“They’re coming. The Angels are coming for you. But listen. Your life could depend on this. Don’t blink. Don’t even blink. Blink, and you’re dead. They are fast. Faster than you could believe. Don’t turn your back, don’t look away, and DON’T BLINK.”
The Weeping Angels are one of the most iconic villains introduced in the BBC’s Doctor Who. As long as someone is observing the quantum-locked creatures known as “Lonely Assassins”, they look like perfectly normal statues. But look away for even a moment, and they’ll come for you. Not to kill…but to send you into the past, stealing away any future you might have had. The Weeping Angels literally feast on your potential, leaving you behind as an inevitability.
It’s telling that the Weeping Angels weren’t introduced in an episode pitting The Doctor and his then-companion Martha Jones against the creatures during their debut episode, Blink. Instead, the plot revolved around two ordinary brits: Sally Sparrow and Larry Nightingale. The pair do receive a series of cryptic messages spliced into a series of DVDs as easter eggs, but it’s not The Doctor’s adventure viewers are following: it’s theirs. Therefore, it’s fitting that the BBC turned back to Blink as inspiration for its first foray into the “found-phone” genre of games, making Doctor Who: The Lonely Assassins act as the official sequel to one of the most beloved fan favorite episodes.
More than a decade has passed since Sally and Larry (now Lawrence) faced off against the Weeping Angels. In the intervening years, Sally moved to the United States, and Larry fell in love and settled down. But something went terribly wrong, and The Lonely Assassins opens with you, the player, finding Larry Nightingale’s missing phone. Can you pore through the evidence contained within and find out what happened to Larry, and stop it from happening to anyone else?
The First Step: Making Friends and Cracking Passwords
Found-phone games start with the same central conceit: someone is missing, and you as the player stumbled across their phone. This framing device alone instills a sense of horror. After all, smartphones are increasingly essential to daily life, while acting as a deeply personal repository of information. Phone calls, text messages, emails, and social apps provide a record of who we know and how we relate with each other. Geo-locative apps tell us where we’ve been, and how to get where we’re going. Apps control everything from our finances to our travel history. And our media galleries provide a record of who and what we love. Leaving all that behind is something few people would do willingly.
The Lonely Assassins starts with players finding Larry’s lost phone, and powering it up. But there’s still one last step separating players from his entire life history converted into ones and zeroes: a simulated lock screen. Attempting to log in one too many times activates a highly dramatic self-destruct message…interrupted by a remote override attack from Petronella Osgood (a name that should be familiar to loyal Whovians) that grants players access to the phone. Petronella suspects that Larry got tied up in The Doctor’s business, and asks for your help to figure out what’s going on.
Breaking into a password-protected smartphone without access to any information on the phone’s owner would make a tedious introductory challenge, so found phone games frequently start up by enlisting an ally to assist in the investigation. A rotating cast of hackers, investigators, and overly friendly artificial intelligence bots help players cross that initial challenge of getting into the phone, but also provide structure by acting as both sounding board and catalyst for the investigation. These unofficial guides helpfully turn an open-ended exploration of seemingly disconnected pieces of evidence into a more linear, targeted interrogation of the evidence.
Semi-Professional Snooping: Unlocking Layers of Context Through Digital Archaeology
For phones in the real world, cracking the phone’s password is enough to gain access to the full trove of digital data about its former owner. Since that doesn’t make for compelling gameplay, found-phone game guides often need players’ help to gather information to help repair damaged, corrupted, haunted, or possessed phones to “unlock” additional content. In The Lonely Assassins, this process involves scanning relevant data and sending it over to Petronella so she can restore corrupted sectors of the phone.
Scanning evidence and sending it to Petronella accounts for the bulk of gameplay in The Lonely Assassins: chase down leads on the phone to piece together the details of what unfolded, and work with Petronella to unlock additional sectors on the phone to get a larger picture of what came before. And since the gameplay features so heavily, the game makes it painfully clear in the user interface. When potentially relevant evidence appears on-screen, the lower left corner of the screen lights up with a bright yellow button. Pressing the button scans and records the information, so that it can be transmitted to Petronella at players’ discretion.
The vast majority of these clues are left out in the open, waiting for players to select the right text message chain, email, photograph, video, in-app website, or voicemail message. But some challenges get more involved, asking players to synthesize information gleaned from the game’s digital ephemera to look up shipping records, read updates on a missing persons report, or even socially engineer information out of an office worker before reaching a page with that bright yellow flag.
