“Won’t you help me find Sara?” -IRIS

SARA IS MISSING (SIM) is Monsoon Lab’s free to play “found footage” indie horror game and as the title surmises, a girl named Sara is missing. It is up to you, as the player, to search for her through clues provided on her smartphone. You are essentially the main character guided by the phone’s “not-so-mysterious” artificial assistant IRIS (try spelling the name backward), who is an app in the shape of an eagle-eyed camera lens.

This game takes the “found footage” concept to a different level. It is available on PC (Windows and Mac) and smartphones (iOS and Android). I recommend playing it on a phone because it feels realistically designed to be played on one. The whole game takes place on a smartphone and simulates a scenario of what you would do when you find a missing person’s phone. Obviously, the first thing you’d want to do is figure out who the phone belongs to.

This isn’t necessarily a review (you can view it as such), but more so about why it’s innovative, immersive and fun. Let’s look at some elements comprehensively that makes this game unique and groundbreaking.

Simulated Gameplay

The missing girl in question with her cat as shown on the game’s lock screen.

Since we live in a digital age where we’re glued to our smartphones, Monsoon Lab definitely made a breakthrough with SIM by utilizing the idea of technological immersion with the “found footage” horror genre that has been proliferating the horror movie market (think BLAIR WITCH and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY). If that’s not even the case, the abbreviation of the game can be short for “simulator”. You are after all playing the game on Sara’s phone, even if it’s through YOUR phone. How ingenuous.

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Players will have to go through Sara’s personal text messages, photos, emails and videos to locate the missing girl. There is a lot of reading that range from text messages to email logs, so this might turn some people off. Fortunately for players, if they are ever stuck in the game, they can consult IRIS (again “she” has her own app) to assist them in their investigation of the phone’s contents. Then again, in reality, we do read stuff on our phones to search for info, so it’s not so surprising for this type of game.

The majority of the time, you will be searching for crucial or important information for IRIS to analyze. There will be times where you’ll need to chat with “her” regarding important information. Most of the dialogue will be between the player and IRIS, but occasionally other characters as well. There isn’t much freedom during chats since players are limited to two to three responses. There is a keyboard prompt, but only for aesthetic purposes for now.

The difficulty is rather simple and combined with touch-based controls of modern mobile technology (can’t stress this enough), players will find themselves immediately immersed into the game. Again, it feels like a real phone. SIM is also relatively short and players should beat the game in no less than an hour. A friend finished the game within twenty minutes and that’s only if you don’t read through everything. I myself took longer and went a little over the hour. My advice: trust your instincts and check what’s strange and mysterious from the info you uncover.

Intriguing AI App

Meet IRIS, the very human-like AI.

One of the more fascinating and my favorite elements of the game is IRIS, the phone’s personal digital assistant. Just who is “she”? If you haven’t remotely figured the name out, “she’s” essentially SIM’s version of SIRI. Does the name sound familiar now? Yes, IRIS is just SIRI’s name flipped over. However, this Intelligent Recognitive Iconolatry System (IRIS) is much better than Apple iOS’ persona digital assistant by a long shot. “She” sounds unbelievably human (uh-oh that sounds bad) and “wants” nothing more than to find her owner Sara, like very badly.

Okay Monsoon Lab developers, just how much science fiction shows have you guys been watching and where do I get my own IRIS. Anyway, the digital assistant in this game is very intelligent to the point you can’t differentiate if its artificial intelligence anymore. It seems definitely the developers are playing into the horrors of mobile technology and AI. We’ve all watched enough media and entertainment to know where this theme is going, especially since SIM is regarded by developers to be a mobile horror game. This is something to really wrap your heads around.

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Long story short: is “she” a villain? Are “her” motives really to find Sara? Do you, as the player, trust artificial intelligence? You’d definitely have to play the game to answer these questions. I can definitely say that IRIS most definitely wants to find Sara, probably more than you do. Does that even remotely sound creepy at all? You be the judge. All I can say is that this digital assistant adds flavor and ambiance to the game.

If you’re further intrigued by this, try defining what “iconolatry” means and see how it relates to IRIS’ motives and actions in-game. You’d be surprised why “she” wants to find Sara.

Found Footage Concept

BLAIR WITCH paved the way for found footage horror.

Have you horror fans just been waiting for me to talk about the game’s horror aspect? If so, then here it is.

As I’ve stated earlier, this game relies heavily on “found footage“, which is pretty prolific in horror films such as the BLAIR WITCH PROJECT or the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films. As far as found footage horror games, SIM is probably the first one I have ever played and I will say it lives up to my expectations in the found footage genre, but less in the horror department.

Why do I say this? I will definitely say the game lacks any “real” definitive scares. You know that paranoid feeling that you can’t shake? That fear welling deep inside you when you attempt to make sense of the paranormal? Well, the creepiness and tone is in the game. Players will likely come across one or two videos that may be disturbing. One plays on a viral Japanese urban legend from the deep web that inspired a notorious murder in Japan. I still have the chills just from looking these up. However, I feel they offer no real incentive to the horror element, but only for story purposes.

