Mobile phones have been with us, as general use items, for around 30 years. They are our soulmates, work buddies, secret keepers, personal art gallery, filmmaker studios and post office. If you’ve lost a phone, had one stolen, or just spent a few days without one, it’s a very strange experience. You look to your pocket constantly, but nothing is there. Sitting on a bus becomes strange and lifeless without the trusty piece of tech. But what happens if the phone becomes a matter of life and death? Can you trust what you are seeing on the screen? That is just one of the many questions posed by the brilliantly inventive FMV, SIMULACRA.
The story of SIMULACRA starts with you finding a lost smartphone. You quickly find out that the phone belongs to a young American woman called Anna. By looking through her text messages you quickly conclude that she is missing, and it is up to you to put together what is available to discover the truth. But the phone constantly throws out some weird glitches and the world you are thrown into begins to mix the detective genre with the world of horror, in a very seamless and utterly unsettling way.
Throughout your time you will find yourself working through several options on the smartphone menu. There is, of course, the phone option which lets you go through Anna’s phone book and attempt to get in contact with her friends and colleagues. Every time you try to ring through though, the phone becomes distorted and hangs up. That’s weird thing number one. Then there is a vlog system; video blogs from Anna which start to reveal bits of information about Anna’s life. These get drip-fed to you throughout the game – pretty much from start to finish – revealing more as the game goes on.
Then there are Anna’s email and text-chat apps, opening up as you uncover her password from the other bits of information gathered. The text-chat app is one of the most important tasks to take part in, as an ex-boyfriend is trying to get hold of her. Do you pretend to be Anna? Or come clean that you are worried and are trying to find her? And further to that, her best friend is also trying her best to get hold of her. Do you lie or tell the truth?
The entirety of SIMULACRA is an interesting concept, particularly as there is also a gallery of photos available for you to sift through, all as you hunt for clues as to Anna’s wellbeing. The plot thickens even more when you discover an alternative Twitter feed; one that seems to be hosting a photo of Anna, posted less than an hour ago. But you have her phone, so how can she have posted that? The mystery heightens with every turn. Throw in a Tinder styled dating app that Anna has also been using, and the clues and hints as to her whereabouts grow even more – the chase is most definitely on.
This all combines to ensure that SIMULACRA is a very intoxicating game, one that had me completely hooked over its 5 hour running time from start to finish. It’s a great spooky detective story that reminded me of an episode of Black Mirror. There are multiple endings and it really is worth your while to go back and take in the different choices you can make. The gameplay is inventive, completely original and comes with lots of great creative ideas. I don’t want to spoil anything in terms of the story, but at one point the phone reboots and you have to enter the name of the user. I put in ‘Anna” and then the phone tells me “You’re not Anna. Tell me your real name.” At this point, I started looking behind the sofa and closing the curtains.
For all the good though, the game’s interface is sometimes a bit hit and miss, and when you have to type anything it’s all a bit of a pain, what with being left to work around the Xbox One keyboard interface. I do also think that some may fail to fully engage with the social media elements and mobile storyline that brings everything together, but should you be fine with the depth required then you will be on to a winner.
SIMULACRA is also very nicely designed, and a big shout-out has to go to the graphic designer who has worked out with precision all the fonts, logs, and webpages for all these fake apps, sites and chat opportunities. It also helps massively that the FMV side of things is very good too, with some nice acting and good performances throughout. Yes the conclusion feels a bit hammy, but overall it does a great job.
This all ensures that SIMULACRA on Xbox One is a delightfully original game that tells a gripping tale; one that references modern living with a spine-chilling twist. If you love playing detective and want to go searching for clues via the smallest of details then you’re in for a treat. The graphic design is excellent and the inventive element to the gameplay and overall tone will keep you interested and alive throughout. There are interface niggles and some utterly strange endings, but on the whole they don’t take away from what I believe is a great experience.
Just remember though, the next time you’re using your latest smartphone, think twice about what you share, what secrets you keep and who might be on the other side, watching…