Story Game Round-up: Sarah Is Missing
I am in the midst of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) so naturally I am seeking any method of procrastination I can think of. I have denied myself my beloved Stardew Manor (more on THAT another time) but quick games that I can play for one hour at a time are still fair game.
Enter Sarah Is Missing, developed by Monsoon Lab and recommended to me by my friend Dan the Video Ninja, who has suddenly become my supplier for new and innovative story-driven games.
And yes, this is counting toward my word count. I’M BEING CREATIVE SO IT COUNTS!
Sara Is Missing (or SIM for short, an awesome play on words) is available on PC, Mac and Android. Because of the nature of the game which I will obviously get to I ended up downloading it for Android. If you decide to download the game for yourself and happen to own an Android, I would recommend getting this version. Even without having played the other versions, I know for sure this is the best one.
That’s because the entirety of the game takes place on a lost cell phone which you, the unwitting player, have found. How or where you found it does not seem to come into play. The point is you found it and it seems to have belonged to a girl named Sara.
The phone appears to have been corrupted apart from the main screen photo of Sara and her cat and the phone’s AI system, I.R.I.S. No sooner do you unlock the phone then I.R.I.S. is greeting you with a friendly “Hello Sara”. Curiously enough though, it seems to immediately be aware that you are not Sara.
After typing responses to I.R.I.S it soon becomes apparent Sara is in grave danger. The only piece of information I.R.I.S is able to retrieve is a video of a frightened Sara wandering lost through the woods terrified of the footsteps that are following her. The video only lasts eleven seconds but it’s enough to convince I.R.I.S and consequently the player that Sara must be found.
From there the game opens up to what is essentially a phone search. I.R.I.S manages to repair a portion of the phone’s functions and memory including the most recent text messages, notes, emails, pictures and music. It’s up to you the player to search through all of these to try and find relevant information to pinpoint Sara’s whereabouts.
Obviously not all is at it seems. The first thing that stuck out at me was I.R.I.S, a sort of hypercharged Siri. At first I thought perhaps this game took place in the future since no Smartphone I know of has any sort of sentient, feeling A.I. that cares for your well being.
But after perusing the texts I could see that the game takes place in the present 2016. Either I have been kept in the dark and there is a Big Brother style A.I. in new smart phones that I just have not seen yet, or something is seriously up with this I.R.I.S who seems to have an incredibly intense need to find its owner which led to some pressing questions: who is I.R.I.S, why does it seem to act a little too human for a program and why am I the player so willing to go along with its bidding and not question it?
From there the game’s story takes some twists and turns that I unfortunately cannot spoil here. Needless to say there are some paranormal and horror elements at play and it might have been a very bad idea to get on a crowded streetcar to play this.
Most of the game is spent reading. If you are not a fan of reading, do not play this game. The reading is fairly quick since much of it is in the form of text messages between characters.
I have to say I am a sucker for this method of storytelling. It would have been very easy to have I.R.I.S spew all sorts of exposition at me throughout the game, but the developers let the player learn a little more organically at their own pace.
Seeing a quick series of text messages between Sara and her mother explains their relationship more than any diary entry ever would. Sara’s relationship with her friends grows a little more strained as her work life and romantic life go through some turbulent times. The heartbreak of her break-up is made even more apparent when you stumble upon photos of her and her ex-boyfriend during a happier time.
Is it perfect? No. I was constantly left wondering who was taking these intimate photos of Sara and her boyfriend for instance as they clearly were not selfies. Sometimes the dialogue from the friends veered on being a bit too expository. One example is a friend asking the classic “How long has it been? Two months? You should be over him by now!” when I might have preferred the developer trusting the player to discover that for themselves by simply looking at the dates various messages were sent.
But those are nitpicks. I absolutely loved delving into Sara’s world. I could not help but feel uncomfortable as I felt myself getting closer to the truth of what happened. And when the (what I think is) climax of the game came, it was the most tense I had felt in a while. There was no music or special effects needed. Watching a bouncing elipses as I waited for a text message was just enough to make me stop breathing.
Speaking of which, let’s touch briefly on the dialogue system. In SIM, you will often end up talking with I.R.I.S who sets you up with tasks. There is a cute mechanic in which you can access the keyboard to answer it but unlike Event0 in which interaction is incredibly open ended, SIM is much more linear and controlled. Any attempts to use the keyboard will simply initiate the phone’s auto-correct and it will adjust whatever you typed to one of the multiple choices presented as dialogue options.
SIM seems to be a choose your own adventure type of game but much like Telltale it quickly becomes evident that the choice is very much an illusion. I played through a couple of times and many of the dialogue choices ended up mattering little in the end. I say “many” though, not all.
Even though I.R.I.S’s response often ends up being the same no matter what you answer, I took great joy in picking the response that best suited me (it usually involved some variation of “What the $#!@”).
Playing this on Android was absolutely fantastic. The play area is formatted exactly like a smartphone screen. Seeing it on my own phone made it seem more plausible that I was interacting with an actual phone and not a game the size of one.
And unfortunately…I can’t say much more than that. The trouble with the horror/mystery genre is that it’s so dependent on plot that any sort of analysis would give too much away. What I will say is that for a quick story game that only lasts about an hour, SIM is incredibly enjoyable and continues the ever growing experimentation with digital storytelling with some fantastic results.
Right now the developers are offering a Pay What You Can price for the game. I would highly suggest you try it out.