Simulacra Review- Ghost in the Cell
Developed by Kaigan Games OÜ
Published by Kaigan Games, Another Indie
Available on Xbox, PS4, PC, and Mobile
There was a bit of a mobile game renaissance around 2010, where the smartphone was able to host larger and more intricate games. Dozens of fun low budget games were available. But in recent years, there have been fewer games and more microtransaction hosting platforms camouflaged as games. If you’ve been on an app store any time since 2014 you’ve no doubt noticed that interesting new mobile games are few and far between. Simulacra is one of those rare new ideas. It’s a story-driven horror game, an uncommon combo for mobile, but a welcome one.
Simulacra takes place entirely within the confines of your phone. Or a virtual phone, if you play it on console or PC. You take up the role of yourself, a person who has come into possession of the spooky cellphone belonging to a woman named Anna. You quickly find out that Anna is a recently missing person, and the phone you possess is the only lead. With only the few contacts willing to text you, and the various apps that are still installed, you must figure out the mystery of this stranger’s disappearance, and hopefully find her before it’s too late.
The controls for Simulacra are simple. If you own a smartphone, you basically already know how to play. Gameplay generally involves following the instructions of Greg and Taylor, two of Anna’s contacts who are intent on finding her. Using the information available within the six or so apps you have access to, the three of you work to piece together the chain of events that led to Anna’s disappearance. Texts, emails, and video logs are all the clues you have. Simulacra is a game about applying the real world skills of sleuthing on your high school crush through their social media.
There are a few strange additions to the gameplay; occasionally you’ll find a corrupted text that needs to be rearranged or a picture that must be recreated. I would hesitate to call these puzzles. Turning “relations did with not I woman sexual have that” back into “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” is not exactly a challenging task, but I suppose the developers felt the need to add some kind of traditional gameplay. Truthfully, it seems unnecessary. Simulacra’s strength comes from its story, and deviating from that disrupts the flow of the game.
Simulacra is a mostly linear game. There are usually choices as to what you can text, but frequently they are variations of the same statement. Having the reply options be “yes,” “yeah,” and “yup” is an entirely nonexistent choice. Obviously I’m being a little hyperbolic, but the false sense of diverging narratives never helps a game. There’s nothing wrong with having extended periods of a linear story, just own it.
The story is pretty good, and I’ll try not to spoil anything. As previously stated, Simulacra is about finding a missing woman, and you do this by texting with Greg and Taylor. Occasionally other characters pop up, but Greg and Taylor are the only people you regularly interact with. These two are the main driving force of the story. Both are determined to get Anna back, but they don’t seem to grasp the reality of the situation. Mainly that you are in possession of a seemingly haunted phone. Having these two dumb-dumbs scramble for real-world solutions to a functionally paranormal problem undercuts the story a bit, especially when you do not have the option of explaining the spooky stuff.
All the same, they are helpful and their characters fit in well. The dynamic between the three of us kept me engaged throughout the duration, and I thoroughly enjoyed their bickering. The presentation of these characters comes mainly in the form of texts, but several of them have voice actors, and Anna… well I guess a face actor too. In contrast to its name, Simulacra did not decide to go with CGI characters, and not just because it’s a small budget game. It fits well with the rest of the aesthetic. Simulacra is supposedly a simulation of a real phone, and it goes without saying that real people would be the preferred choice. Some of the audio lines are a little over the top, but horror just isn’t horror without silly melodramatic characters.
The main problem with Simulacra’s story was the lack of depth. The problems these characters face are generally surface level, without much subtext or themes to be found. I was hoping for a Black Mirror sort of experience, but what I got was more of a standard early 2000s horror movie. I vaguely remember some movie called like “1-800-LUC-IFER” or something. Anyways if you are looking for a story that questions the nature of our massive reliance on the internet or the like, you might be a bit disappointed. But if you like fun campy horror experiences, and want one you can play on the toilet, Simulacra has you covered.
The oversaturated mobile game market has been lingering in the back of my mind for a long time. Every time I check in on the App Store I am greeted by a Shangri La of absolute shit. The overwhelming majority of games seem to have no other purpose than to host a platform for microtransactions. And once they get a few Saudi princes interested enough to drop $50,000 on in-game currency, the game is a success and the invisible hand of the market goes on to jerk off another mobile game developer’s flaccid cock. For years it has appeared that mobile games are no longer about mobile gaming. My hope is that small budget projects like Simulacra will show other developers that farming money from children who stole their parent’s credit card is not the ideal way to make a successful game. Some of the smallest and amateurish games such as Doodle Jump and Angry Birds had the most success, and continue to succeed because they are not based on the exploitation of their own customers.
As far as small indie horror games go, Simulacra is interesting and immersive, and it’s the price of a small package of cream cheese.