The Horror Of Texting
HIGH A smart story in a tight framework.
LOW The acting.
WTF Finding sex offenders is pretty easy on the internet.
Snooping through the stuff of others has always contained a certain allure — as long as RPGs have existed, rifling through private info has been almost as crucial as leveling up. Recent media has taken this idea and added a modern twist.
For example, games such as Life is Strange and Her Story have the player rooting through personal effects to find deeper meanings. Recent films like Searching and Unfriended explore how this desire intersects with technology that impacts our day-to-day lives. Fitting roughly in the center of this Venn Diagram is Simulacra — a horror-themed FMV game centered around the player finding a mobile phone.
The first thing witnessed upon unlocking the phone is disturbing corruption followed by a garbled message from a woman named Anna, owner of the phone, that pleads for help.
The entirety of the story is spent interacting with an interface that simulates the phone itself by sorting through Anna’s emails, recovering videos from cloud servers, answering private messages and dabbling in her social media accounts as a means of trying to figure out what happened to her.
Things are at their best when playing voyeuristic detective. For example, one must figure out whether someone they’re texting is a sexual predator. I deduced his name and age from his “Spark” (read: Tinder) profile, then after a moment of inspiration I went to his “Jabbr” (a faux-Twitter) account and stalked his thread until I found out he was looking for a dentist in the area and then pinned down where he was from. After that, I was able to look him up on a sex offenders database — or at least, someone that fit his description. In another situation, I learned the answer to one of Anna’s security questions by texting her best friend and pretending to be her — morally dubious, but utterly engaging.
Simulacra’s weaker parts are very gamey and involve solving puzzles to restore images and rearranging words to form sentences on ‘corrupt’ Snapchat-like messages. The game spends so much time trying to immerse the player in the idea that they are the person holding the phone that this does not feel congruent with the rest of the experience.
Interspersed between these highs and lows are some decent jumpscares. As the player browses through this woman’s past, present, and possible future, messed-up images and harsh sounds will appear. The distance between these unsettling moments was long enough that I had almost forgotten them and relaxed before the next one came, so they frequently caught me out. They also tie into the plot, so I won’t say more.
Unfortunately, the acting, writing, and controls in Simulacra are all let-downs.
The script itself is a tough sell at first — it was hard to have empathy for Anna or the two men that I interacted with (via the phone) the most because Anna is self-obsessed, Greg is kind of an asshole, and Taylor is just plain weird. However, as the story progressed that lack of connection to the characters actually played well into the idea that perhaps I shouldn’t trust any party.
In terms of the FMV performances, the actress that plays Anna carries Simulacra with her short, candid recordings, but the rest of the cast come off as enthusiastic but amateurish. The controls, however, are more problematic. The interface was clearly built with real phones in mind, but this doesn’t translate efficiently to a controller. Punching in names on a keypad is generally fine, but it’s far more irritating when doing so under time pressure, for instance.
Despite those issues, Simulacra remains compelling throughout, and the engaging, inventive mystery kept the story buoyant and compelled me to see it through.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Kaigan Games OU and published by Wales Interactive Ltd. It is currently available on iOS, Android, Mac, PC, PS4, Switch, XBO. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBO-X. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Sexual Themes and Strong Language. This game earns its M rating. Apart from the mature themes that involve abuse of a partner, sex and violence, the game also has many moments of jumpscares and horror.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game has subtitles and appears to be fully playable, however there might be some sections involving phone calls where the text moves quickly that might cause struggles. The text cannot be changed in size or color.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no screenshot of the controls. The mobile versions will be touch-based, but on the Xbox, Left Stick was used for navigation, A button for confirming various actions, B for cancel, Right Trigger to activate certain context sensitive actions, X button quit the application open at the time, and Y button returned to the ‘Home’ menu of the game.