Electric Noir Studios’ Innovative, Interactive Storytelling Game, “Dead Man’s Phone”

Using apps and data stored on a "character's phone," the game navigates crime, race and police reform

“A teenage boy falls from a London tower block. A murder investigation is launched,” Dead Man’s Phone—a BAFTA-nominated interactive iOS and Android crime game from Electric Noir Studios—begins. From there, players enter the story, assuming the role of lead detective. With the intention of uncovering how the teenager, Jerome (played by Tafari Golding) died, users engage with his friends and mother, police officers and other auxiliary characters. But rather than employing third-person camera angles and cut scenes like video games, Dead Man’s Phone imports Jerome’s devices directly onto the player’s phone. This allows a user to navigate the game app like their own home screen and peruse Jerome’s group chats, photos, maps data, news apps, Snapchat (stylized as “SnapLife”), notes and phone calls. As the player pieces together the storyline, the universe expands.

“There’s a sort of three-step approach to it: you find clues, you track the suspects, make decisions based on those clues and then you interrogate the suspects,” Benedict Tatham, Electric Noir Studios founder and CCO, tells us. Tatham and his co-founder, Nihal Tharoor, conceptualized the company, and the first episode, “Redman,” while working at an ad agency. The pair thought they’d stumbled upon something impressive that they could develop and present as a part of their portfolio—with the intention of eventually going solo. “What we realized is that the potential for this medium and this style of interactive storytelling was way beyond what we’d previously thought,” Tatham explains. “And we soon realized that what we were doing was creating a platform to tell multiple stories, not just one. We could do stories of an unlimited number of people, or murders anyway.”

Dead Man’s Phone, the studio’s first release, will be widely available on 15 March. Tatham and Tharoor plan to scale Electric Noir Studios, promising subsequent stories with streaming-level cinematic quality. “We pitch ourselves as the HBO of storytelling games,” Tatham explains. Storytelling will remain front of mind, but innovation is ultimately the studio’s mission. “We don’t really even see ourselves as a game, we see ourselves as this sort of cross between a film, television and gaming. It really sits in the middle and that’s what’s exciting about it.”

“You don’t have to have a huge production to make this. You can film it all on your phone. We did all the filming ourselves. So it’s really low cost, production-wise. It’s also very intuitive to use. It’s a medium that everyone understands, whereas when you watch Bandersnatch on Black Mirror and you have to click the options, it’s a bit clunky. That’s really just shoehorning a new interactive element into an established medium whereas, what we’re doing is using the interactivity of the phone to tell them to drive the story. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here; we’re just using the interactivity of the phone,” Tatham continues. In-game actions dictate headlines viewable in the news app, the demise of other detectives, and even the disappearance of suspects.

The freshness and fluidity of the gameplay certainly becomes second nature—almost in the way swiping through social media does. Players piece together an intimate tale of murder and deception and, as Tatham explains, racial injustice and police reform. The story, written in 2017, remains timely. Electric Noir Studios presents it with several potential outcomes—and players are left to figure out how it all actually played out.

Tatham believes that the game is more engaging than film because it draws the viewer in past the invisible boundary set by the fourth wall. As the game moves along, there’s no way to tune out or drift off; players are essential to the game’s advancement. “It’s just about the immersion, because there are few other products out there that you are playing the lead through the story and actually deciding how that story goes. It’s such an intimate way of discovering the lives of people from behind the scenes.”

“Season one is all about group of young Black boys from Peckham, which is in South London,” he continues. “You think they’re caught up in what appears to be gang violence, but we wanted to tell a story that really highlighted a perspective of the community that wasn’t just the typical headline, but rather… uncovered a lot more nuance and more truths that are otherwise not represented enough in the current media space. Our vision has always been to tell challenging stories and raise the medium from what it is at the moment.”

Doing so involved research and hiring several Peckham-based kids for the story’s lead roles. The founders visited a knife crime reform workshop, wherein a community counselor offered support for those transitioning out of gang-related environments. There, they met with a few teens enrolled in these systems. Tatham and his team sat in on sessions, hosted their own, and attempted to relay these sorts of stories with as much authenticity as possible.

Shooting Dead Man’s Phone was as simple as lending phones to the boys for a bit and retrieving them at week’s end. The in-game video content feels as though it was captured candidly. It’s altogether more intimate because most of it occurred under minimal direction. “Without giving away too many spoilers,” Tatham says, “when you think it’s about gang violence, the story ends up acting as a meditation on police racism and the relationship between the police and these young Black communities in London. We chose to address it and to be as considerate as we can.”

Images courtesy of Electric Noir Studios