Dead Man's Phone is a found phone game that follows an investigation into the death of a young black man called Jerome. It looks to tackle and raise awareness for several serious topics such as police profiling, racism and gang-related violence.
The game has proven successful since it launched for iOS and Android, having achieved over 300k organic installs with no spending on advertising and is now on track to hit one million by the summer of 2021. It also received a BAFTA nomination while the game was still in beta, proving that there's an appetite for illuminating and hard-hitting stories in the mobile space.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with some of the folks who worked on the game, including founders of Electric Noir, Nihal Tharoor and Benedict Tam, Tafari Golding, who plays the role of Jerome and Sim Cryer, a former homicide detective who worked with the studio as a consultant on the project.
Together we discussed the potential of mobile gaming to tell a serious story alongside raising awareness of issues in our society. Additionally, we also talk about the game's development, the reception so far and what everyone involved hopes players will take from the experience.
What made you decide that a mobile game was the best way of telling this story?
Well, I would start by saying that this medium reflects the way the world is today in a way that other media, such as film, television and literature, aren't able to because we consolidate so much of our lives into our phones and so much plays out on them. And many of the issues in the game are experience through the phone.
So we just felt that the most fitting and powerful way to represent this story was by using an integrated phone. And so it is a game and an interactive experience. But we feel that this way of telling a story is going to become as important as film and literature because it can capture our digital lives in a way that no other medium can.
So you feel it can have more impact as a phone is something most people have and have become connected to?
Absolutely, I mean it's not an overstep to say that a great portion of our lives plays out on these devices. We spend so much of our day to day on them and experiencing life through them that they are becoming a fundamental part of life and so allows us to represent these zeitgeist narratives.
Just to add to that, from my perspective. I've worked on homicide cases, and so much information comes from the victim's phone. It is such a driver for the investigation, and the lines of inquiry you get from them are huge. So it was interesting that it was the driving force for the game.
Benedict Tatham (left) and Nihal Tharoor (right), founders of Electric Noir
What were the biggest challenges you faced when making the game?
I would probably say that the biggest challenges were probably the technical side of it. We didn't come from a gaming background, so we were new to the whole thing and had no developer experience.
So coming into it blind was probably the best thing because if we had known the mountain we were going to have to climb, we would have been put off. It was a kind of naivety going into it. Thinking we could make something pretty quickly and smash it out in a year meant that we just did it as opposed to throwing it in the bin. But yeah, the technical side has been a real challenge.
To add to that in terms of the story, we had to reign that in. When you've got a phone, there's just so much there already we had to put structures in place to make it a coherent narrative. One of the ways we did that was you don't get access to all of the apps and data on Jerome's phone from the get-go because that would be a bit overwhelming. You wouldn't know where to start.
But ultimately, you are trying to tell a narrative, so our way of dealing with that was Crown Court would only grant you access on the phone as you progress your investigation. So having these structures in place actually allowed us to bring more coherence to the story. It was a very fitting concept that allowed us to stagger the content for the players.
How important was the authenticity of the cultures and issues you were representing in Dead Man's Phone?
It had to be authentic. If we were going to be dealing with issues like police racism, every element of the experience had to be real. Would a young black teenager from London play this and feel like it was being true? We worked with consultants who helped with this and introduced us to a lot of the actors, including Taf, and they helped us with the narrative and writing sensitive scenes.
And then, actually meeting Taf, Mikel (Anderson), and Ezekiel (Alarms) was an early part of the creative process. As I got to know them, it influenced the way I wrote the dialogue and how I viewed these characters in my mind. They certainly corrected me when I did the first draft. They said it looked really good, but the slang was like ten years out of date. So it brought that level of authenticity and realism to the narrative.
Yeah, so it was important to get the authenticity. Otherwise, you wouldn't have been able to relate to the individuals, so we had to really represent them. So by recruiting people such as myself, Ezekiel and Mike to be on board with the creative process allowed us to open up to the lives of individuals living within marginalised groups. And so our voice is then able to be heard and make the story seem more real.
