The Problem With Mobile Phones In Video Games

The Problem With Video Game Cell Phones

It's the weekend, which means I've prepared another instalment in Worth Reading, our weekly roundup of the best games writing. First, why some game stories are set in the past to avoid "the mobile phone problem".

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The Problem With Video Game Cell Phones

"The Cell Phone Problem" by Chris Pruett

Technology's convenience being a narrtive stumbling block for writers is nothing knew. The horror genre has grappled with this idea for a while now; with mobile phones, most of the reasons justifying why a person would get trapped by some maniacal killer fly out the window. It's interesting to see games, even non-horror ones, pondering the same situation. I didn't realise Gone Home partially chose its setting because the cell phone would hurt the very specific story they wanted to tell, and I wonder what other games this applies to.

Here's an excerpt from the piece:

The problem with cell phones is that they are lifelines back to the real world. Hiding under a bed as a deranged killer searches the house for you? With a cell phone you can call the cops. Arrive at your rendezvous point only to find your confederate hasn't shown? With a phone you can just call them. Wondering how to open an antique lock with a screwdriver? If you have a cell phone you can just look that shit up on the internet. Phones are ubiquitous and incredibly powerful ways to communicate regardless of your physical location. That power throws a giant wrench in a large number of mysteries that operate on the idea that you are isolated and must rely on your wits alone.

I mean, take The Shining. The entire film operates on the basic premise that the roads are snowed in and nobody can get in or out of Overlook Hotel. The protagonists are pretty lucky that one of them is a psychic because that's how they are finally able to issue an SOS to the outside world. If they'd had cell phones they would have noped the fuck out of there about 30 minutes into the film.

The Problem With Video Game Cell Phones

"How Firewatch Illustrates The Tragedy Of Inconvenient Love" by Holly Green (Caution: spoilers!)


Relationships are complicated, fluid, and happily-ever-after endings in media don't reflect real-life complexity. It's part of what makes Firewatch, at its best moments, so powerful; it has the courage to wallow in the darkest moments of a relationship, as it appears to be slipping away. Holly Green's piece not only acutely diagnoses how this plays out in Firewatch itself, but passes on a personal anecdote of her own experiences with, as she calls it, inconvenient love.

Here's an excerpt from the piece:

One major flaw in the popular depictions of relationships in entertainment is that the audience is rarely offered an example of how to deal with the end of a romance gracefully. So often the focus is on passion and the willingness to "do anything" for the person you love, at the expense of convenience and, sometimes, personal well being. While themes of self sacrifice predominate in love stories across all mediums, relying on an idealistic commitment to "love at all costs," rarely do they center on making the "right decision." But human beings are highly adaptive creatures, referencing their surroundings and the relationships within them as a plumb line for what their own should look like. The end result is that we do not know how to make decisions within a romantic relationship that aren't ultimately centered on selfish motivation. We're not given the tools to know when to let go.

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Oh, And This Other Stuff

  • Richard Hooper interviewed the programmer behind what's often called the "worst game ever", E.T. for the Atari 2600.
  • Keith Stuart mused over the way games are changing the way we "play" characters, as they become more complex and introspective.
  • Jackson Tyler explained how being autistic changed what it's like to play The Witness.
  • Nomadic Dec revealed how Pokemon helped save his life.
  • Amr Al-Aaser pointed out how media, including games, have transformed the sound of speaking Arabic into a language of violence and hatred.


    I thought they were in games just more the modern day version of "I'll keep in contact with this radio I've conveniently left for you"

    It bugs me that the videos in these things have the title bar disabled/no title written next to them.

      It's like that because this site set those options in the YouTube embed code. Specifically, showinfo=0 and modestbranding=1. I'm not sure if this comes from the US, or is set during the localisation process for the articles.

        Yeah, and it's annoying :P

        I want to know what it is I'm being told to watch before I watch it.

    "Technology’s convenience being a narrtive stumbling block for writers is nothing knew." Worth Reading, my arse.

      Utter nonsense. It felt like an entire article based on the freewriting we used to do in creative writing. Come up with any topic, pretend you can make nonsense relevant.

