One of the coolest little tricks video games can pull is when they drop familiar real-world communication devices into the virtual space—there's something a little special about seeing an interface effectively brought to life inside an interface.
Lots of video games have mobile phones in them, but we think the best use of mobile phones in games (I really want to type 'cell phones', as some of these are definitely 'cell phones') comes from when they make us think about our relationship to those devices and the ways they are used. Here are our personal favorites:
Magical Maiden Madison
By Christine Love (Play here free)
Lots of girls from our generation grew up on magical girl transformation anime like Sailor Moon. Christine Love's Magical Maiden Madison is a brief, humorous game that scrubs off the patina of slow-drifting sparkles and rose backgrounds to examine what it might actually be like for a modern girl to be in those kinds of situations. The main interface, Madison's mobile phone, plays a key role in that modern imagining, a vehicle for teen emotes and shorthand as she talks with her friend Amy about her latest battle of the week—and everything that would entail. There was no texting on Sailor Moon; everyone had to talk to each other through "cosmetic pens" or something. I mean, I don't remember.
By Robert Yang (Play here free)
Cell phone cameras have doubtless massively democratized the dick pic, and Robert Yang's Cobra Club explores the issues of privacy, government surveillance and consent through this strangely vulnerable work that takes place in the uncomfortable light of your mom's bathroom mirror. It's inspired in part by that memorable conversation between John Oliver and Edward Snowden: Who can see our dick pics? Will that be the question by which we'll finally fully engage Americans in the surveillance conversation? How can we reclaim our dick pics from the government eye?
The selfie is often-discussed as a way for people, particularly young women, to regain control of their image; Yang's Cobra Club reminds us that when we wield a phone camera, we stand both to gain and lose all kinds of power.
By Turbo Button (Coming to VR platforms later this year, play browser version here free)
It's hard to tell people they shouldn't do things without being a total mega buzzkill loser, but luckily games are a fun way to show how systems work and, often, to highlight the inherent absurdity of our behavior within systems. SMS Racing is about trying to text while driving, behavior which of course all write-ups earnestly warn you must not do. The creepy, defiant little thing started out as a browser game in 2015, and now is coming to full-blown VR, because of course it is.
By Nina Freeman (Play here free)
Nina Freeman's distinctive vignette games are brief constellations of moments and memories, often about complicated subjects like sex and girlhood in her own life. Her game Freshman Year is an upsetting work about heading out to a college party and experiencing a brief but poignant assault. Although you can make choices in the game—what to wear, how much to drink, how to feel about the night ahead—fittingly, none of them make a difference to the outcome.
One of the most interesting techniques Freeman uses to pace her storytelling in Freshman Year is a mobile phone, which Nina consults throughout the night, searching for the friend she's supposed to meet at the event. The way the phone is used in the game does a brilliant job of dictating the way we turn to text messages for comfort, for space, for pauses in crowds, and when we're lonely or frightened. The insistent text communication with Jenna provides the rhythm that makes the game feel like a real memory.
By Atlus (Buy it on last-gen consoles for about $15)
Catherine was a distinctly weird PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 game that launched in 2011. It's one part visual novel, one part wildly-frustrating block puzzle, but it took some interesting risks in its attempt to portray the inner conflict of Vincent, an aging loser-guy who's torn between his commitment-pushy longtime girlfriend and the exciting young thing who's suddenly showed up to exploit his weak temperament.
The most memorable part of that game remains the cell phone interface you'd get to interact with during those stretches of game you'd spend shuffling Vincent around a bar at night, long after his friends had found better things to do. You could read and reply to your text messages from each woman, and you'd be offered multiple options tonally as to how to respond—but the way the interface worked, replies typing themselves and then disappearing in favor of the next option, meant you experienced the awfully-human act of sitting alone in a booth, half-drunk, writing what you might want to say and then erasing it again until it seemed "right".
And then, of course, the agonizing after. It was a precise, excellent note on the part of a game which was otherwise all over the place (but which I nonetheless loved).