Mr. Robot, USA’s hit hacking thriller, has a mobile game. It’s a paranoid nightmare vision of my own cell phone, and I can’t look away.
Developed by Night School Studio, creators of the acclaimed Oxenfree, in conjuction with Telltale Games and the Mr. Robot team, this new iOS and Android game goes by the unwieldy title Mr. Robot:1.51exfiltrati0n.apk. It begins with the premise that you’ve found a phone. You check it out, boot up the Messaging app from the fictional E Corp conglomerate that holds untold power in this world, and you find someone texting you. You, specifically. It’s urgent. There’s a file on that phone, and they need it.
From there, you’re trapped in the orbit of the hacker collective “fsociety,” a reality of exploits of the personal and the technological, one of revolution and fear. Unlike most tie-in games of the mobile variety, Mr. Robot‘s understands exactly what makes the show so good.
The television show plays a stubborn and sometimes infuriating game: It’s dressed up as a high-tech thriller, but it’s also a psychological drama, interested in how people handle the trauma of modern society and how they break under the pressure of the world around them.
It often refuses to indulge the drive toward hacking melodrama, resisting the easy format of a heist, outside of special occasions. Instead, it’s slow and thoughtful, trapped inside its own character’s heads as often as not. It’s a show about the introverted, troubled protagonist Elliot and the people around him. They struggle under the yoke of capitalism; they come undone, they keep going. Mr. Robot goes over their struggles with a microscope.
The excellence of Night School Studio’s tie-in is its devotion to a similar end. Written in close cooperation with series director Sam Esmail, it revels in the anxious and mundane. You’re texting Darlene, Elliot’s sister, and she’s trying to convince you to trust her, while craven ads and an obnoxious group chat ping you repeatedly. It’s a game about talking to people, an imitation texting app with a window into these fictional lives. Night School’s Oxenfree was lauded for its fantastic writing and character development, and that trend continues here as they bring an eye to character and tone almost as precise as Esmail’s own.
While the game ostensibly fills in gaps in the plot of the mid-first season of the show, you spend most of the playtime not knowing what’s going on. By obscuring the high levels of the plot, it instead puts the focus entirely on moment-to-moment interactions. Each task and line of dialogue takes on high significance–each one could be a clue as to what exactly is going on. By the time Darlene drafts you into doing grunt work for the revolution in the form of social engineering, you’ve been primed to see the world more like a hacker might.
In the series, Elliot is always insisting that people are like computer programs: systems, with exploitable faults and predictable ways of functioning. Mr. Robot:1.51exfiltrati0n.apk offers you a way to dive deeper into some of those systems, giving you access to its most important and complex characters. You can learn them the way Elliot would, if only for a little while. And with the hackers of fsociety breathing down your neck, you’d better learn fast.