So many of these stories for most of the people on Twitter is just a news headline. There's no connection to the lived reality and the complexity of the people in those headlines. So that was a driving factor. We wanted to tell this nuanced, complex story about the death of a black teenager, and we get to be intimately connected to Jerome and his friends because of the medium. And so much of that came from working with Taf, with the boys and collaborating on the development of the script.
How much did the story or dialogue change after you started working with the different actors?
It changed in quite fundamental ways across the board. When we first started working with Sim, we had massive gaping holes across the story we couldn't crack. So we bought ideas to him, and as a good murder detective, he looked at the story and found ways to make sense of it. I think the whole sting operation at the end that came from him alongside the police procedures.
And even characters that I had in my mind shifted as I met the boys and goy to know them, got influenced by them. So it was really from all angles, working with them, working with Sim. I'd say we had the beginning sketches of it before we came to them, and we knew we wanted to tell this story. But I can't imagine the story we'd have actually told if we didn't work with all these people during the early stages of the narrative development. It could have been a very different narrative and probably one that doesn't quite ring as true as I know that it has.
Speaking of which, how has the reception been to the game so far?
It's been quite incredible actually, some of the messages we get from people. I've never written for a game before, but this has changed what I thought games could be. I mean it's exactly what we wanted. We wanted to show that storytelling on mobile can be really serious and can parallel other narrative mediums.
We've had these more critical industry accolades like we had a BAFTA nomination while we were in beta. But the reviews people leave mean a lot. And they're less talking about how this is a cool new way to tell a story but actually enjoying the characters, the story and that we're representing people from these backgrounds. That means the most to us.
We have four more seasons of production, and it's good to know there's this emerging space for serious dramatic storytelling in mobile gaming. It's really exciting to know that there is an appetite for it.
Is there a roadmap for when we can expect the next four seasons of the game?
Yeah, the target is for them to be ready by the end of the year and start releasing them. They are all well into production now. We've grown our team and brought on more writers who share our vision.
Is there anything you would do differently if you had to start over?
I think it would have been hard to go about it aside from just learning as we went because we had no experience. I don't think we'd have done anything differently. There were moments where we thought, “Oh gosh, this isn't going to work”. Or we lost someone key or were running out of money but it just kind of always worked out. And most of the time, something good came from those situations, and I think we learned from that a lot. I think we're very proud of how we developed it.
We've got some good structures in place now with Sim, who has been working from the very beginning on seasons two, three, four and five, where he's made some very helpful changes. I think that's certainly something we've been taking forward in development and working with consultants.
There's a lot of content to be produced, so we need to get better with that. There are these meta news stories that aren't really related to the main case. But we're passionate about that world-building aspect of it. As we scale our business, we're going to have to balance time and figure out what's working best in terms of narrative. So there are certainly lessons for how we can be more efficient and execute everything faster.
Taf, can you tell us a little bit more about how you became involved in the project and what interested you about it?
Okay, so I've been acting since I was young, and I saw a casting call on Instagram, and I met up with the guys from there. Then, just based on how they were speaking about how they wanted to make sure that black people in Britain were being properly represented. That reached out to me as someone who has gone to school in urban areas and been around the events taking place in this story – the whole knife crime, gang violence sort of thing. It was really important to me to be involved with something like that, so when the opportunity came up, I had to do it because of how much it related to my experience.
How has the response to your performance from your friends and family been? And have you had any professional offers since?
So my friends have been playing it, and they've given me lots of positive responses, and my family have as well. To me. That is the most important part. People around me are enjoying it and feel it properly represents our community. In terms of roles, nothing has really come up, which is fine by me. I've been focusing on my writing anyway.
What is the main thing you hope people outside of your background and community would take from the game after playing it?
I would hope, personally, that after playing through the game that people would understand that one, mobile games are a medium that can properly tell these stories because they're so accessible, and people who play the game will realise they don't have to sit down and watch an hour of Netflix or don't have to buy a console game.
