The Cell Phone Problem

In 2013 I had the opportunity to chat with Steve Gaynor about his then in-development mystery game Gone Home.  A playable version was on display at the Game Developer’s Conference’s Indie Megabooth, and while I was interested in some of the other titles being shown (like Thirty Flights of Loving), I was there to see his game.  We were far enough into the development of Dead Secret to realize that it might have significant overlap with Gaynor’s title, and I’d come to check it out.

sh-phone-callTo my relief our respective games were quite different, though we’d both made a lot of similar decisions.  Chatting with Gaynor I found that we’re both big fans of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and have both spent a bunch of time in Portland, Oregon. Midway through our conversation I turned to Steve and asked him if he had set Gone Home in the mid ’90s to deal with “the cell phone problem.”

“Yep,” he said. I didn’t have to define the term–he knew what I was talking about immediately.  There are a lot of other good thematic reasons to set Gone Home in the 1990s, and if you’ve played the game you know why, but my interest was functional: the cell phone problem is hard, and I am interested in what other game designers think of it.

If you play a lot of mystery or horror games you might have noticed that there are not a whole lot of them that take place after the year 2000.  There are many that take place in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as those further in the past (including Dead Secret) or in the far future (SOMA, Alien: Isolation).  But the last decade and a half are underrepresented in scary games, and I think the reason is simple: cell phones.

The problem with cell phones is that they are lifelines back to the real world.  Hiding under a bed as a deranged killer searches the house for you?  With a cell phone you can call the cops.  Arrive at your rendezvous point only to find your confederate hasn’t shown?  With a phone you can just call them.  Wondering how to open an antique lock with a screwdriver?  If you have a cell phone you can just look that shit up on the internet.  Phones are ubiquitous and incredibly powerful ways to communicate regardless of your physical location. That power throws a giant wrench in a large number of mysteries that operate on the idea that you are isolated and must rely on your wits alone.

shining-1980-overlook-hotel-blizzard-00n-p5kI mean, take The Shining.  The entire film operates on the basic premise that the roads are snowed in and nobody can get in or out of Overlook Hotel.  The protagonists are pretty lucky that one of them is a psychic because that’s how they are finally able to issue an SOS to the outside world.  If they’d had cell phones they would have noped the fuck out of there about 30 minutes into the film.

The need to isolate the protagonist is common in horror and mystery literature.  And Then There Were None, one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels, involves ten people trapped on an island from which there is no escape. Firewatch takes place in the Wyoming wilderness in 1989 because many of the protagonists’ problems would be trivial to resolve with modern technology. 999 involves nine people trapped on a giant, trap-laden boat with no means to communicate with the outside world.  The mystery of these titles operates on the idea that the protagonists are isolated, and cell phones just chuck all that thrilling infrastructure right out the window.

Of course, there are ways to defang the portable phone. It could be out of batteries, or your protagonists could find themselves beyond the range of the closest cell tower.  But these contrivances come with a lot of conditions of their own.  I mean, you have to be pretty remote to lose a cell signal in the United States these days.

More interesting are titles that subvert the phone itself.  Ju-on, a 2002 Japanese horror flick, spends a lot of screen time proving that technology can’t save you from a killer curse.  It does this in order to isolate its victims even within their own home.  If you can’t trust the voice coming out of your phone, what can you trust?  Silent Hill: Shattered Memories actually features a cell phone as one of the game’s central mechanics.  And yet, the protagonist is still isolated: he has nobody to call, no friends or family that he can get ahold of, and he cannot trust the police.  This seems much more horrible than being trapped on an island. Shattered Memories’ Harry isn’t just alone in Silent Hill, he’s alone in his life.

Of course, the Cell Phone Problem isn’t really limited to cell phones.  Modern technology affords us all kinds of ways to circumvent the mysterious.  With the internet, GPS, digital cameras, and Google Maps, the average joe can access volumes of information on almost any topic, record his experiences in high definition, and reach out to millions with ease.  Observing authors of suspense and horror address this challenge in new and unique ways is a pleasure.

13 thoughts on “The Cell Phone Problem

  1. With every challenge comes opportunity.

    The prospect of the player having a cell phone that they can’t trust could introduce some interesting psychological gameplay. Imagine if you couldn’t always trust the map on your phone. Heck, it could even be used as part of the story telling – as a device used to deliver messages to the player. It’d be a bit trickier to explain why the player can’t communicate outward, though. Maybe the player is mute? Maybe the microphone on the phone was broken? If players had to be more careful of taking damage (e.g.: breaking the screen) or completing tasks in a timely fashion (battery dies otherwise).

