Just a few weeks ago, I wrote that a Mr. Robot video game would kick ass as a game from Telltale, the studio behind narrative-driven adaptations of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. I should try the lottery, because today Telltale unexpectedly published exactly that: Mr. Robot: 1.51exfiltratiOn.ipa — henceforth known as just Mr. Robot: 1.51 — for smartphone devices from Oxenfree developers Night School Studios.
Less of a game and more like a “narrative app,” Mr. Robot: 1.51 is set in the first season of USA’s Emmy-winning hacker drama where you pick up a lost phone on the street. Of all people, the phone belongs to Darlene of fsociety, the hacker collective on the verge of the crime of the century. The phone contains files fsociety needs, but since you refuse to give it up no matter what dialogue options you choose — plus you don’t know who Darlene is — you’re dragged into a dangerous rabbit hole of identities, data thievery, and paranoia. The genius of Telltale and Night School’s Mr. Robot is that it cleverly puts capital-Y you in the show’s fragile universe, one that isn’t unlike our own.
The app doesn’t mine phone data to scare you with cheap tricks, but it does inspire lightweight immersion that works to a shocking degree. Differing from traditional Telltale games like The Walking Dead where you make one of four decisions as a fleshed-out character, Mr. Robot: 1.51 strips that experience to a mock smartphone interface with a growing contacts list, all of whom send sometimes harmless, sometimes hostile text messages. You argue with blocked numbers demanding you give the phone back, and you’re included into group chats with close-knit friends who think you’re someone you’re not.
Not unlike other Telltale games, texts are created by choosing one out of a few options. Choosing will auto-type the message, and by “sending” it you advance the story. Adding one more step into real world immersion is that the app kind of works in real time. You won’t experience the whole story right away; by activating push notifications, you’ll get “texts” to which you must reply to continue the game. It’s a fascinating and novel approach to storytelling as it nails real-world behavior, blurring fiction and reality in surprising ways.
The immediate reference to Mr. Robot: 1.51 is Lifeline, a mobile text game in which you help a crashed explorer navigate a hostile alien planet. But for me, I find Emily Is Away — a text game that happens entirely on an AIM-esque messaging service from the late ‘90s — a much more fitting equal.
Unlike Lifeline and its fictional sci-fi setting, Mr. Robot and Emily Is Away use a more definitive and recognizable time and place in technology to inspire tension and anxiety. For me, Emily Is Away was an exorcism for my adolescent ghosts, where I made peace with the mistakes of my past and a chance to muse what my life could have been if I said the right thing.
Mr. Robot: 1.51 on the other hand is both far more timely and far more sinister. Identity thievery and hacking are no longer kooky movie plots, they are the headlines of the news and everyone with a smartphone in their pocket is vulnerable. Mr. Robot: 1.51 is a fitting game for the show whose name it bears. While I previously thought a narrative-driven game that played up Elliot’s unstable perception of reality would make for a fantastic experience, turns out it was one that I keep in my pocket every day that can fuck me up the most.