Mobile games should stop reminding me how annoying my phone is

3 weeks ago 52

It’s been decades since games started implementing in-game communication devices that resemble our own real-life phones — and it’s often a successful mechanic for separating and consolidating menus, as well as tracking progress. But recently, I’ve noticed a weird trend: mobile games that are set entirely inside of a simulated mobile device. In other words, phone games where playing them feels like being on your phone. And frankly, I’m over it.

Take Guildlings, the very cute turn-based RPG. The game opens with you, a character named Coda, discovering your magical phone (also called a Tome). The phone comes with a purple fairy-like wisp that acts sort of like your avatar to move about the world — when your Tome brings you to new places in Worldaria, you’ll use your wisp to control Guildlings (aka wizards) through battles and exploration.

Three screenshots of the chat system in Guildlings. The first reads “welcome to your new TOME,” the second welcomes you to the device, and the third is a conversation with Guildmaster ShayReese LaBamm. Image: Sirvo Studios via Polygon

The game eventually transitions into these more complex interactions — you can move around, investigate with different items, recruit new Guildlings, and ultimately battle other wisps and wizards — but for the first 15 minutes or so, you’re basically just using a text-like chat on your magical phone to make foundational decisions. It’s... frustrating. And it doesn’t do justice to the game’s otherwise decent gameplay.

This chat system carries on throughout the game, and its clunkiness probably doesn’t bother most players. But my patience for my real-life phone is wearing thin, because at this point this thing is more tool and less gadget. When I play a game on it, I want to forget how annoying my phone is to use. Instead, I’m often met — particularly at the outset of a game — with a UI that vaguely imitates the UI of my real phone, but with fewer decisions and less control.

There are plenty of titles that successfully pull off the design of an in-game phone. Nearly every mystery game I’ve played includes a phone, and it’s not the most exciting part of the game, but it’s often unobtrusive — you usually get notifications triggered by location or plot, and you otherwise don’t need to use the faux phone. In Guildlings, the game is the phone, and for that reason, I have to really try to get into it. Moreover, it’s not the only instance of a clunky phone-within-a-phone game I’ve found.

In-game texts in particular feel a bit tired, since this format is ostensibly a much easier way to design game conversations than animating several characters speaking to one another. An Elmwood Trail is an example of this. The game is well written and decently interesting, but it’s primarily set inside faux iPhones that only give you two options for each text you send. For a game, that’s predictable — but for a phone, it’s extremely limiting.

Three screenshots of An Elmwood Trail. The first shows text messages with an unknown sender on Adam’s phone. The second shows the mail app on Zoey’s phone. The third shows the call log on Adam’s phone. Image: Techyonic via Polygon

In the opening scenes of Elmwood, you’re a detective choosing responses to send to an unknown number that’s trying to blackmail you into solving a case. The conversation is fine, but it ends up being a miss for me because I don’t find it fun to wait for someone to respond to my text. I also wish I could choose between more than two options — we know the technology is out there to put in our own responses and let the game digest and decide what happens next based on keywords we send (looking at you, Scribblenauts). I realize that type of game would be much more laborious to create, write, and design. But something in between the two would be wondrous.

As Elmwood progresses, you’ll gather other evidence to investigate, and one of the first pieces is another character’s phone. This device has some impressive nuggets of detail that should be celebrated: emails that contain clues, photos of the character’s cat, a Pixabowl (aka Instagram) app.

But this setup falls short for me because it all so closely resembles my real-life phone that it’s almost stressful. Maybe a younger audience finds this more alluring than a game without phones. Ultimately, I’ve found myself wishing developers wouldn’t rely so much on a watered-down version of a real-life item that can do everything to tell their stories.

In Elmwood, eventually you can interact with items on your desk in addition to your device-based evidence. I don’t want to punch down at this game outright, because holistically it isn’t bad — but I do think there’s something uninspired about using incoming texts and calls to introduce the story. Further, I think there’s much more interesting commentary about phones and metagaming to be had.

Three screenshots of “Reigns.” The first shows the Spirit of the Fallen card. The second shows the General Coventon card. The third shows the Clarity card. Image: Nerial/Devolver Digital via Polygon

Reigns is an example of a game that uses elements of smartphone-like UI, but these elements are so piecemeal that the experience is still really enjoyable. Using the “swipe left for no, swipe right for yes” format of lots of dating apps, the game leads you through binary decisions that extend or truncate your reign as king. You can read it a bit as commentary on the way we use dating apps (er, the way you use dating apps — I’m married) — don’t think, just swipe. The game even prompts players to slow down and read to fully understand the implications of their decisions, which sounds like advice plenty of my friends who use dating apps could stand to internalize.

 Star Rail Image: Mihoyo via Polygon

There’s also Honkai: Star Rail, the steamy RPG with turn-based battles — and a superpower in-game phone. The (very good, very fun) game takes place outside of the device, which is only used for communications between characters and tracking missions. Honkai accomplishes something I haven’t seen elsewhere: The phone UI in this game is better than my real phone. It’s faster with sleeker design and intuitive menus, along with cheeky texts that come as delightful surprises rather than obtrusive notifications.

I’d be a fool to think phones in games are going anywhere, and really, I don’t want them to. But I’m genuinely more enthused by mobile games that create a version of my phone that’s more exciting than the one I use all day every day. Particularly since modern phones are lightning-fast and virtually ubiquitous, I enjoy playing games that synthesize or critique our real-life use of our smartphones rather than replicate it.

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