    In regards to the relationship article, not only do works of fiction rarely deal with relationships ending, they rarely portray anything other than the passion of meeting, falling in love and the occasional end on a wedding note. Writers are so seemingly afraid of portraying comfortable, established relationships that if a story does start with one intact, it will usually be used to motivate the protagonist by placing the relationship in some kind of extreme peril or tragically tearing it apart.

    Last edited 28/02/16 7:52 pm

    I don't know if it's because I'm old but when games simply exclude a phone from the game, I don't tend to give it a second thought. Of course, when I think of examples like Tomb Raider or Far Cry 4, those games also have you carrying a radio which allow the NPCs to contact you at a whim. You don't have the option of picking up the radio to talk to people. In Far Cry 4 Pagan Min will periodically taunt you on the same radio your Golden Path friends use to praise you for completing a side mission or tell you what you should be doing next.
    In GTAV for instance where all the characters simply have phones (because these are things people simply have nowadays), there'd be basically no excuse not to have a phone. Even if you had a scene where you're isolated in the desert and your phone is thrown away/destroyed, that would only serve the one scene. Next time you're back in the city, or even near a convenience store, you can pick one up for a pittance. Contrast that with GTAIV, Niko is a FOB and gets given a shitty old cell phone by his cousin because the idea of not having one is ludicrous. That becomes your connection to the outside world and may have even actually pioneered this format of connecting the player with NPCs to deliver exposition and give quests. You even get an upgraded one later on when you're becoming more of a presence and have better connections.

    I think I read an article (or hell, it might even have just been a tweet) that toyed with the idea that a modern-day Seinfeld wouldn't really work because practically every problem the characters had would have been solved with a cell phone. So it's an interesting question: how do you solve the narrative problems that magical pocket computers introduce? I can sometimes just accept that a person doesn't have a phone because I haven't always had a phone. In time, there will be less people like me in the audience and more people who have always had a phone and the fact that a phone isn't less than an arm's length away at all times is going to be something that has to be addressed to manage the suspension of disbelief - and there's a limited number of ways a cell phone can be plausibly rendered inert that writers can use before they become tired cliches.

    Last edited 29/02/16 10:20 am

      I kinda like the Silent Hill approach (I haven't actually played that game) of the phone working fine, you just have no one to contact.
      What writers need to do is not so much focus on ways for the phone to be useless, so much as ways to be isolated despite a working phone.

      I'd also like to see more games taking advantage of the fact that everyone has a phone these days. Imagine having your real-life phone hooked up to the game in such a way that it shows you all your quests, you can use it as an in-game GPS, and NPCs can contact you on it by actually ringing your real-life phone.

        Several games have tried to integrate our smartphones via an app, I think you could receive quests in GTAV via the iFruit app, and Dead Rising 3 may have had additional quests and someone who would call up to rant at you occasionally via the Xbox One Smartglass app., but honestly this gimmick wore off quite quickly and I wound up disabling the functionality. The main thing I used GTAV's iFruit app for was a minigame where I could train Franklin's dog, but since there was a grand total of one quest where Franklin's dog was relevant and the rest of the interactions were completely superfluous, there wasn't really any point to it.

        I feel forcing that integration on people is the only way it will become widespread (such as Nintendo forcing motion controls on us via the Wii) but at the same time it's likely to be incredibly offputting. Best case scenario, let the phone be an optional map or menu that doesn't take too much focus away from the main screen we're playing on, don't force us to answer phone calls.

          I don't think it has to be forced, it just has to be done right.
          A great example would be MGS V. All the iDroid functionality could be replicated on a mobile device. You'd be able to view the map, manage your base, call in supply drops and listen to tapes. If you didn't want to or had an incompatible phone, it's a button press away, but it's convenient to have a second screen.
          (It looks like Konami attempted precisely this for GZ, but half-arsed it for TPP and it's only compatible with consoles).

          For added utility, it would be great if some functions (like base management and tapes in this case) could be handled even while the game is not running, but still connects to a cloud save.

    Yo guys, could you put "Worth Reading:" back in the title of these articles? I'm pretty sure I've ended up skipping over heaps of these in the past few months because the headline relates to something I'm not into, and when I do click on it expecting one article I end up being (pleasantly) surprised by what it actually is haha >.

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