I’m standing in a strip mall waiting for an order of chicken pho and five-spice chicken wings when Elliot texts me the number for a system administrator whose login credentials I need to get. Smiling faces add srichaha to their soup and sip on boba tea while I’m threatening to tell this man’s young son all his father’s indiscretions if he won’t give me access to his security company’s network. I’m juggling texts between him, the son who accidentally has his work phone, and a bystander in his building while trying to understand how far I need to go to get what I want — all because I’ve given my life over to Mr. Robot: 1.51exfiltratiOn.
The Mr. Robot tie-in moble game from Telltale turns your phone into one of Darlene’s burners, taking over the screen as it takes over your life. Fans of the show will recognize her as the de facto sane leadership of the hacker group fsociety, played by Carly Chaikin, but she’s also your salty-voiced guide into the world of the game. She’s pissed you have her phone, and she needs something off of it, but while she figures out how to make that work, it’s your responsibility to pretend to be her and to carry out any social engineering hacks that the socially-hindered Elliot needs. Hence why I’m lying to a man about his dead wife’s gambling debts while my Vietnamese soup gets cold.
That’s the clever hook of the game. As Jaws twisted the popular hobby of a beach vacation into a nightmare, 1.51exfiltratiOn perverts something we’re all basically addicted to, something that’s probably in your hand right now, making it something dangerous. The game has effectively weaponized texting.
Darlene ominously tells me that I’ll need to be available 24/7, and the game plays out on its own schedule as a constant reminder that you aren’t in control. As a liminal experience, it’s fantastic. The tension is palpable because–even with the gameplay elements–everything feels like you’re sending and receiving texts. It’s a smart way to utilize interactions that most of us have had since the days of AIM that recognizes how real virtual conversations already feel to us. The end result should come with blood pressure medication.
It makes your push notification ding sound like John Williams’ score as the blade of a shark fin emerges from the water. Naturally, the game also fleshes out the world by sending you a ton of texts from Evil Corp-related businesses and spamming you with lewd dating site emails and a text thread between a group of truly annoying friends. It works to break up and maintain the anything-at-anytime tension, but it’s all filler. Unless it’s not. Is it important? Is it part of the game? Am I going to wake up in a coffin across the Mexican border and have to ride next to Michael Douglas on the bus back?
With 1.51exfiltratiOn it’s impossible to tell, which is why, when I got a call from an unknown 213 number, I thought it might be Mr. Robot (it was a credit card solicitation), and when I was expecting a text from my friend, I was spooked to find one from Darlene instead. That’s how totally the game takes over your mindset. You’re either playing it, or waiting for it to allow you to play it, so it’s effectively always on.
To that end, it does move a little slowly, regularly stretching its tension a bit thin as the hours go by. It also runs into the regular Telltale problem of speech gates that feel inevitable, as if you aren’t really steering the game so much as pressing buttons in order to read the next page of a short story, but that’s inherent in an experience that’s less about traditional game goals and more about testing your fictional ethics. At any rate, these negatives are small in the face of a genuinely consuming, creatively deft foray into the world of Mr. Robot.
Beyond a game structure that slips over your psyche as snugly as a cell phone cover, the storytelling and dialogues are written with the same nervousness, sarcasm and irony of the show itself. Darlene and Elliot’s personality are instantly recognizable–quite the feat considering the limitations of the contained text box–and the many, many contacts you collect all feel sufficiently different to maintain the illusion that you’re really helping fsociety pull off their revolution.
As such, it fits in beautifully with current immersive game culture marked by real-world escape rooms and by-mail creep outs like Scary Letter and The Mysterious Package. It’s a Pokemon Go of corporate hacktivism conspiracies — an enthralling winner that’s a paranoid delight.
4.5 burritos for Mr. Robot: 1.51exfiltratiOn. All with secret ingredients.
Images: USA Network/Telltale Games