French developer Accidental Queens’s debut title A Normal Lost Phone was its first indie success, selling 100,000 copies and earning accolades from critics. But cofounder Elizabeth Maler says that they didn’t set out to form a game studio nor did they expect that so many people would receive A Normal Lost Phone so warmly. Rather, it emerged organically during the 2016 Global Game Jam, which is a yearly international hackathon event where participants gather to make games in 48 hours.
“[Co-founder Diane Landais and I] arrived and met some other people during the weekend and created A Normal Lost Phone with four people who didn’t know each other before,” Maler said in a conversation with GamesBeat. “That was really cool. Everyone left to go back to their home cities, because we all came from different cities. ‘That’s it, we made a cool game together, bye.’ After that we decided we’d spend just a few hours to improve the prototype and put it online. We did, and then it was a big success.”
Maler and Landais first met at the game jam, and they decided to continue working together on A Normal Lost Phone based on positive feedback online. Maler invited Miryam Houali to join the project, and together, the three moved to the same city and found Accidental Queens.
“Miryam is doing the art, Diane is doing the code, and I’m doing the writing,” said Maler. “It’s kind of rare to have an all-women team in video games, which is important for us to highlight.”
The studio just released its second title, Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story. Like A Normal Lost Phone, it revolves around the player finding a phone that belongs to a stranger. The story unfolds as you read their text messages and solve puzzles to gain access to more of the phone’s secrets. Also, like its predecessor, Another Lost Phone explores social issues, which Maler says is something the team is passionate about.[Note: SPOILER WARNING from here on out. – Ed.]
You eventually discover that Laura is in an abusive relationship. Maler says that they decided to tackle this topic because of feedback from A Normal Lost Phone, which explores main character Sam’s journey as she grapples with coming out as a transgendered person.
“We had a lot of people coming back to us saying it changed things,” said Maler. “It changed their view of other people and made them more tolerant. It changed their own self-acceptance, for example it helped them come out to their parents or family and friends.”
They wanted their second game to also investigate another social issue that is often misunderstood, which is how they decided on domestic abuse. To make sure the game was as accurate as possible, they did a lot of research and met with organizations like The Hubertine Auclert Center, Association Louise Michel, and others.
“We saw how, on A Normal Lost Phone, after the game jam version we could get a lot of help from specialized organizations that helped us make the game better. We wanted to work with these organizations,” said Maler. “There are lots of things to say about the topic. We asked them, what are the biggest misconceptions? When you go to a school and try to talk to teenagers about this, what do people think about this topic and what is wrong and what could we do to open some eyes on this topic?”
Another Lost Phone shines a light on a cycle of violence that can explain why many people in domestic-abuse situations don’t leave. Accidental Queens wanted to show players the effects and signs of psychological and physical abuse, and how people’s friends and families can help.
As the game progresses, you eventually discover hidden files and messages that Laura has secreted away behind passwords. It’s a game design decision that gradually reveals the story and also forces players to read through messages and notes to figure out how to crack the codes. When you gather more clues about her situation, the text messages that you read at the start begin to take on a sinister undertone.
“The whole first conversation with [Laura’s boyfriend Ben] is meant to be read twice,” said Maler. “The first time you read it, without knowing what’s happening, and then the second time, it’s like, oh god, the guy was obviously trying to manipulate her. Every message has a double meaning.”
The pacing of the game is key to help players get in the same mindset as Laura. You’re meant to second guess yourself and doubt whether you should trust Ben or a woman named Claire, who tries to warn Laura. Maler says that playtesting was a crucial part of their development process because they had to walk a fine line between leaving clues and revealing the truth too early on. Some of Ben’s behavior, for instance, had to leave the players guessing whether it was an accident or a deliberate malicious act.
“It’s writing, testing, seeing that some people do certain things, and asking their opinion about the story,” said Maler. “For example, at the beginning, we made them just read the text and see what they think about the text messages. We had to iterate a lot in order to achieve this balance between—we’re delivering content, it looks natural, and on the other side it has a hidden meaning.”
Maler has a lot of experience with playtesting. She earned her master’s degree from the National School of Games and Interactive Media, where she specifically studied user experience and user testing in video games. She was also the director of Play In Lab, which specializes in user testing and play testing.
“I did my studies in something very specific, which is user testing games,” said Maler. “I think there’s only one place in the world that is teaching you how to do proper user testing of games. Not QA testing, but understanding bias in players. When they say they didn’t like something, what do they really mean? That kind of thing.”
For Accidental Queens’s next game, Maler says they’ll likely move away from the mobile phone interface. They’re looking to try something new. However, she says she hopes other studios will explore the format because it enables players to immerse themselves in a different perspective.
“We all have our own stories, and every one of our phones tells a story. It makes us think, what does my phone say about me? It makes you think about your own life. It’s a space for introspection,” said Maler. “We’re never saying you shouldn’t do this or that – that this is a good way of behaving and that isn’t a good way. We’re not judgmental about our players. We just show them what could be another way of seeing things. I think they like that.”