After playing Backfirewall_ I will never be able to drop my phone again without gasping. OK, I already do that, but I’ll gasp even harder as I recall my time with this first-person adventure set inside a smartphone. The game grabs you with its charm. Its focus on puzzles, collectibles, and easter eggs will instantly remind you of games like Portal. The comparisons grow stronger once you throw in the meta-humor and a chatty companion. By examining a phone update and mirroring it to a changing world, Naraven Games brings its humorous world to life. It’s a narrative decision that makes the game’s characters relatable and cements the four-hour campaign as something everyone should experience.
Inside that sleek phone of yours is a world filled with apps and processes coexisting the best they can. This is the world of Backfirewall_. Players take control of an update assistant charged with updating the phone to the newest operating system. You’re greeted immediately by the game’s stand-in narrator, OS9, who asks for your name. In hilarious fashion, you’re given three binary strands to choose from. I was Elizabeth for my playthrough. OS9, who is the boss of the phone, opposes the update and enlists your help in stopping it and keeping his world intact. I have my reservations about games that feature chatty characters, especially when they’re delivering a lot of jokes. These things can run their course pretty quick (think High on Life.) OS9 put these worries to bed with his charm and excellent joke delivery. Even more, he’s helpful. He drives the story forward and creates paths for you. He comments on new people and places you encounter, but he’s never overbearing.
The charm bleeds over to the rest of the cast and the world within the phone. You can feel the Pixar influence as you cross paths with a snobby photo app, social media apps begging for more info, and wifi bureaucrats, to name a few. Exploring the phones innards, you’ll enter unique areas that heighten the humor and find a fun twist to add to the ridiculousness. The phone’s battery is filled with acid that’s deadly to the touch. The photo gallery is a museum of the user’s photos, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The remove Wi-Fi, is a glorified waiting room where apps wait for prioritization. I was surprised with each new area and excited to see how the developers were going to one up themselves in the next.
The puzzles you solve on your adventure provide some challenge, but never get to the point where you need to pull out the pen and pad. Early puzzles come in sets, where you must create a handful of errors to gain access to the next area. These are as simple as making a certain amount of boxes exist in a room. The more complicated puzzles take a little more time. An early puzzle in the photo gallery requires you to match photos with a machine code description. The player has access to a set of commands that help with a lot of puzzles and navigation. These give you the ability to delete, invert, duplicate, and mess with the color hue of assets you’ll find in the world. These are also used to help find the many easter eggs and collectibles spread throughout the phone. Players bitten by the collecting bug will find a lot to like here, in the form of cookies, figurines, messages, and computer bugs. Collectibles along with side quests do add a little replayability to the game.
Backfirewall_ is a wacky adventure, but that doesn’t keep it from getting into serious topics. The game tackles so much in its short playtime. It pulls on threads that explore privacy, dealing with change, and dysfunctional workplaces. More impressive is the game’s ability to balance heart and humor. I came away commited the apps and their differing relationships with the phone’s user. Some worship her, others feel tossed aside by her. In a specific example, OS9 interacts with a health app that was never opened once. OS9 comments on this.
While the health app is presented as goofy, you can’t help but feel the gut punch he gets in that moment. Voice work is superb. From the hectic energy of Social Media F to OS9 yelling “shift” as things continue to go wrong. There’s also a layer of meta-humor surrounding features that certain characters and areas may be missing. I won’t spoil any of the jokes (they deliver them much better) but I do appreciate how well the meta-humor works here.
I never thought a game would give me feelings for an operating system. Backfirewall_ is a charmer that keeps the charm going all the way to the end. While its length is on the shorter side, there’s plenty to be had as you navigate the likes of phone batteries and antennas. It’s full of laughs and isn’t afraid to slow things down for heavier moments. Put your phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’ and go play this game.