Friday, March 27, 2015

Review - TouchTone

TouchTone is an important game. In the post-9/11, whistleblower world in which we now live, there have been several attempts to communicate the immorality of the surveillance state. Every news story in print or on TV that follows in the wake of the latest release of classified documents by Edward Snowden chips a little more of the veneer away. Admittedly, I don’t follow the trail as far as I should, and I believe
the vast majority of my fellow American citizens are with me on that. That’s why playing TouchTone is so critical for me. It is a game with something very important to say about the world we live in. It motivates me to seek the truth.
At least, it seemed to start with that most noble of intentions. Somewhere along the way, it might have lost its direction.
In this incredibly affordable mobile-platform puzzle game (for ios), you play the role of, well, yourself. You are a common citizen charged by a clandestine element of your government to observe private communications between your fellow citizens and simply mark them as pertinent or impertinent to the interests of national security. To decrypt these private messages - which could be emails, SMS exchanges, or even recorded phone conversations - you must solve puzzles through a simple, rubik’s-cube-like grid interface. After successfully realigning the angles of colored wavelengths by bouncing them off of reflectors, you’re rewarded with a pat on the back from a faceless government entity in the form of an expertly crafted (obviously right-wing leaning) aphorism, which I must admit almost made me excuse the invasion of privacy I’d just enabled. It’s a testament to the other side of the argument that we don’t often consider.
I’m not about to describe my personal stance on government surveillance, but I will say that, without a doubt, the actions I took in TouchTone exposed my own beliefs on the subject, some feelings I didn’t really know I had until I’d played the game for a while. It was a very powerful experience.
But then the “actual story” began, and this profound feeling was lost.
The core puzzle-solving mechanics of the game did not change. As I worked along a set path of puzzles, unlocking new branches and observing more communications, new wavelengths and new reflectors appeared on the grids. Some of the new arrangements posed more of a challenge than others. The gameplay didn’t change significantly. What changed was the motivation for solving the puzzles. Before , marking things as pertinent or impertinent was a judgment call that allowed me to understand how my position in the debate on national security it. All of a sudden, the examination of emails narrows down to a point where you are only following one man. A government operator, calling himself “patriot,” takes over your steady stream of decrypted content and orders you to mark everything pertinent from now on, clearly in order to frame a target individual.
All of a sudden, the argument many Americans have against government surveillance - the very important lens that this game places over a vital issue in this country - changed in such a way that I started to think every decrypted email ever became less about maintaining security and more about some anonymous jerk seeking revenge on someone who’d done him wrong. As you solve more and more puzzles and chip away more of this personal story - all the while trying to dig up dirt on a man who may be sympathizing with terrorist cells - patriot’s identity and motives become more clear. Whether or not the target is a terrorist is no longer a decision you, the player, gets to make since the game stripped your ability to judge. At this point in the game, you’re just along for the ride.
At least that ride has enough substance to make every turn interesting. For instance, the first few decrypted communications had me thinking patriot was a total jerk simply abusing his NSA-granted powers, while the target was truly an innocent victim of government spying. As I completed more puzzles and the story progressed, the tables turned by degrees, until I started to sympathize a little more with the operator and less with the target. Then a new message would be uncovered that had me swinging my perception back the other way.
I still wish that TouchTone had kept its focus on the bigger picture of government spying. This is one instance in which I think that bringing a more focused narrative into the experience has taken the power away from a very important commentary on our world.
Despite this feeling, playing TouchTone should not be avoided. The story that is there - the direction that developer MikenGreg chose to pursue - is very engaging in its own right. The puzzles are cleverly designed and can be extremely rewarding when a particularly tough one has been sorted out. The looping music track and pleasant digital sound effects don’t get tiresome. I highly recommend taking part in the experience that is at the heart of TouchTone. My fellow Americans, it might just help you cast a brighter light on a shadowed side of the nation in which we live.