A Normal Lost Phone tries to be a groundbreaking adventure game about transgender identity. Does it succeed, or is it just a voyeuristic invasion of privacy catering to cisgender people?
On the surface, A Normal Lost Phone seems like an incredible, experimental game layered with puzzles and intrigue. As a player, you find a forgotten phone. It’s your responsibility to unlock the phone in order to find its rightful owner and return it.
Instead of returning the phone, you decide to meddle with it.
This is fine at the beginning of the game, when you’re cracking puzzles in order to unlock innocent information like Wi-Fi passwords and hidden apps. But as the game progresses, the story takes a dark turn. Soon you figure out who the phone belongs to and why they shouldn’t have left it in your greedy little hands.
The problems start when you find a dating app that has two profiles, one male and one female, for a person called Sam. You soon figure out that Sam is a closeted transgender woman who’s not sure whether she should come out to her family and friends.
Her female dating profile is one of the few places where she can be herself. In fact, she has connected with an attractive young man on her dating app. The man wants Sam to send a picture. Seeing that Sam hasn’t sent him a picture yet, you decide to go ahead and send one for her.
Um, excuse me?
The secret to that puzzle is tracking down enough personal information to log into a transgender web forum, find a photo of her on the forum, and send the photo to the stranger. Without Sam’s consent. Why does the game have you do this? Purely because you can.
The game won’t let you continue until you send a photo. However, you don’t have to send a photo of Sam as a woman. You can send a photo of Sam presenting as male, which will reveal to the man on the dating app that Sam is transgender – even if the man already knows, should you be the one snooping through a stranger’s phone and revealing all of this information?
Where is Sam through all of this? While you are running her life and outing her to her entire contact list, Sam is conspicuously absent, unable to have a hand in her own destiny. The player, who statistically is likely to be cisgender, has all control over this transgender woman’s life. A Normal Lost Phone claims to “build empathy with characters, allowing them to explore difficult topics,” but renders its main character “absent, unable to consent or comment on your personal invasion. She is an object to be analyzed. She is also a damsel to save and protect.”
Does playing this game make cisgender people more empathetic toward the struggles of transgender people? Maybe. But there’s a fine line between empathy and pity, and teaching cisgender players that they are improving trans lives by invading their privacy and outing them is a step backwards.
You can decide for yourself. Is this game an invasion of privacy or an important political tool?