Smartphones in IF

Hey guys, long time no post! After a long hiatus I’m back working on a game and it’s coming along pretty nicely.

I wanted to ask a design/aesthetic question: what do you all think of implementing or not implementing smartphones in stories with contemporary settings?

On the one hand, smartphones are ubiquitous, fundamental part of life today. On the other hand, they suggest a million implementation possibilities as well as alternative solutions to puzzles that can take a lot of the fun out of creating unique/off-kilter solutions and situations.

An argument against implementation is that in most stories, the player is probably carrying a variety of things that don’t bear mentioning - a wallet, apartment keys, some kind of ID, etc.

In my case, I’d rather deny the PC a smartphone. But I’m also working on a character that is a vlogger/influencer, which I’m worried calls attention to the existence of smartphones, and their conspicuous absence elsewhere in the story.

I’m curious what people’s different ideas are about this!


You could always give your vlogger a broken smartphone. :grinning:


I think that if you have a set player character, it is not so hard to avoid a lot of interference from cell phones. Perhaps it is just their character to dislike tech, or else they are avoiding a call from someone. I think the absence would have to be explained if there is ever a situation where a phone would be useful. I don’t think it would be good for a player to to say, “why can’t I use my phone?” and let the question go unanswered.

It isn’t easy with a less developed character. Or the solutions are different, anyway. I’ve seen many tv shows and movies where the characters are conveniently without a signal, and it isn’t always credible. It would be better to drop it in the sink, or else have a villain take it. Maybe the batteries have run out. I think denying the player a phone makes sense for a lot of gameplay and logistical reasons, but I would deal with it head on rather than hope it goes unnoticed.

I say this as someone making a game set in 1996. I didn’t pick the setting because of cell phone technology, but it has been liberating all the same.


You’ll save yourself a lot of headaches and beta testing by employing narration and simplification for any complicated device in a game rather than trying to give the player a ‘working’ phone with buttons and switches and apps they have to figure out.

If it’s parser, don’t get caught in the fiddly stuff. VLOG ABOUT WEATHER does fine, and assume the character knows how to work the phone to do this. EMAIL HEATHER can give response like “You jot off a casual email to your friend.” unless there’s an impending plot point which can automatically fill in details “You email Heather the important facts about the murder case. Hope she’ll get back to you soon!”


If it’s choice-based, you might be able to create a decent phone interface, but again you’ll save a lot of time and hassle if the player uses the phone and has a menu of choices that update and change based on game context.

[Check email]
[Check weather]
[Check stock portfolio]
[Email Heather about her boyfriend]
[Email Heather about the murder case]


I’d say it’d be weird not to include it given who your protagonist is, but rather than go down a rabbit hole of implementing all the features it should have, I’d pick one or two functions (maybe texting?) to build, and then come up with a character-based reason not to use the others; like you’re on a social media cleanse, or you’ve exceeded your monthly data, or your little brother deleted your apps…


omg, I should have clarified that the vlogger character is an NPC! No, the idea is that the PC will never use tech at all - just good old fashioned adventure gamin’. I just don’t want that to come off as an anachronism.


That’s much different. Yeah, go to town with your descriptions if it’s contemporary. I mean, every single horror movie comes up with some magical trope to remove cell phones from the plot mechanics. Just because IF may be considered an “antiquated” art form doesn’t mean you can’t tell contemporary stories and use modern elements.


I have one in my ParserComp entry as it’s a modern setting, and I still go back and forth on whether it was a good idea or not :sweat_smile: My player character is on a social media break, but I’ve still ended up with quite a lot of phone use (and accompanying excuses as to why it won’t solve puzzles) at various points.

This is why I usually set games in fantasy worlds or in the 1980s :rofl:


The thing you want to avoid is the “why can’t they just call for help?” loophole. Or more specifically, if you need to feed a pizza to a goblin, why can’t someone with a smartphone order pizza? (Because there’s no WiFi or cell reception in this out of the way place, of course!) If you need a light, why can’t you use the cell phone light? (Because of that scene earlier where your friend dropped the phone in the river.) Those are the things you have to answer with plot mechanics.


I think it has to be explained unless not having a phone is obvious from the setting (backpacking or some such). Or if the game is quite short. Particularly if a phone would be helpful at some point in the game. This would break the experience for most players. Explanation could be character/personality or mechanical (left my phone on the roof of my car and drove away, etc etc). Even my father has a cell phone.

I personally would try to avoid the “no signal in the middle of town” trope in favor of something more organic and specific to your story.


a social media break might be a good situation for my PC as well - he’s having some relationship issues :sweat_smile:

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You have to be careful with this too. If you draw attention to the phone this way, the player may see it as a puzzle to solve instead of an in-game excuse to exclude phones.


actually this takes the cake considering my PC got into a skiing accident immediately before the story begins, and how-did-i-not-think-of-this-right-away ohmygod.

sometimes the simplest solutions evade us, i guess! :sweat_smile:


It also depends what puzzles it would bypass.

If you want a classic darkness puzzle and the phone would provide an easy light source, mention in the description that its battery is low, or the flash is broken, or something like that.

If you don’t want the player calling for help, mention the lack of signal.

You can be very direct in the hint, too: “The battery is almost dead, and you don’t have any way to charge it down here in the ghost-infested sewers of doom. You’ll need to find another source of light to go into the haunted tunnels.”

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Maybe the PC’s phone is an infuriatingly slow piece of junk that can barely get out of it’s own way, let alone let the PC do anything but make phone calls or play games.

Yes, I’m annoyed at how smartphones have turned out.