We exist in a time when we have to live with the fact that our emails, tweets and status updates are probably being looked at by big faceless entities and people who they're not meant for, simply as a matter of course. That sucks. In this game, you're the one doing the snooping. It still sucks.
TouchTone is a deliberately political video game. It takes aim at the creeping invasion of privacy — escalating ever since the World Trade Center bombing fourteen years ago — that's metastasised into the present surveillance state. It's also a fiendishly designed set of puzzles, one where players embody the role of a new National Security Agency trainee, learning the ins-and-outs of intercepting and decrypting private communications.
Warning: Spoilers below for the first few levels of TouchTone.
I can't stop playing TouchTone, despite the fact that it makes me feel genuinely queasy. Part of it comes from the game's ingenious puzzle design, which I'll get into in a little bit. But the main draw of Mike Boxleitner and Greg Wohlwend's game is its seductive yet questionably justified transgressiveness. You know you're not supposed to be doing this. If you're like me, you hate the idea that someone might be peeking into your online communications. But the fiction of being able to eavesdrop on other people's secret conversations is a juicy construct that's tough to pull away from. Plus, you're keeping America safe, right? Right?
As a nameless new hire, you really doesn't have any agency in TouchTone. You're silent, forced to go along with the prejudices and skewed priorities. "Freedom is not free and the price is one some not all are willing to pay. We must erase our own doubt for the good of all." That's the kind of messaging that shows up in TouchTone's introductory levels.
The gameplay consists of moving special tiles that redirect streams of data along a grid until you connect all of the signals on a level to their matching nodes. Some of these tiles will redirect a signal, split it or change its colour. The challenge lies in routing everything around each other in a specific order and the difficulty in doing so ramps up significantly as you go along.
The best thing about TouchTone is how it keeps you guessing about what's in the national interest. A pair of dudes e-mailing back and forth about where to score some weed? Harmless, right? Nope. They could be up to no good. Report that shit. But when you try to flag an another chain — seemingly about book releases — that contains a reference to blast radius, you're told that nothing untoward lurks within.
You don't get penalised for being incorrect. No, the penalty for failure isn't a ding on your in-game score or anything like that. It's the queasy feeling that you don't really know what you're doing, that your bad call might let something bad happen. And as a result, you'll feel the need to report everything as suspicious. In fact, you get told to do so. It's a clever way of making the everyday unease that comes with living in the age of the surveillance state palpable. The agenda's already been been set; you just need to play your role inside of it. TouchTone's creators — who previously made the lighthearted Gasketball — are reflecting on real-world practices that funnel information into the hands of decision-makers who claim to have the nation's best interests at heart. Somewhere, out in the world, this isn't a game. And it's not fun at all.