As part of my job I play a lot of games on phones: mobile games. However, I can’t say I’ve played many games where a phone is the pure representation of the inputs. What I mean by that is that Unknown Number is, for the majority of the game, a full-screen background with a mobile phone in the middle of it, and not a smartphone either. You control the game using either your keyboard numpad, the on-screen interface or – quite frequently – your voice.
Games like Simulacra, Dead Man’s Phone, Scriptic: Crime Stories and A Normal Lost Phone have used phone screens as navigation touchstones for their narratives, however, Unknown Number actually takes a step back from the touchscreen, smartphone interface and focuses instead on delivering the narrative through missed calls, one-way calls, answerphone messages and dialling into services and servers.
What this means is that the majority of your interactions with the game will be making outbound calls and interacting with those calls using numbers or information that you gain from either other calls or recordings in the game, or through a website that’s external to the game.
Narrative-wise, it’s interesting. It’s a little bit of an on-the-nose and cynical look at the world and crises we find ourselves in these days, it starts with you getting a missed call as a result of a misdial, before you know it you’re swearing a pact to a gang of Swedish children who happen to be leading an anti-big energy activist group. It’s not kids that you’re guiding through the scenario though, but two adult activists who are attempting to infiltrate an offshore oil tanker where a megalomaniacal oil baron stores their printed paper copies of their digital, decentralised cryptocurrency. It’s all a bit silly at times.
Those paper copies are locked in vaults, and often guarded, so you’ll need to work with the team on the ground to find out information, unlock the vaults and clear the way for the operatives. All of this is done through outbound phone calls in-game, many requiring you to speak into a microphone – and the voice recognition is phenomenal.
I spoke with the developer of Unknown Number while at EGX earlier in the year, and asked why the game wasn’t actually available on mobile. Their answer seemed a little vague at the time, given that my demo experience was entirely keypad or voice-control based, however, there are multiple points where you need to use the browser at the same time as you make the phone calls, so this seems the smarter way. In addition to that, the logo-character acts out most of the noises (which is incredibly fun), and a background frame around the on-screen phone delivers imagery to amplify what’s going on… It simply wouldn’t have the same effect if you put your phone to your ear to talk, or if you had to play in a horizontal view on a smaller phone on your screen.
Unknown Number is an incredibly fun narrative puzzle title, and its clever use of the microphone is a compelling peek into the future of voice-control technology.