The Medium Supports the Message in ‘A Normal Lost Phone’

The game has a specific message it wants to impart, and the medium of a fake smart phone is used in clever ways to support that message.

It’s hard to talk about A Normal Lost Phone, to really talk about it, without spoiling it. So I’m going to spoil it. For now, suffice it to say that the game is very good and worth your time, so you should go play it.

A Normal Lost Phone is about, well, a lost phone. The premise is that you find this lost phone on the ground and begin rummaging through the apps looking for a way to contact the owner. This search takes you into the story of Sam, a teenager on the verge of his 18th birthday. Through his text messages, you learn about his friends at the book club, his falling out with his board game club, and his strained relationship with his conservative family.

The game uses its meta-medium particularly well. It has a specific message it wants to impart, and the medium of a fake smart phone is used in clever ways to support that message.

Sam, as it turns out, is a transgender woman, and she’s only just beginning to come to terms with this identity. Going through her text history, we learn that, as part of her exploration of expression, she went to a sci-fi convention dressed as a woman, and when no one took a second glance at her she excitedly signed up for a board game club, not as Sam but as Samia. This is where the text messages become a fascinating look at social conversation.

We have access to the full text history before we know Sam is transgender, so for our initial read of all the conversations we naturally assume she is a “he.” The game plays into this assumption with Sam’s dad talking about how her 18th birthday now makes her “a real man”. However, while her dad talks to her as if she identifies as male, all the members of the board game club only know Sam as Samia. They know her as female. So we have two groups of people talking to the same person, assuming her to be a different gender, and yet we have no idea this is the case until the truth is actually revealed more explicitly.

The reveal is able to hide in plain sight because text messages are a form of direct communication, which means both parties only ever refer to the other as “you.” English conversation only becomes gendered when we start talking in the third person. The pronoun “she” is certainly used during the text conversations with board game club members, but only when referring to someone else, some other woman in the club. We’re never clued into the fact that Sam is Samia because no one uses a gendered pronoun when texting directly to her. This quirk of the English language, and the nature of texting as direct communication, allows the game to hide its big reveal in plain sight. The medium both hides and exposes the message.

This clever use of the medium continues later into the game. A Normal Lost Phone is just as much an educational game about transgender life as it is a mystery game about a lost phone. Much of that education comes from a support forum that Sam joins. The forum is filled with threads about coming out, hormone therapy, gender identity, gender expression, and more. It’s all very direct, and that directness can come off as preachy; a feeling that the message of the game is being prioritized over the pacing and plot of the game. We can certainly get distracted from Sam’s story for quite a while reading every post, but context matters, and within the context of the medium this glut of information feels appropriate. This is a forum specifically for people questioning their sexual and gender identity, so naturally there is going to be a lot of information about sexual and gender identity. If the game didn’t get all educational on us at this moment it would have broken the logic of its own fiction.

Finally, after learning that Sam has run away to start a new life, we read an email about how she threw away her phone is a fit over-eagerness and is now worried about it. Her friend responds that it should be fine, anyone who finds it will probably wipe the data so they can use it for themselves. And if they do dig through it, providing they’re a good person, they’ll wipe the data anyways to help Sam escape her old life.

Naturally, there’s an option in the fake Settings menu to erase the phone’s data. Doing so is the only way to see the game’s credits. This action makes us complicit in Sam’s escape. Usually, in these kinds of games, in which we’re piecing together a story from the past, we’re passive in the action, so we can’t act upon the story in any way. A Normal Lost Phone gives us the chance to act upon the story, to become a participant rather than just an observer. In doing, we become an ally of a trans woman, which makes our support a political and social statement as much as it is an act of gameplay.

The medium supports the message, and through the medium, we come to support it as well.