The thought and concept of simulated gameplay can be chilling I suppose. Honestly, it feels like the game feels more suspenseful than scary. You can’t help but ask if Sara is really missing or what if she’s dead already since found footage relies on the past to provide information for the present and future.

All I will say is that once players start the game and are met with IRIS, a video of Sara will be provided that clearly shows she faces unprecedented danger. In-game footage is readily unavailable and to proceed, the player must unlock certain information and messages to continue the search for Sara. Overall, the whole game itself is found footage with the exception of the chats with IRIS and other characters. You will also receive calls from Sara’s friends. Just talk about immersion folks! At least I’m glad that the game has the setup for a horror story.

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An Immersive Plot

In-game apps, photos and videos you can access for clues.

Do you ever feel like you just want to be a part of a game’s story? Well, SIM is one of those. Players will get to know what led to Sara’s disappearance through her past messages with other people. I generally don’t want to spoil the experience, but one particular friend to pay close attention to is Faith, but that’s all I will say. The game’s setting takes not too long from the time Sara vanishes to the time the player finds her phone. Footage of Sara and key messages that hint at her disappearance are unlocked as you progress through the game with help from IRIS. The video of Sara provided to you in the beginning should clue you in to what kind of area she last was and what may have happened to her.

While the game’s leading factor is simulated gameplay, players should no doubt feel immersed in the plot. There’s definitely more to it than just Sara’s disappearance. Players should always be asking questions such as to why was her phone found in the first place. The biggest question of all is why are most of her content’s erased. Strangely enough, her phone can be unlocked easily. It’s mysterious and players should no doubt wonder if there’s a bigger mystery.

If the setting is unbelievable, the game’s lock screen displays the date and time you find the phone (start of the game) that further indicates when the game takes place. All these elements along with the simulated gameplay create a believable scenario with the exception of the phone’s incredible AI assistant (seriously where do I get one). Also, I’d keep Sara’s phone just for the battery life because that never seems to deplete given that it’s consistently at the same low battery percentage (23 percent) throughout the whole game.

SIM also features multiple endings, so be sure to replay it. There are only two major decisions near the end of the game. You most likely will find Sara, but that is also how much I will say.

Thoughts so far …

Upon beating the game, I will say that SIM has amazing potential as a mobile game that’s unlike anything I have played before. I was recommended by a friend (the same one that beat it in twenty minutes) and I loved the whole concept. I was eerily pulled into the gameplay and definitely felt chills because I couldn’t help but feel watched. You definitely have to play it to experience how “real” the game feels. Players will most likely feel the surrealism of the game as they wonder if they’re actually in the game’s setting searching for Sara.

While the game presents an innovative idea in simulation and immersive gameplay, the plot still needs a bit of re-working along with the horror aspects (see horror section above). Bottom line, there are no real scares to supplement the already subtle creepy tone and execution of the game. There will be a point in the game, after all the investigation of the phone’s available contents, that it starts to fall apart in terms of story. I will just say that things go a little crazy, but it’s at that point that the game starts losing its momentum and devolves into nothing more than a generic horror film.

There is a reason that the game is short and it could be a multitude of reasons. Budgeting could be one since after all the game is free. Furthermore, there is a rating choice at the end of the game, which asks if players enjoyed the game or not. This could mean that Monsoon Lab is receiving feedback about the game (mostly positive) and somewhere down the line they will release a full version (see Twitter image below).

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Bottom Line and Suggestions

SIM has definitely been an immersive and innovative mobile horror game for me. It has potential to be an alternate reality game (ARG) since it uses a real life scenario with choices that may change playability. From the simulated concept of utilizing smartphone technology combined with a horror scenario of finding a missing person through the found footage concept, Monsoon Lab has created a breakthrough with this indie game. However, it definitely needs to re-work its issues: the lack of “scare” and the plot. The game’s initial presentation of utilizing a human-like AI can most likely be worked into the horror element more.

Besides that, some other ideas I’d like to see are more interactivity and immersion. For instance, more creativity and freedom with the keyboard prompt rather than just be limited to choice responses. Maybe player recognition could be a concept. Would facial recognition work also? If that were the case, that’d be awesome and scary at the same time. Another great idea for the game would be to utilize the battery life as a time limit. If the phone depletes to zero percent, it’s instant game over. Another neat idea would be to trick the player into thinking their phone may be corrupted by the game itself. Anyway, these are just my suggestions.

Overall, the idea of the game is what makes it great. You should definitely check it out and experience how creatively this game was put together. Just never forget that that someone is always watching you. It could be IRIS or maybe someone else. It may not be Sara who is missing, it could also be you. Oh and before I forget, to maximize gameplay experience, definitely play alone without noise.

“Hullo hullo, I do apologize for not introducing myself earlier …” -Mysterious Person in SIM

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