Tafari Golding, who plays victim Jerome. Players use his phone’s contents to solve the mystery
Ambulance sirens blare, street lamps flicker, and a crowd of onlookers starts to gather. It’s 3AM in Peckham, and local teenager Jerome Jacobs lies dying after being pushed from the balcony of a tower block; he clutches an unlocked phone. You, a budding Met detective, are handed the phone and asked to analyse Jerome’s texts, pictures, and social media posts to piece together the story of how he ended up dead on the pavement after returning from a night out with friends.
This is the premise of Dead Man’s Phone, a mobile investigation game developed by London-based studio Electric Noir, whose first episodes were released in beta version throughout 2020. Company founders Nihal Tharoor and Benedict Tatham first came up with the idea of telling an interactive story entirely through a character’s smartphone in 2017, when they were both working for a marketing firm. “We got this email about a soap opera taking place on a WhatsApp conversation in South Africa, and we thought, ‘That’s kind of interesting’,” Tharoor says. “Just like that, we had the fully formed idea of being a murder detective with the phone of a murder victim.” Obsessed with the idea, the duo decided to found the studio – “We used to tell people we quit our jobs, but actually we got sacked,” Tharoor says – and started working on Dead Man’s Phone.
Real-life investigations often do hinge on detectives spending hours scouring through victims’ or suspects’ phones or social media history. But to make sure that the story’s police procedural vibe rang true, Tharoor and Tatham hired Sim Cryer, a former detective sergeant and homicide investigator, as a consultant. “So we could bring in these genuine articles on the Met police and how murder detective work is conducted in the UK,” Tharoor says. Furthermore, Cryer proved to have a knack for acting, and eventually he was included in the game as a helper character – a chief inspector who, alongside a couple of bumbling constables and two whizzes at forensics and intelligence, helps the player act upon the information fished out of Jerome’s smartphone.
Grasping the technicalities of policing was the easy bit. Electric Noir had a much tougher hurdle to navigate: understanding how British teenagers talk in 2020. For that, they leaned heavily on the young cast members, five London-based youths, all of them from a bame background. “I thought I knew some of the slang because I went to high school in South London. And I wrote some of the scripts and I basically brought them all together and I was like: ‘you need to look at this and help me’,” Tharoor says. “They said: ‘it’s good, but it sounds like it was written ten years ago’. I was missing all the new slang words, so they just kind of trained us up.”
And that was not where the young actors’ role ended: many of the videos, pictures and Instagram posts on Jerome’s phone – evidence, technically – have been shot by the young cast during unscripted jaunts, says Tatham. “Most of the filming is actually done on a phone, we just handed the phone to the kids and they went around Peckham, taking photos.”
In this way, the actors ended up growing much closer. “We would meet up and literally just go out with each other, just hang out – to McDonald’s, to the park,” says Tafari Golding, the 19-year-old artist and American literature university student who plays Jerome. “We became friends through the process.” The result is a level of realism and spontaneity that makes the game more compelling and – given the dark storyline – more haunting at once. At the tail end of hours and hours spent thumbing Jerome’s phone on a quest for clues about what happened to him, the feeling of knowing him and his friends at an intimate level is all but unshakeable.
The story itself is hard to recount without spoiling it. Suffice to say that Jerome’s homicide is initially deemed as gang-related, only for this hypothesis to come crashing down and make room for a more damning explanation. The game was written well before the George Floyd killing and the Black Lives Matter surge, but it seems to grapple with some of the issues that spurred the movement in a nuanced and effective way.
Dead Man’s Phone has been nominated for a BAFTA Mobile Game of the Year 2020 award, but rather than resting on laurels, Electric Noir is already hard at work on a second season. In Tharoor’s and Tatham’s opinion, the “found phone” format has the potential to attract people who are not normally gamers, but who binge on Serial-like podcasts and Netflix crime dramas. “We want to become the HBO of story-games,” Tharoor says.
Gian Volpicelli is WIRED’s politics editor. He tweets from @Gmvolpi
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