From South Korea – that nearest of neighbours to the world’s most notoriously oppressive regime – comes Replica [official site], a short game about paranoia, censorship, cruelty and the smartphone generation. It would not be inaccurately described as a riff on Papers, Please based around modern technology, given that it concerns labelling someone a traitor to the state by uncovering ‘evidence’ from their smartphone.
It is, however, about as subtle as a boot stamping on a human face forever, so is best approached in the spirit of overt outrage rather than one of creeping uncertainty and guilt.
Although Replica sets out almost its entire stall straightaway, I’ll give you the nuts and bolts without giving everything away. You find yourself in prison, holding a locked phone. You can read notifications as they arrive, and answer but not make calls. The phone is not yours. It belongs to someone accused of planning acts of sedition against what may be a authoritarian state or may be a nation besieged by terrorism and trying to restore safety.
A call comes in. You are made an offer by a representative of Homeland Security. Go through the phone, find your way into passworded applications, find proof that its owner was indeed planning acts of terror, and you will be released, your family left unharmed. Refuse, try to contact the phone owner’s family or friends, and you will rot in here forever, and your family will be made to suffer.
All you ever see is that phone, and what’s on it. Messages, mostly, but a few pictures too. Names, dates and phone numbers may or may not yield passwords, details in photos may or may not be the evidence the State demands, and the barrage of messages from the accused’s loved ones might be the turn of the screw required, or a way out. There are multiple endings, and you are able to choose your course of action, rather than railroaded. Just know that you are watched.
Writing-wise, Replica is so on the nose that I couldn’t always take it seriously. I couldn’t shake, for instance, my mental image of the unseen Homeland Security agent as a 10-year-old twirling a fake moustache.
Fortunately, it offsets this with the simmering discomfort of rifling through someone else’s private world – both because you’re seeing stuff meant only for him and those he loves, and because even the most seemingly innocent messages or photos are interpreted as a red flag. Are you catching someone red-handed, or are you wiping blood onto them? Again, the lack of subtlety often forces the issue unduly – Replica might be more affecting were it not quite so blatant in what it has to say.
In terms of being a puzzle game, or even a detective game, it’s got some smart tricks. Most everything boils down to finding a four-digit number to access this app or that passworded photo album, but Replica does a good job of squirreling the info into places that just about make sense, as opposed to screaming ‘I AM A VIDEOGAME.’ It’s well-presented too, convincingly about the use of a contemporary phone rather than ever cheating by weaving in outside elements.
Clearly it’s nothing at all like the profile deep-diving and hacking that would be involved were this really happening, but there’s a real sense of satisfaction in making a link and being granted access to something new – before realising the horror of what it is that you’ve just done, how much you have just tightened the noose around a potentially innocent man’s neck. It’s here that Replica rises above the bluntness that otherwise haunts it – of course you want to play the game, of course you want the rewards, but by God, what is the cost of it?
Replica is a strong concept played out a bit too broadly for its own good, but it’s just smart – and certainly timely – enough to get away with it.
Replica is out now on itch.io for $2.99, with a Steam release due on 11 July.