    • The recent horror film Oculus had an interesting idea: it had completely control over the immediate reality surrounding it, making the characters think they had placed a call when they hadn’t, taking different voices to sound like the characters had reached the person they’d tried to call… as great and powerful as cellphones are, what’s to say that they aren’t also one of the best tools to mess with your character? Have them so totally believing the information from their pocket computers, just to find out that none of it was true because ~*~*~computer ghosts~*~*~.
      You could even rely on that old ghost hunter adage that ghosts drain any and all electrical power from around them.
      …though now I want a horror game where the character is desperately trying to get help and no one believes them, and you can check your reddit thread or texts and read everyone teasing you about it, ahaha.

  2. I can’t speak for everybody but I tend to take a game on its own terms. If the character isn’t shown to have a cellphone I just don’t think about a cellphone. For some reason this doesn’t apply to movies, and I think the cell phone problem is much more pronounced in that medium anyway.

  3. This is why I’ve always preferred supernatural adversaries, versus human killers. Police can’t do anything about Lovecraftian horrors, and no amount of youtube videos or wikihows can save you when you’ve taken out a mortgage on a haunted house.

    Honestly, I don’t believe that a good horror game necessarily requires physical isolation. I think there’s a lot of untapped potential in the idea of trying to go about your daily life while running afoul of explainable phenomena, and if that phenomena also happens to use the same technology that you do, well… all the better.

  4. I’ve seen some excellent shows, comics, and movies that defy the cell phone problem. As mentioned, Juon mess with folks that way, and there have been several movies from Japan in the same film era where technology was not just incapable of helping the character, it was turned against them (Phone, for example).

    One thing that most horror games have always ignored is the “lost in the crowd” scenario. It doesn’t rely on the protagonist being isolated by location, and in fact usually sets them in a crowded metropolis. Instead, it uses the crowded nature of the location itself as the means of isolation.

    Sure, the protagonist can use the cell phone, but that doesn’t mean they can get help in time, or even at all, because either than cannot be located by the authorities, or the protagonist does not know where they themselves are (yeah, they could use google maps to find where they are, but that doesn’t help them get help when someone’s right behind them).

    What’s more, people as a whole have a weird habit of ignoring folks screaming for help. Either they don’t want to get involved or are afraid that helping will make them a target, so a crowd doesn’t mean they’ll get help by screaming for it.

  5. Spoilers:

    The horror movie Oculus uses this to good effect. The entire premise is that the characters are trying to beat a cursed, perception-bending mirror with modern technology. Part of this involves use of cell phones to try to defeat the mirror’s illusions. Rather than helping them at all, this just adds another facet to the characters’ hubris. They think that the phone camera’s pictures are the truth, when in fact they’re just another illusion.

  6. I literally came here because I saw the image from shattered memories… I thought I was the only one who played/loved that game… but I stayed for the excellent article and blog 🙂

    On the “cell phone problem” I think we’re in a transition period where specific mechanics, plot devices or settings are used to circumvent it but since cell phones are so engrained in our culture it’s obvious to even non-developers/creators, and in a way call MORE attention to the fact that cell phones are absent, though the intent is just to remove them. Not every game can make the cell phone a core mechanic.

    Maybe the option is just to give up on it – for psychological/altered reality horror cell phones don’t matter (maybe someday people will watch nightmare on elm street and just say “Man if only dream recorders were around those
    days!”) and for jump scares monster driven horror – do people really care (honest question, not rhetorical)? Willing suspension of disbelief is a powerful thing.

  7. This isn’t related to this post, but I wasn’t sure how else to leave a comment to you.

    I’ve been a cop for 20 years, have seen a lot of stuff and am not scared easily. But thanks to your game, Dead Secret, I almost flung my Samsung Gear VR across the room as I ripped the thing off my head scared sh*tless while falling over onto my back.

    After having played all the other games that came with it, I thought I though I’d try Dead Secret thinking it was just a little mystery crime game like Clue or something. Boy was I wrong!

    I did *NOT* expect to see something behind me in the mirror! And definitely not something life sized!

    Not only did I freak myself out, but also my wife who was watching TV nearby when suddenly I leapt back several feet falling over.

    If your aim was to scare the crap outta players, all I can say is bravo, you gave me the biggest scare I’ve had in years.

    Good game and I’m looking forward to playing out the rest of it, although I might be cringing every time I open a door or cabinet from now on in the game.

    I also have to somehow convince my wife to try it and see what her reaction is.

  8. Interesting article, managing isolation in horror one of important things to keep the terror tense in every single scene.

    Either we had cell phone problem or the evils has hijacked our cellphone, anything as long as it keep the horror alive.

    Note : Chris, i just realized that you already try Evil Within, i hope you can find another interesting ideas from it.

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