By having you communicate with a stranded astronaut via SMS, Lifeline simultaneously reimagined text adventures and kick-started a sub-genre. Mr Robot is the first title since then to cleverly move this particular niche forwards.
It begins with you finding an abandoned phone. A single tap and your display becomes a messaging app from evil tech giant E Corp.
Almost immediately, your phone is hacked and you get some verbal abuse (via SMS) from the phone’s real owner. You’re then rapidly cajoled (well, threatened) into helping bring about a hacker collective’s vision, although they’re pretty cagey about what said plan entails.
Fans of the show will know what’s next (the game takes place halfway through the first season), but should nonetheless enjoy interacting with bolshy hacker Darlene and experiencing key events from the series by way of text messages. But newcomers needn’t feel hampered; if anything, arriving at Mr Robot fresh is a benefit, adding tension to the narrative when you don’t know what’s coming.
The narrative starts slowly, easing you into Mr Robot’s world. Initially, most of a day will pass between Darlene’s outbursts, during which you’ll only receive the odd message from other third-parties.
When the game allows you to respond, it’s simply a case of choosing an answer, which the game then types in and sends on your behalf.
Yet in this ‘downtime’, Mr Robot shines. Messages from various oddballs and web services rarely move the plot forwards, but they stitch together a surprisingly believable world from bite-sized nuggets of text. The writing is smart, ensuring characters feel like individuals, from the vacuous idiots in a shared SMS thread to the poor sods whose lives you disrupt in your adopted quest to better the world.
Mr Robot gradually intensifies over your week-long journey. At its best, you frantically swap between multiple threads, figuring out how to use information from each to your advantage. From innocent beginnings, you find yourself partaking in SMS-based ‘persuasion’ that ranges from social engineering to outright blackmail.
There are one or two occasional stumbles. The timing doesn’t always gel, since the game has to wait for you to fire it up so its protagonists can chat to you ‘live’, and inflexible mechanics mean characters now and again respond in a manner that doesn’t flow logically from previous interactions.
Also, the game is very much ‘one and done’ – it’s unlikely you’ll play it through twice.
But to criticise Mr Robot for that particular shortcoming misses the point. This is an episode of a TV show cleverly filtered through a text messaging interface, which makes you the star. And even though it frequently feels like you’re being funnelled along, this game cleverly disguises the linearity of your journey.
In fact, it feels like there’s an inevitability about tumbling into the abyss when it comes to your humanity – whether you start out disgusted or amused by the hackers, before long you’re one of them, unless you shut off your phone. Perhaps that’s the point.
An interactive TV show reworked as an SMS text adventure. Short-lived, but surprisingly novel and compelling while it lasts.
Hides its linearity well
Very much one-and-done
You as the player lack agency