As soon as I fired up the E Corp Messaging app, I could tell that something was wrong. I received a strange error message, and a delivery confirmation of a pizza that I never ordered. Then some unidentified person started firing off increasingly urgent texts. Who were they? Why were they hounding me? Maybe they had the wrong person?
"Your name is Chris," this hacker wrote. "And I can unravel your life like pulling up thread on a cheap sweater." My name is Chris, and my heart leapt. This was genuinely unsettling even though I knew that it wasn’t real. I reminded myself that the E Corp Messaging app is just the interface for a $2.99 mobile game, a tie-in to the cult-fave USA TV show Mr. Robot.
The game came about when Sean Krankel cofounder of game developer Nightschool Studio, mentioned to a friend who’s in the games division of Universal that he had an idea for a game built around texting. He thought it might work as a crossover with the show, an NBC/Universal property. "Within a week, we were on a plane to New York, and in the Mr Robot writer's room," says Krankel.
Mr. Robot: 1.51exfiltrati0n sucks players into the world of the show's underground hacker collective known as fsociety. The game is text based, giving players the ability to choose from a range of possible replies to the messages you receive. You juggle conversations with several different people, some of them characters from the TV show, gradually getting more and more enmeshed in their machinations as you scrutinize images and video clips and data logs. Eventually, you help to deliver a vital file that allows fsociety to carry out a major hack against an evil corporation.
A key appeal of the game, which just hit the Apple App Store Top Ten paid apps list, is how natural the texting seems. "We timed out exactly how long it takes to type out each specific line, so that it feels more real when players sit there anxiously watching the ellipses and waiting for the next message – it feels like a little cliffhanger," says Krankel. "It plays out in real time, so you sometimes have to sit and wait on pins and needles for a response. I see players saying, 'OMG, I've been waiting for Darlene to text me back for an hour!'"
Nightschool made the game, with their writer Adam Hines (Oxenfree, Tales from the Borderlands) working closely with the TV show's writer and technical advisor Kor Adana to create something that fits naturally into the canon of Mr. Robot. In fact, it was the show's creator and director Sam Esmail who identified a specific spot in the show's chronology – between the fifth and sixth episode of the first season – where the game could fit. The idea is that players have found a burner phone that belonged to the sister of the show's protagonist, and it contains an image file that holds information that's crucial to a planned cybercrime. This happens at a moment in the show when a relationship between fsociety and a rival hacker organization called the Dark Army has broken down, and players interact with characters who are on both sides of the conflict.
Krankel is particularly proud of how the developers managed to avoid the cliches that often plague games with this subject matter. "You're are not some hacker with crazy technical ability, and there are no hacking minigames," he says. "That makes the fantasy fulfillment an easier thing to step into. In the first couple days of play, you are interacting normally. But by day three or four, you can actually start to make mischief yourself, socially engineering and blackmailing people."
Krankel says that the Nightschool team is gratified by the game’s success so far, but they’re on tenterhooks waiting to see how players feel about the ending. Mr. Robot: 1.51exfiltrati0n is designed to unfold over the course of a week or so. "We know that nobody could possibly have beaten it yet," he says. "We can’t wait to see what they think of it when they do."