Even if mobile gaming’s shady business practices were removed, the actual games would not be worth your time. The majority of these titles were brainless puzzle games that required you to match three tiles so you could get the gratification of seeing colourful explosions. It was pandering and there were even better ways to keep your 4-year old entertained. If they weren’t ‘match-three’ games, they were strategy games. On paper, this seems like a good idea. A game like Civilisation couldn’t be bad on a phone. The touch screen might even make the UI more manageable than it would be on console. However, the App Store’s version of strategy games included Clash of Clans and its army of clones. Games that would make you wait days to build settlements and actually play the game, unless you paid extortionate prices to speed the process up. But hey, at least they were free, right?
However, since the App Store’s launch in 2008, mobile gaming has come very far, for many reasons. Smart game developers have recognised that gamers just want to buy their games and play them, at no additional cost. But, creative game makers recognise what’s possible on the platform; in the same way Nintendo utilised the DS’s touch screen to the best of their ability. Many highlights on the mobile platform just wouldn’t be possible on a traditional console or PC.
If Found… is a recent mobile release from Annapurna, and it perfectly exemplifies how far mobile gaming has come in the last few years. This visual novel’s narrative cuts back and forth between Kasio’s queer, coming-of-age story and Cassiopea, a woman in the future, discovering a black hole and fighting off this calamity. Their stories intersect in vague and interesting ways, but most importantly, they’re thematically consistent. The world-ending, sci-fi sub-plot gives Kasio’s story the weight and gravitas it deserves. If Found.. is generally an amazing game, so if you want to go into it completely fresh, come back after you’ve played it, since this article includes minor spoilers.
Despite the dramatic, otherworldly sci-fi context, If Found… is still gut-wrenchingly intimate. The gameplay has you swiping across the screen to erase journal entries and elaborate sketches that present the story’s big scenes. It’s so amazing because of how it ‘gamifys’ themes of loss, letting go, and moving on. If Found… could have easily emulated what has worked in so many other visual novels; it could have had a series of panels for the player to tap through and that could have been it. But the game pushes itself to find a way of telling its story through its gameplay and it succeeds. Simply swiping could have been a dull mechanic for 2-3 hours; however, the game doesn’t overstay its welcome and each screen you erase is replaced by another gorgeous one instead.
The game’s greatest level puts Kasio in the middle of a punk-rock gig. I have legitimately never seen a game emulate the feeling of being in the middle of a dance floor so well. The chapter starts with heavy percussion as Kasio enters the gig; white lines on a black background are scribbled over each other, sketching out figures in the crowd and text laid out on top of one another. The anticipation crescendos along with the music. Swiping through the screen reveals more scribbles as Kasio is stuck in the crowd, and eventually the whole screen presents nothing but a tangle of intangible lines as ‘The High Cost of Living’ plays at full volume.
After the carnage, a mellow tune begins to kick in on a white screen. Kasio and her friends head to an afterparty. While the scenes we just witnessed captured the mess of a dance floor, the afterparty focuses on the isolation and intimacy that can be found on nights out. Subtle clues hint that Kasio feels out of place and she soon alienates herself from the party, to an attic that houses a hole in it. She’s joined by her friend, Shan; they get high, look up at the stars and make future plans too good to be true. Conversations about being lost in life, the universe and identity ensue and I found it remarkable how this experience mirrored how connections are formed in real life. If Found… has its presentation, writing and gameplay interweave to recreate the thrill, disorientation and aftermath of a messy night out, perfectly.
If Found… has a solid sense of place, phenomenal writing, cleverly integrated gameplay, an awesome presentation and a relatively big publisher behind it; sounds like a perfect candidate for Game of the Year awards, right? And yet, it seems the gaming community doesn’t care. Many major outlets haven’t covered the game and I’ve seen little discourse around it on social media. Years of trash being funneled through mobile storefronts have made hardcore gamers lose any interest of gaming on the platform, regardless of a game’s business model, subject matter, or quality.
If Found… also doesn’t exist in isolation. Florence is another title that smartly marries its gameplay to a sensitive and emotionally universal narrative. Device 6 is a puzzle/thriller that would be impossible in any other medium (one of the puzzles requires you to hold the phone up to a mirror). Grindstone breaths new life into ‘match-three’ games, as it builds interesting levels around the mechanic. Pokemon GO is perhaps one of the most innovative multiplayer experiences in gaming. The list goes on and many console/PC games have been appropriately ported to the platform, including Hearthstone, Fortnite, Journey and Minecraft.
Of course, the hardware is technically limited, but that has never held back games. So many classics faced technical limitations and innovated to work around those obstacles. Mobile games in 2020 are doing the same thing. The best ones take advantage of how a smaller touch screen can be utilised. The fact that mobile games allow us to physically touch and connect with them will always remain a unique, and occasionally magical, feature. Perhaps with more creatives doing interesting work on the platform and bigger games being ported, we’ll start to see the larger gaming community realise the potential for greatness on mobile devices.