It’s 11pm and I’m sitting in the living room literally screaming at my laptop. I type out a message to our neighbours in our WhatsApp group to explain the noise, before quickly deleting it. I look back at the screen and listen as the disembodied voice instructs me to shout louder. This time, Unknown Number tells me, I was loud enough.
If my neighbours happen to be avid readers of this site, then before you slap an ASBO on me, please allow me explain: Unknown Number is a puzzle game in which you use your voice to control a virtual smartphone and interact with mysterious callers.
The developers, Godolphin Games, describe Unknown Number as the world’s first ‘First Person Talker’. Indeed, the trailers and promo material promise an innovative and unique gaming experience. But sometimes you’ll find yourself screaming at the screen, not because you’re prompted to, but out of frustration at battling an interesting yet flawed game mechanic.
After booting up the game, you’re greeted with a virtual Smartphone on a desktop and very little else. Nothing much happens for a short while until the phone rings. It’s from an unknown number. On the other end of the line is Ethan, a cockney hardman straight out of a Guy Ritchie movie, and Amanda, a cool, Silicon Valley whiz kid with a penchant for hacking teh internets. After dialling the wrong number, the pair of eco-activists assume you’re their handler, Casey, and ask you to help them as they break into an oil rig belonging to mega-corp bastards, Sligoil.
As they hang up, you start exploring the seemingly normal smartphone. It has a keypad, call history, voicemail and an icon of a smoking pipe. Of course I’m going to press this first. When I do, a cute little AI assistant pops up to offer hints if I get stuck on any of the puzzles.
As I’m having a look around, another assistant pops up, this time, to tell me I have a voicemail. It’s Ethan. He and Amanda need you to deactivate the security door to the oil rig. They give you a number to call and a password and leave you to your own devices. Sure enough, I dial up the number and enter the passcode. Job done. At this point, I’m anxious that the game is going to pan out as I expected it to: simple, enjoyable puzzles to solve but nothing ground-breaking.
You used to call me on your cell phone
Several phone calls later, and most of the puzzles are playing out largely the same. You dial a new number, crack a code and help Ethan and Amanda along their way, all without much of a challenge. The cutesy AI assistant becomes more of a nuisance, popping up at regular intervals to give you unsolicited hints. It feels like Unknown Number wants to hold your hand all the way , with incessant phone calls from the eco duo if you’re not quick enough.
Thankfully, the puzzles become meatier as the game progresses. At one point, Amanda calls to tell me that they’ve come up against security guards and need to find a quick exit. I fire up the in-game web browser and start hacking into Sligoil’s intranet site. With time working against me, it’s a real thrill rapidly sifting through pages of staff rosters and cafeteria menus to finally find the oil rig blueprints just in the nick of time.
Using your voice to control the game is certainly an engaging idea and perhaps the main draw of Unknown Number. It feels pretty cool to begin with, but as the game wears on, it becomes more of a novelty than a truly innovative game mechanic. The AI often misunderstands you and, in the time sensitive puzzles, there’s a small input lag which can lead you to fail through no fault of your own. I try disobeying the game by saying ‘No’ when I should clearly say ‘Yes’ but nothing happens. Instead, the previous line repeats until you make the choice the game wants you to. I realise the complexity of adding branching dialogue options but it would be interesting (and certainly in-keeping with the tone) if you could subvert certain decisions.
The 90s called
Unknown Number’s story is good enough to keep your attention, if not a little unoriginal. The voice acting is competent but the dialogue is hackneyed in places. Both Amanda and Ethan sound like they’re in a Joss Whedon movie, constantly making quips which can get a little grating.
For a largely audio-based game, Unknown Number has a great art design. The desktop behind your smartphone changes to complement the scene playing out over the speakers. At times, it feels like your back in the late 90s, starting at a trippy, lo-fi screensaver bouncing across the screen. Nostalgia weaves its way throughout. The web browser, for example, is a charming throwback comprising 90s clip art that’ll take you back to the halcyon days of Hamster Dance.
As you’d hope for from an audio heavy game, the sound design is excellent. The foley recordings have the production values of a quality Radio 4 play; each sound is rich in detail. Whether it’s the hubbub of a busy police station or the groaning steel of the oil rig, Unknown Number evokes a strong sense of place with little more than a smartphone speaker.
Unknown Number is an intriguing game clearly created with love. The voice control mechanic is promising but ultimately feels less innovative and more of a novelty. At only 3-4 hours long, it certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome and the few genuinely challenging puzzles are a buzz. You’ll enjoy your brief fling with Ethan and co for sure, but you probably won’t be calling them back.