Getting the message right in Another Lost Phone
Accidental Queens is a game company you might not be familiar with because they’ve only been releasing games this year. Earlier in 2017, they released the game A Normal Lost Phone in which plays found a smart phone, unlocked it, and began to piece together the life of the person who owned it.
There’s a degree of voyeuristic delight the propels the player forward. There are puzzles, mostly consisting of investing your time and attention into the assorted texts, emails, and other information on the device. It doesn’t feel like puzzles because it doesn’t feel like a game. There isn’t even a suggestion that the game has natural start or end points, much less a story, until one begins to emerge within the context of what you put together yourself. It’s a small game with a big message, and it has sold 100k units, and is won numerous accolades.
Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story is the pseudo-sequel just released by Accidental Queens, is available on Steam and on Android phones. This time, you explore a phone owned by a young professional woman named Laura. Again, there’s some very complicated messages and themes at play here. Miryam Houali and Diane Landais from Accidental Queens explain how you do a message game but make sure to get the message right.
In Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story, players are tasked to find out what happened to Laura, a young woman who has apparently vanished without a trace. Stumbling on her lost phone, they need to discover what happened to her by uncovering crucial pieces of information and hidden passwords scattered among texts, apps, photo gallery and social networks.
This builds upon the basic system that Accidental Queens developed originally during a game jam. At this point, it’s a fully realized phone operating system, complete with music playing in the background via the iTunes comparative app and even requiring you to toggle various in phone systems like Wi-Fi and GPS.
Or you can just delete all the data on the phone right from the start. I did to see if I could. And you can.
Asked about transitioning the original title to this more elaborate version, art director Houali said that the impact the first game made upon players seemed to be something they could easily build upon because there were so many other subjects the team wanted to tackle. Diane Landais shared that the team through this would be easy to accomplish by simply adding a few new apps. Then Landais laughs because, of course, nothing is that simple.
“The first game was mostly finding a password or guessing it,” Landais says. “This is more about piecing things together and deducing a password or how to advance the game. This design shift meant from a design and technical standpoint we had to redesign. One that was hard to do right was the recovery app which unlocks content within the messages and notes apps. In the original, each app had one bit of content. Now we have apps talking to each other.”
Miryam Houali points out that there were mistakes me in the first game, from a design perspective, that needed to be corrected — especially after getting some negative feedback. And that’s where Accidental Queens moved into territory that they knew required outside help.
“We know what we want to talk about, but it takes asking people how they felt after playing and why.”
In the original game, there is a puzzle in which you must forward a photo from the phone to someone else. There are numerous photos to choose from, but there are also images of the phone’s owner presenting as male instead of female in a game that doesn’t give you any heads-up that it is entering into trans-issues territory.
This puzzle solution resulted in Accidental Queens getting criticism for not fully thinking through their issue. While they wanted to make people feel uncomfortable in certain privacy violation ways, there were unforeseen issues that made a percentage of their audience too uncomfortable to continue.
“We tried not to do that again on this one,” Landais says. “Any potential problem, we asked ourselves if it was useful to have it make people uncomfortable. What are the bigger complications of that?”
So for the sequel, which takes on a number of emotionally and politically complicated issues, the team decided it was best to ask someone else to answer these questions. In a game about complicated emotional and psychological abuse, the team didn’t want to risk hammering anyone over the head with their message but also wanted to make sure they presented a human, realistic portrayal of these events. So they turned to the professionals.
Houali says, “We had domestic abuse survivor groups play to point out any abuse mistakes we didn’t spot. There was four different organizations, all French based, helping us with the subjects and we sent them prototypes. We sent them beta versions. They pointed out mistakes in dialogues or how the message was conveyed. Our production time was very short, but at each big milestone we had a playtest station.”
As very small scale developers on a short production timeline, using so much of their resources and time to make sure that every detail about their message is conveyed accurately, seems sort of breathtaking. Especially when there are groups out there willing to help with work like this, why aren’t more larger-scale studios putting this much care into their product?
There was also considerable playtesting with individuals. “As developers we know what we want to talk about and how we imagine it being an entertaining game to play,” Landais says, “but it takes asking people how they felt after playing and why. That’s the only way to get this right.
There’s a sort of trigger warning device at the beginning of Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story which gives you different depths of plot and theme analysis, depending on how much you’re willing to have spoiled.
This is a delicate balancing act that both Accidental Queens games have had to straddle: if people know The Message of a game, it changes how you play and what you’re looking for. How do you put that out into the world without changing how others approach what you’ve made?
Landais says, “We wanted to spoil as little as we can, and going in there was a vague idea of those subjects. We don’t want to say those messages up front because they are more efficient way to play. For example, we wanted to share that psychological manipulation was coming from multiple sources. And if you know that at the start of the game that was still too much.”
But how do you let people know what your game is about? For Landais, the best route for games right now seems to be keeping that a kind of open secret. There are enough people in games-space right now complaining about too much politics in their games.
“I understand where they’re coming from,” Landais says. “We could’ve marketed this as “Oh look at these good LGBTQ people” and look — first of all, if you’re going to market a game like that you’d better deliver. But second, if you announce like that you’re going to drive away the people the need to hear your message. Some people who had “problematic” visions wound up empathizing with characters in our game before they realized what they were reading. You are trying to change someone’s perspective, and telling that in the sale of the idea is not going to let them understand your point better.
Miryam Houali agrees. “Some people say that the game was still too preachy. We wanted players to have their own opinions. We don’t think that people disagreeing with us makes them bad people, we just want to give them the tools to reflect on their beliefs. We can try to touch a lot more people with this approach instead of making overly political games.”
And that’s how Accidental Queens are using a subtle marketing push that leaves all the themes in the background, mixed with spending a majority of their time making sure those same themes are done beyond reproach, to turn out something truly special in Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story.
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