Tension, Technology & Identity: Playing Telltale’s Mr Robot 1.51: exfiltrati0n
Given the power of absolute anonymity it took me about a day to ruin someone’s life. My goal was to get a supervisor to change a personnel file changed to allow access to a restricted part of a computer system. My initial attempts at coercing the supervisor’s login details out of his young son proved fruitless. I’d have to right to the horse’s mouth.
The supervisor and I didn’t get off to the best of starts, with me taking his initial greeting to my anonymous message as leverage to blackmail him. The guy grew more obstinate that I was taking his words out of context. I just wanted the data. I grew impatient. I threatened to tell his young child about the (possibly untrue) fact that his father visited prostitutes.
Then I waited for his response.
Like all of its games, Telltale’s Mr Robot 1.51:exfiltrati0n.apk provides the player with a set of branching moral quandaries arranged and crafted into a compelling story. This tale, by Oxenfree creators Night School Studio, fills in gaps from Season One of the TV show as well as adding some nuance to at least one of the show’s main characters along the way.
The UI in the game is one we’re very familiar with, taking the form of an interface in a fictional E-Corp Messenger app. The entire game plays out this way via instant message threads.
The initial premise of the game has you picking up a seemingly discarded phone before you receive an angry message via the app that slowly segues into a request for help from the show’s infamous hacker group.
Like the Lifeline series of games, exilfrati0n most effective tool is using the gaps of time between messages, plucking at the insecurities we all feel when in the depths of digital silence.
After making the aforementioned threat I panicked. What if I’d gone too far? What if he just blocked me? After what seemed like a lifetime those three dots appeared in the message thread. He was typing a reply.
It’s a simple enough mechanic, but by exploiting an everyday visual cue the tension was ratcheted up. We’ve all been there, sending out a message and then re-reading it, thinking we’ve been too harsh, or that we’ll be misunderstood in some way. We pontificate for minutes, hours and minutes that feel like hours about what the other person is going to say. We look for those three dots, waiting for the sweet release they’ll bring.
exfiltrati0n is great at exploiting this modern day tic. Sometimes replies will be instanteous, other times you are left hanging for hours, wondering if your actions have helped or hindered the ongoing plot. So, you try and forget about it, going about the everyday until a notification brings you running once again.
The Lifeline games ask the player to suspend their disbelief, requiring us to buy into the notion that our mobile device somehow made contact with an astronaut lost somewhere in the galaxy. exfiltrati0n on the other hand, plays with a UI and subject matter that is tied into our daily habits as well as attempting to make a comment on it.
About a quarter of the way into the plot you get copied into a group chat between a group of 20 somethings who clearly think you’re someone else. These characters grate easily and there’s a sense this is by design. Early on they talk about whether it’s considered bad taste to go on holiday whilst a supposed friend is gravely sick.
Later in the game they realise they’ve completely forgotten another friend’s birthday, joking about it until the friend interjects in the thread. They bicker, they fret and they over analyse everything. You can choose to pretend to be the person they think you are, stay as a mostly passive observer or basically insult them, which is pretty much shorthand for the three default positions of how people act with a shroud of electronic anonymity around them.
With this group, one gets the impression that Night School Studio are trying to say something about the way we interact socially online, but they never nail this down one way or another, with the messages kind of petering out. Maybe I was too nice to them?
The notion of identity though is perhaps the strongest theme running through the game, which makes sense given its a huge part of the show’s makeup too. You are often pretending to be someone else either literally or by projecting power and menace to unwitting targets. It also playis into the question - who are we playing as?
In Telltale’s other recent licensed game, Batman, there comes a moment where you’re interrorgating a thug for information. You can choose to project power through suggestion and menace, or by taking a more hands on approach by slowly breaking the thug’s arm. I relented when playing through. It was too far for Batman. He woulnd’t go that far. But, when completing the chapter I was surprised to find that it was a fairly even split between players who chose to break the thug’s arm and those who didn’t.
This is when I realised that when playing through Batman, perhaps more than any other Telltale game, the player is projecting what their idea of the character is onto the choices they make. Batman, Superman, James Bond are all characters that are reintepreted in various media, becoming reflections of the attitudes in the zeitgeist. Zany sci-fi Batman from the 60s is a far cry from Miller’s aging, hard-nosed vigilante.
In exfiltrati0n who are we playing? Are we playing ourselves, albeit a version who slowly has their moral constraints stripped away by the veil of anonymity? If that’s the case what does that say about our actions in the game.
In the end I didn’t have to resort to spilling the beans on the supervisor’s illicit activities to his first born. I got the account changed and the data was one step closer to being mine. But the supervisor had to have the last word. He told me would block me, but he had to tell me something first. He didn’t love his wife. He didn’t care about the marriage falling apart, or not seeing his kid again. What he cared about, and hated, was the idea of change.
He was comfortable with the status quo of a loveless marriage, a family home and the excitement that came with having sex with complete strangers in seedy hotels. He’d never told anyone this, he said, but felt he could tell me because I could be “anybody” - a digital confessional. As if remembering his role in the conversation he made some vague threats before blocking me for good.
I took all of this in, a man snapping over motivations completely unfathomable to me. I was his oppressor and then I was his saviour. We’d both gotten what we wanted.
I clicked over to the the message thread with his son. I typed out the message revealing his father’s proclivities.
I hovered my finger over the send button.
Mr Robot 1.51:exfiltrati0n is out now for iPhone and Android.