That type of puzzle is where found-phone games excel: because the game’s creators have complete control over the simulacra of a digital experience created within a contained environment, tasks involving digital archaeology are freed from many of the limitations of the real world that plague more traditional alternate reality games. Players can’t inadvertently stumble across a real website and think it’s part of the game when the browser they’re using to access the website isn’t real. In-app searches for key phrases unique to the game won’t inadvertently lead to game walkthroughs or spoilers, when the search engine is just as locked down. And phone calls to mysterious numbers don’t lead to awkward conversations when the possibility of dialing the wrong number is eliminated by routing all calls through an in-game “phone.”
Lonely Assassins rarely hides its evidence too deep, but the added protection and security of playing the game in a closed system takes quite a bit of stress out of the experience, nonetheless. In that respect, the dialogue-heavy gameplay is much closer to visual novels and interactive fiction than it is to more mechanics-heavy games.
A Game of Casual Exploration…Until It Isn’t
Larry Nightingale’s uncertain fate notwithstanding, Doctor Who: The Lonely Assassins (and the found-phone genre as a whole) is typically a game of casual exploration, giving players time to explore the files contained within virtual phones at their leisure before submitting evidence and proceeding to the next chapter.
The Lonely Assassins makes that process explicit with a bulleted list of objectives from Petronella. Find the evidence, get the clue, and turn it in to Petronella for completion. There is no countdown clock, and the game can be set down and picked back up again at practically any time. And while there are a series of optional tasks to complete in order to unlock the “best” ending, these tasks require chasing additional leads through undirected exploration of the phone rather than skill-based challenges.
However, a narrative beat towards the middle of Doctor Who: The Lonely Assassins throws that model of gameplay into the virtual recycling bin with a series of timed mini-game style challenges that inject a sense of urgency into an otherwise casual game. While this moment is earned and includes some of my favorite moments of the game, it can be a bit of a surprise to players chasing the satisfaction of the 100% completion ending.
A Satisfying Coda For Whovians, A Fun Romp for the Casual Fan
As an episode of television, Blink functioned by strategically removing the shows’ protagonists out of the picture, and placing the fate of the world in the hands of two ordinary people. The Lonely Assassins takes that one step further by revisiting a hero from Blink and documenting his attempts to save the day once more…before taking him out of the picture and literally placing that responsibility in your hands, in the shape of a smartphone.
That narrative resonance is made all the more powerful by bringing actor Finlay Robertson back to reprise his role as Larry over a decade after his introduction, through all the photos, audio recordings, and video messages left behind. By delving through the intimate records of his life on the phone players are given the chance to appreciate the fact that time moved on for Larry after our last encounter, as he faces down an enemy whose very existence threatens that passage of time.
The game also manages to work in a few more nods to the more dedicated fans, with the branching dialogues with Petronella and optional objectives allowing fans to dig up references to The Doctor’s past adventures, joke about past dalliances with ancient Queens, and even ask the all important question, “Doctor…who?”
Because found-phone games are geared towards story over mechanics, writing and acting carries the experience over gameplay. And Doctor Who delivered on that theatrical promise. Robertson wasn’t the only former cast member to return to conclude the tale started in Blink: Ingrid Oliver features prominently as Petronella Osgood, and a few other key figures that shall go unnamed make powerful along the way, giving both familiar names and new faces space to make an impact.
Finding Other Peoples’ Phones: Managing Time and Relative Hard Drive Space
The Lonely Assassins is a great game for existing Doctor Who fans, and can make a compelling experience for Who-curious gamers who are willing to treat Blink as their introduction to the universe. However, enough of the games’ appeal is rooted in the fan experience that this probably isn’t a great entry point to the franchise for people with no prior exposure to The Doctor’s travels. Similarly, without a modicum of interest in Doctor Who, readers looking to test the waters with found-phone games are better served looking elsewhere.
Luckily, there are quite a few found-phone games based on original properties to choose from. Kaigan Games, the development team behind The Lonely Assassins, has built a niche for themselves producing horror games in the nascent found-phone genre. Sara is Missing was their first foray into the space and helped establish the genre with its objective-based gameplay and branching conversation trees, with subsequent releases Simulacra and Simulacra 2 expanding on the formula. Accidental Queens’ games A Normal Lost Phone and Another Lost Phone explore more intimate stories centered on relationships, while Somi’s Replica approaches the format through the lens of thriller investigations.
For those interested in Doctor Who: The Lonely Assassins, the first chapter is available free to play on iOS and Android devices through the app stores, with the full experience available for $5.99. The game is also available on the Gog, Steam, and Epic stores for PC gameplay. The game is good for a solid two to three hours of fun, although you may find it necessary to follow that up with a speedrun for the full ending, on the off chance you missed a detail or two.