Swiping through horror
During a rare quiet moment with family friends on a busy train ride, I dial 911 and wait. A beat passes; no response. I swipe back to Anna’s dating profile to find the perfect profile picture in her image gallery. Hopefully, she doesn’t mind I’ve added some Ben Stiller DodgeBall firepower to attract suitors across the net.
SIMULACRA is mobile phone game about saving a missing girl named Anna by accessing her phone. As the player, you’re half-sleuth, half-stalker as you scum through her message history, social media posts, email exchanges, and images to find her. While playing in public, it even got awkward at times as I quickly swiped through her image gallery to find her cat’s birthday picture as I didn’t want to look like a perv. Beyond voyeuristic frights, the game immediately lets you know this is a horror game as her disappearance is of the supernatural ilk.
The developer, Kaigan Games, is a Malaysian indie studio that previously put out a free demo, Sara Is Missing, which was another “lost phone” game as well. Having played both, SIMULACRA is closer to what the team envisioned as it’s a five- to six-hour game with multiple endings and some open-ended gameplay. You can play this on PC, but that’s a waste. If you know how to use your phone, then you know how to play this game. Sure, there are some light game-y puzzles where you unscramble pictures and sentences, but the game shines in its uncanny verisimilitude to using a mobile phone.
You can play around with the game’s app and come up with your own little DIY fun too.
We got to speak with game designer Jeremy Ooi about developing this sequel, retreating from immersion, and his thoughts on his studio’s role in the phone-simulator genre.
Dtoid: How have the last two weeks been for the team since launch?
Ooi: It’s been insane, we’ve got a 9/10 rating on Pocket Gamer, tons of streamers and YouTubers have played it, won two SEA Games Awards in Level Up KL, and we’ve been featured by Google Play.
Dtoid: How did your team develop SIMULACRA to differentiate it from Sara Is Missing beyond simply making it longer?
Ooi: The biggest difference between the two is the number of interactions in the game. In Sara Is Missing, there is only a “tap and hold” mechanic to make the game progress. There is way more stuff to do in SIMULACRA with double the “apps” to play with. There is a dating app, a social media app, a vlogging app and a browser app. Gameplay puzzles are also integrated into these apps and it also makes room for more information to find and more opportunities for subplots. The cast is also larger and we got some really great sound designers to work on the audio.
Dtoid: How is writing dialogue for a game that relies heavily on instant messaging to convey the story?
Ooi: It’s quite tricky actually, with plenty of nuances to figure out. A whole article can be written on this alone but I will touch on just the important bits. Because most of the game is text, we have to exaggerate the characters a little to give them some sense of character. We also have to carefully fragment information to allow space for the players to form their own stories. For example, one character can ask another one to hang out, then the text jumps ahead of time. In the gallery, you can see photos of them hanging out, showing where they’ve been. That’s the fun of revealing the story through messages. Reading them alone will get you by just enough, but exploring the phone even further will give these dialogues a richer feeling.
Dtoid: Would you say the main character is Anna as we browse through so much of her digital life or the phone holder?
Ooi: One of the story paths touches on that aspect a little bit. You have the option to pretend to be Anna for a long time, and doing that might have a particular consequence. Without spoiling too much it will lead to one of the most impactful endings.
Dtoid: Your team has noted that you wanted to be more careful with SIMULACRA to be less immersive. Could you elaborate on that?
Ooi: It has to do more with the fact that [Sara Is Missing] is a free game and the other one is a paid one. It is a free game, we can break plenty of game design conventions and try new and experimental things. Making them question if their phone is being reset or making the UI so close to real life really blurs the line between reality and the game, but it did put off some players. Because people will be paying money for SIMULACRA, we are just drawing a clearer line between game and immersion, until you press “begin” everything reminds you that you are playing a game, but when you are in the game, that’s where we can do all the fun stuff.
Dtoid: How did you guys decide on this Baudrillard’s concept, simulacrum, as a theme for the second game?
Ooi: I am so glad you picked this up! It actually came when we were figuring out how to end the game. *SPOILERS* When we wrote the part of the antagonist, we couldn’t quite figure out why would it do such a thing. In the earlier drafts, the ending felt lackluster and we realized we needed something much stronger. Referencing horror stories like The Ring, Conjuring, there needs to be some backstory that we can draw from or some sort of lore to drive the horror aspect. We wanted something ambiguous, not an AI but also not a supernatural force, maybe a concept? The name SIMULACRA came up when we were trying to name the game, as we dug deeper into the meaning of the text, we came across the concept which made everything click. We found a way to use that theme to create the antagonist and pepper Baudrillard’s concept throughout the game.
Dtoid: The voice acting can be a little rough at times, but I was stoked to hear a decent Malaysian accent in a game. How does your team feel about the game’s voice acting?
Ooi: Although the voice acting is one of our most common criticisms, it was something that we are quite proud of based on what we have at that time. We are not trying to hide our Malaysian-ness but to show a different side of it, that’s why some of the accents came through. It was also intentionally exaggerated to break the “dryness” of reading so much text. I guess it’s something we can find a better balance in the future.
Dtoid: There’s been a surge of mobile/PC simulator games from Emily Is Away to Cibele in recent times, how does it feel to help carry the torch for this burgeoning genre?
Ooi: There is a saying that Blizzard Entertainment is the “master polisher” taking games from other genres and just making more polished versions of them. TF2 lead to Overwatch, Magic The Gathering inspired Hearthstone, and EverQuest formed the foundation of World of Warcraft. We like to think ourselves as the “master polisher” of this genre, taking it to the next level.
Dtoid: What’s next for Kaigan Games?
Ooi: SIMULACRA‘s got a long road ahead of it and we are still pushing it out there. While we can’t say anything at this point of time, you can have a better idea of our future plans early next year.