With Replica, an indie game creator takes on censorship and morality

Picture this: you’re alone in a dark room. There’s a strange, locked smartphone vibrating in your hand. Text messages are coming in, callers are trying to get through, but you don’t know the password. Do you try to unlock the phone? How about the emergency call option? Should you respond to any of this? Where are you, anyway?

Replica, a game available on itch.io and Steam, drops players into this scenario in order to ask larger questions about civil rights, personal ethics, and national security. I spoke to Replica creator Somi, an indie developer from Korea, at the recent BitSummit indie festival in Kyoto about his game and the political climate which drove him to make it.

“There was a filibuster protesting an anti-terror bill in Korea,” Somi said. “The filibuster failed and the bill passed, so it’s now in effect. The bill gives the Korean national intelligence service lots of power. They can inspect and fully surveil many private things like social media and cell phone usage history.” Somi makes games using an alias to keep his hobby hidden from coworkers at his 9-to-5 job in Korea, so Replica is an act of silent protest. “Many people are on the streets to protest that bill,” he said, “but I’m a game developer, so I made a game.”

In Replica, a Homeland Security agent orders the player to crack a stranger’s locked phone and snoop on their activities. The agent insists the phone belongs to a suspected terrorist, but as the player digs the phone keeps ringing with concerned messages from the suspect’s family and friends. If the player digs deep enough, Homeland Security might send the suspect to jail, but if the player disobeys to alert the suspect’s loved ones, the player could end up in jail instead. Replica has twelve possible endings based on how the player chooses to proceed. A single playthrough should take less than an hour.

Even though Replica was a response to Korean politics, the game is set in the United States and makes explicit references to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Homeland Security. The game has been translated into multiple languages but there was one notable omission when I spoke to Somi: his own native language. I asked why Somi chose an American setting and initially avoided Korea (and Korean) altogether.

“At first I was a little bit afraid, because if I have to release in Korea I have to be censored by the government,” Somi said, concerned about the mandatory age rating applied to all games in Korea by a government-run Game Rating and Administration Committee (GRAC). “They say that ‘censorship’ is just an ‘age rating’ but we think it is a kind of censorship because they say all games have to be submitted before distributing,” Somi said, explaining that the process consumes both time and money. “We have to make a company or be registered as a corporation so it is very difficult for Korean developers,” he said. “If I release in Korean in Korea, I thought that would be a little bit dangerous, but now I’ve decided to make it in my country and I’ll get through that censorship.” Korean has since been added to Replica and more translations are on the way.

Regardless of the precise setting, Replica aims at broader issues that are not specific to any one nation. “I wanted to really talk about the banality of evil,” Somi said, citing Hannah Arendt’s writing on Adolf Eichmann. “You can be evil when you just follow orders, not thinking about what’s wrong,” he said, noting that if players do everything that they’re told in Replica they will have acted immorally in order to complete the game. “If you do not follow the orders of the officer, you can be labeled a terrorist,” he said, “but then you do not do wrong things like peeping into some other person’s phone.”

Given that Replica is all about interacting with a smartphone, I asked why the game was on PC instead of phones or tablets. Somi said “if I released it on mobile devices first, it is much harder for me to promote it.” Rather, he hopes that if the PC version draws enough interest, a mobile version could follow.