And also that, just seeing a news headline on social media or the news and sharing it isn't always enough and that sometimes we need to fully interact with what is going on within our society. I think that the game helps people understand that, and they realise there are things they can do in their own lives to ensure groups aren't being marginalised.
How similar would you say you are to the character you play (Jerome) and did that help with your performance?
Jerome is a character that is very extroverted and he's quite into journalism and writing, which I'm into myself. So, when playing this character and getting into the role, it was a fairly straightforward process, very relatable, and I found that the way he interacts with his friends is similar to how I act with my friends.
So, putting that into the narrative and how this character could be broken by the experience was quite easy for me because I could kind of see through his eyes. I could see the world that he may have seen when this tragic thing happens to him a week before he dies.
Tafari Golding played Jerome in Dead Man's Phone
How much of a difference do you think mobile games can make in highlighting these issues and raising awareness alongside potentially making some changes?
I think it's the beginning of seeing games and mobile games touching on deeper subjects with long-form narratives in areas of life that have otherwise been ignored in the space. I think the potential for storytelling and deep narratives is really big. I think it's a growing space.
I would agree with that. This is the beginning of a new narrative art form like TV and cinema. It's amazing it's in our pocket at all times. So we can build a platform of stories that hold a mirror up to society and really inspire people to act. Of course, the game itself isn't going to solve these issues, but if people engage with them and reflect on them, it can open up more conversation and dialogue that paves a clear way to overcoming these issues.
I think bringing difficult topics and challenging conversations into the mainstream, kind of smuggling them in through a mobile game, and getting a broad audience to engage with them can only really do good for public discourse and our ability to confront issues.
Sim, could you tell us more about what attracted you to this project and how you got involved in the first place?
I was just about to leave the police when this opportunity came up. It was through a friend of mine, who is also a police officer. But he knew that the guys needed someone with murder experience, which appealed to me. But, also the fact that it was using the mobile phone of the victim to generate a story because I've done that in real life. I know how important that is to an investigation. That was a key reason why I thought this was a great idea.
And the way that the story develops slowly with different bits of information made it so realistic compared to how a murder investigation does develop in different strands. At one point, there's a leading horse in the race, and then they pull back, and there's something else. That was what I found fascinating about the game. Especially with the other seasons I've worked on, it really progresses and is just as impactful. It's a really great, brilliant concept.
Sim Cryer, a former homicide detective who works with Electric Noir as a consultant
Were there many things you had to suggest to change that would likely never happen in a real investigation?
There were lots of little things. Just slight tweaks in procedures, to make it more authentic. Things like different roles that officers take during investigations, with slight overlaps and confusion with that. So just making sure it was clear what the different characters were and what their roles would be.
And then things like community impact assessment, the guys weren't aware of that. That's something we do when there is a murder in a community where we engage with that community and work out what the impact is going to be on them. Part of that is communicating with them and keeping them up to date on the investigation as best we can so we can get more information out of that community.
That's something that happens with homicide investigations. But generally, people wouldn't know about that, so it's just feeding in those extra, realistic items that people tend to gloss over or wouldn't know about.
How has the feedback been from your former colleagues on the police who may have played the game? Has any of it been negative based on the sensitive topics covered?
I've not had any negative feedback. Some of my ex-colleagues have played it, and they've enjoyed the narrative and enjoyed the storytelling. Yes, it's hard-hitting, but these are issues in society, and it's not personal to them. It's more that it makes you think and you'd like to do something about it.
Dead Man's Phone is currently completely free. How is the project funded, and will it stay this way?
We did actually monetise it while we were in beta, it was like $25 for a season, and we got some really strong data on that. But we've been funded by a venture capital firm, who are excited by this new chapter format and this platform we're building out. We did some experiment and felt at this stage we were more interested in getting our story and vision out to as many people as possible.
We really believe that this format could change the media landscape as we know it, so we didn't see the sense in capping people who were going through the narrative. We wanted people to engage with an interactive show. And, of course, down the line, we will release more content, and as we scale up, we can monetise in other ways. It's just got to make sense first.Looking for more excellent narrative-driven games? Here are 20 of the best that released in 2020