The $3 game that wants to create a totalitarian surveillance state with puzzles

What if we knew every piece of communication we sent or received was watched? What if it was your job to do the watching?

Touchtone is a $2.99 iOS puzzle game that sees you, playing a direct role in the story, breaking what seems to be a form of encryption and then looking at the e-mails and conversations of other citizens to try to find subversive activities. It’s surveillance as a mundane daily activity.

“So the idea of crowd sourcing the NSA work came from the Snowden papers obviously, but we wanted to present the idea of NSA surveillance in a way that made the player complicit and active in the act of watching and reporting on other U.S. citizens,” Mikengreg’s Mike Boxleiter told Polygon. His partner is Greg Wohlwend, who you may remember from work on a little game called Threes.

The puzzles and the story

This is something different than the team’s past work, either together or singly; a highly designed puzzle game that comes with an extra layer of narrative and story. I tend to take or leave puzzle games, but the desire to see what happens next in the story had me going back to solve the trickier levels.

Touchtone is a simple game: You slide tiles left to right or up and down to match signals with their receptors. But as different pieces come into play and you find you can only slide entire rows of tiles the difficulty moves up quickly.

“The game started as a simple puzzle prototype with no trappings or context at all, and we found it didn’t stand as well without outside context and meaning. We worked a lot on both aspects of the game, but they don’t necessarily interact much with each other,” Boxleiter said.

“This could lead to a bit of a disjointed experience, but I feel both aspects are improved by the combination, puzzle fanatics can just buzz through the puzzles and people really engaged with the story have a reason and purpose to drive through the really hard levels.”

These actions introduce a layer of abstraction to what’s going on; what you’re doing in the game is the sort of in-universe grunt work that most games would skip. The challenge is to make that “grunt work” fun, and puzzles are a great way to do so in a mobile game. The story and the play make two parts of the whole.

It’s always more satisfying to defeat a real challenge

There’s no abstraction between you and the character reading e-mails and conversations, it feels immediate. You become a player in the story directly. The game treats you as part of the world, and the device in your hand is your tool to doing your job.The first missions even judge your abilities to figure out which communications are pertinent to the police state.

“We added in the pertinent / non-pertinent stuff to get the players to think critically about what they read. From early tests it was hard to prime the players to actually give a shit about the emails, but when we added in the testing they started actually reading and questioning,” Boxleiter explained.

The odd thing was that I found myself disagreeing with my virtual boss, and I tended to think that more communications should be looked at, not fewer. This was by design.

“We also want them to question what they’re being told, the conflict is intentional because up to that point players are just being spoon fed their objectives and a huge part of the game is about being critical of authority and thinking for yourself.”

After that? Well… “Once players get through the tutorial the kid gloves kind of come off and the progress through the game itself becomes a decision to continue and support the patriot character in his quest to root out enemies of the state, and we want the player to continue to question and think critically about the goals and actions of every character they encounter.”

Adding a story to this sort of puzzle game is an interesting move, and it helps you stay motivated, but I found myself a bit frustrated from time to time when I had issues with a puzzle and it stopped the story in its tracks. The only way to get around that would be to allow players to skip puzzles or offer hints, and it’s an approach the two designers reject.

“Greg and I kind of come from the Derek Yu [Spelunky] school of game design, we want the players to learn and improve, and giving handicaps only serves to impede the learning process, ” he explained. “I would rather players set the game down and come back on the train ride home and find a puzzle which seemed impossible before is suddenly much more clear. It’s always more satisfying to defeat a real challenge than to get a pat on the head and a ‘well you tried your best!’ from the game.”

The story is part of the motivation, and it provides the theme and the greater depth to what could have been, if you’ll excuse the expression, just a puzzle game.

The narrative gets its hooks in pretty deep, and it happens quickly.

“Our hope is that the story acts as the carrot which entices players to keep trying and keep coming back to the puzzles,” Boxleiter said. “And hopefully they spend the time solving puzzles thinking over the details of what they’re reading and what it means.”

Touchtone is out now for iOS.

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