I’m an ambitious young architect, visiting a house that’s full of strange, psychedelic decor. So naturally, I take some photos for the ‘gram, posting a few witty captions for my friends. But my friends…they slowly stop seeing the humor in my observations. My BFF slips into my DMs. She’s worried about me; she’s worried about my mental health; she’s worried about my safety.
What is she even talking about?
This is the world of HoloVista ($5 on iOS). It’s the first game developed by the studio Aconite, and it’s the winner of our 2021 Innovation by Design Award for Apps. While most mobile games focus on bite-sized “casual” experiences—a few addictive mechanics repeated over and over again as a silly diversion from your commute—HoloVista is an immersive story that could only be told on a phone.
“As a company, it’s our goal to blur the line between reality and fiction,” says studio co-director Star St.Germain. “We have a broad definition of what that means. Other companies focus on AR or VR. We’re interested in those things, but [also] other ways of incorporating alternative reality through transmedia.”
Transmedia is the idea of telling a story across different media. While technology certainly would allow you to, say, receive a text message from the hero of a Hollywood blockbuster while you watched the film, for the most part, this sort of experimentation is absent from storytelling. You play a video game on Xbox, or watch a movie on Netflix. And each of these different platforms inherently affects the experience of a story. As communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously put it, “the medium is the message.”
While most of HoloVista is experienced on your phone through the game’s app, it still plays like a transmedia experience, because the game simulates using a few apps at once. (And phones, where we live so much of our lives, offer many more intimate and nuanced experiences than a movie.)
“The phone is such an intimate device. It’s where we send drunk texts at midnight to people we’re thinking about, the place where we take vulnerable selfies. The place where we do embarrassing Google searches. You call your mom on it. It’s the thing you have on you on all times,” says Nadya Lev, studio co-director. “That creates a different emotional relationship to the device than your Playstation or something. We really wanted to tell an emotional story, specifically on the device somebody already has a fraught relationship with and attachment to.”
Originally, St.Germain and Lev imagined HoloVista as a commentary on social media. The Cambridge Analytica scandal had just happened. Installations like the Selfie Museum were on the rise. So they designed a game where you could pick between two different photos to post on a simulated Instagram. Depending on your choices, the story would branch in different directions.
But when they began playtesting the system, they realized it hit too close to home. “Social media just makes people tired,” says Lev. “People don’t want to play a game like that when their real life is already so depressing.”
The other issue was that players didn’t realize that their choices in what to post mattered, and that the game wasn’t just bulldozing past them to tell one story. But there was one moment the team really liked, where they had to aim their phone like a camera inside the game to take a picture. It was compelling but fleeting.
“Once we realized all that [branching] effort was being wasted…and the most interesting part of the game was in the camera but they spent almost no time in it…the next design challenge was how can we make the user spend a lot of time in the camera,” says St.Germain.
Their answer came in a hidden object game. Hidden object games generally task a player to look around a scene to find certain items. But they aren’t generally containers for rich stories. For HoloVista, the team created a character named Carmen who has just been hired to a highly unorthodox, and mysterious, architecture firm. She’s set inside environments, and from the first person perspective, you aim your phone through a scene to take photos. Once you take a photo of all the hidden objects, that’s when you hop into social media to post.
“Especially if you replay the game, you see all the crumbs left for you that indicate how the story would unfold…things that symbolize Carmen’s anxieties and the unconscious mind,” says Lev. “Our goal was to make a hidden object game with a lot of depth and meaning. Generally speaking, that genre is not the most intricate with [storytelling]!”
A big reason the game feels so immersive is that the designers paid close attention to the smallest bits of the user interface. To take photos, you aim your phone through a scene (feel free to pinch to zoom!), and so it just feels natural. Then outside the camera lives a whole social network, a sort of Windows 3.0-era Instagram clone, where you post images you capture in the game (even adding the appropriate filter), and read posts and comments from others. Occasionally a friend will DM you with a joke, a romantic advance, or a concern. And instead of feeling like you’re watching a scene of dialog in a movie, you feel like this person is messaging you (even if, okay, your responses are actually filled in by the game’s script).
Without spoiling too much of the game, I can say that the cutesy photo-sharing game evolves into a psychological thriller (and players who wish to continue the experience off of the phone can actually follow breadcrumbs in the game to a standalone website and phone number you can call to go deeper). It’s a journey that digs into the very nature of family, friendships, and personal identity.
“I understand that casual [gaming] is the most popular format for mobile, but we feel there’s such a depth and richness there,” says Lev. “There’s a lot of interesting storytelling that can happen on mobile.”
Now, with HoloVista out, the studio is turning its attention to its next release, a game that’s still in the early stages of prototyping. “Regardless what this project turns into, it’s still going to be in the, ‘How do we blur the lines between reality and fiction?’ type of bucket,” says St.Germain. “We’re interested in how to make things as immersive as possible.”
See more from Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards. Our new book, Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform the Way We Live and Work (Abrams, 2021), is on sale now.