Welcome to Susan Arendt's latest column on Pocket Gamer. In 2018 we've recruited the best writers and most experienced gamers in the industry and asked them to inspire us. Today Susan takes a look at Simulacra, and can't help but get drawn into its terrifying world...
Pop quiz, hot shot: How far away is your cell phone right now? I'm betting it's within arm's reach. Don't worry, I'm not judging - mine is, too.
Smartphones are just too dang useful to not have with you at all times, and pretty much all anyone needs to do to know all about you is dig into your chat history, photo albums, and call log. If you found a stranger's phone, you could have all their secrets at your fingertips with just a few taps, but the real question is...would you want to?
Simulacra is the spiritual successor to Sara is Missing, another mobile game about digging through a cell phone's files to track down a missing woman. You stumble upon Anna's phone and quickly discover not only that no-one has seen her recently, but that something very, very strange is going on.
Accessing the social media, dating, chat, and email apps on Anna’s phone, you slowly begin to piece together a timeline of past events leading to her disappearance, and experience some highly spooky glitches and messages.
The story of Anna is some solid scary fun, but what makes Simulacra so engaging is the genius of putting a phone game on a phone. Normally when you play a game, there's just that little bit of distance in between you and the action. You have a controller in your hand, or a mouse, and that small reminder keeps you from being fully immersed in whatever it is the game is asking of you.
But Simulacra has you digging through a phone by using your phone, completely erasing the lines between the game and reality. I hit the Home button on my phone more than once while I was playing to hop between apps, totally forgetting that Anna’s phone isn't really a phone.
It must be said that Simulacra is a bit shaky in places; the voice acting is brutal and the chat text is often awkward (though, to be fair, you could say that's just reflecting reality).
But that doesn't matter. It's so, so satisfying to use this thing you do every day - mucking about with your phone - to get into something completely alien and dramatic. It's the distillation of the "normal person" fantasy where you're just minding your own business one day when suddenly you’re swept up into adventure.
The presentation is so seamless that it's easy to let yourself buy into Simulacra completely, and before long you're wholly invested in the people on the other end of Anna’s apps. I found myself getting genuinely angry at Anna's ex, Greg, and having to remind myself that he's just a character driving the plot, not an actual guy saying these crappy things.
There's a wee bit of proper puzzle-solving involved with Simulacra, as you restore corrupted files by putting sentences back in the correct order or reassembling scrambled photos. Not stuff you do on your real phone, true, but it doesn't crash the immersion at all.
Instead, it helps add to the mythos that something really weird is going on with Anna and creates the suggestion that someone is going to great lengths to cover their tracks. And then you start getting the messages from James and consider throwing your phone - that is to say Anna's phone - out the window.
It's getting harder and harder to scare horror junkies like me. Between Netflix, Shudder, CryptTV, and YouTube, we've seen pretty much everything, so an experience like Simulacra, which can bring the scares by destroying the fourth wall, is a great find.
So get your charger, get your headphones, and start digging. Anna needs you and she's running out of time.Read more of Susan Arendt's columns on Pocket Gamer, and find out more about Simulacra at the game's official site. If you're looking for more columns, then check out Harry Slater and Jon Jordan, who are always on-hand with sharp, tasty opinions too.