrative is something far closer to reality than that of a cult abduction, concerning a teenager struggling to come to terms with being trans.
As is the case with any media which deals with politically sensitive topics, there is a degree of distance with which I engaged with A Normal Lost Phone. Not being trans myself, I feel underprepared to entirely deconstruct how successfully the game handles those elements. Having a narrative about trans identity at all is rare, but it is dangerous to view the mere presence of LGBTQ elements as progressive without considering the way they are used. A Normal Lost Phone requires you to dig deep into another person’s life, uncovering their deepest secrets and in some cases even impersonating them for the sake of progressing through the game. This is rote territory for adventure games, but to apply it to the life of a trans person – one who is clearly not ready to come out as trans and for whom it would be dangerous to do so – feels violating in a way snooping through emails in Deus Ex doesn’t. As Kotaku’s Heather Alexandra who writes “[A Normal Lost Phone] is exploitative, fetishizing a deeply personal struggle and turning it into emotional tourism.”
What A Normal Lost Phone also demonstrates, apart from its messy handling of LGBTQ themes, is how banal most text messages are. Games such as Gone Home work because the diary entries used to tell its story are at once convincing and engaging to read. As we transition into digital forms of communication, however, the ease at which information is shared causes each individual message to become less and less significant. In attempting to accurately emulate text messages and emails, Accidental Queens have run into the issue of how to turn the meaningless, ordinary messages we send and receive by the dozen each day into something resembling a compelling story. Without an initial reason to care about the phone’s owner, it is difficult to find interest in the dates of their father’s birthday or the accompanying pictures saved to their gallery. It’s just another ordinary person going about their life, a person whose secrets you take upon yourself to divulge despite the extensive measures taken to hide them. Maybe next time, just turn the phone in.