This iPhone Game Puts You Inside the Mind of an NSA Agent

'If You Solve Something, Say Something'

????? (Image: TouchTone)

The game is like a sliding tile puzzlers meets House of Cards and “1984.” (Image: TouchTone)

We have surveillance-inspired art and surveillance-inspired music—why shouldn’t our increasing paranoia around government surveillance extend to our games, too?

Touchtone is a new puzzle game that puts you in the shoes of a NSA operative, pouring through documents and text messages and deciding who’s worthy of government scrutiny. As of today, Touchtone is available in the App Store for three bucks.


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The game was made by Chicago game designers Michael Boxleiter and Greg Wohlwend, who created the puzzle part of the game years ago, but needed a plot hook to really get people to pick it up and keep powering through. When the Snowden Revelations happened, they knew they had their hook.

“We definitely have strong feelings about surveillance and state power—we’re staunch liberals in that sense,” Mr. Boxleiter told the Observer. “We didn’t want to necessarily force ideology down people’s throats, but give some what-if scenarios.”

The game opens with a breezy tutorial that has you sliding tiles into place to reroute little lasers to their proper receivers, cheering you on with perky totalitarian messages like, “Hello Citizen! It is the duty of all citizens to keep our country safe.” Mr. Boxleiter calls it a parody of what a government-sponsored app might sound like: cheery and tone-deaf.

TouchTone_AnimatedSS2

The game mechanic is simple, slide mirrors into place to direct the lasers to their proper receivers. (GIF: Touchtone)

From then on, the tone is considerably darker. You’re soon enlisted to start monitoring an Iranian man named Samir Jilani, a Silicon Valley tech founder trying to find funding for his cryptography startup.

“You look into his emails text messages and emails, and follow his life as your handler pushes you in certain directions,” Mr. Boxleiter said. “Hopefully, while you’re doing that, you’re reflecting on what you’re doing.”

The idea of the government considering cryptography dangerous isn’t farfetched—it was only two decades ago that the U.S. government was trying to regulate basic cryptography as a military-grade weapon. And besides cryptography, you’re told pretty early the other reason you’re pursuing Samir: because he’s an observant Muslim.

The game has its obvious predecessors. The “document thriller” Papers, Please, a game that puts you in the role of a border agent deciding who gets to make it through immigration, is an obvious thriller. And Mr. Wohlwend admits to watching plenty of House of Cards while writing the story. Complex decisions and shifting motivations are all in Touchtone’s narrative portfolio.

(Screengrab: Jack Smith IV)

The game is a combination of puzzle and plot. (Screengrab: Jack Smith IV)

Puzzles aside, the story gives you the discomfort of being thrown back and forth between the two poles of that tired, possibly false dichotomy between respecting privacy and making us more secure.

“You’re supposed to question your beliefs—everyone’s a little grey and no one’s really a bad guy,” Mr. Wohlwend said. “By the end of it, you don’t know who to trust.”

This iPhone Game Puts You Inside the Mind of an NSA Agent