Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"I Forgot I Had a Cell Phone!"

Sometimes in science fiction, writers can't wrap their heads around the stuff they invent. Over on GDL, I'm trying to avoid some pitfalls while I'm still early in writing up the plot for a game. One piece of technology writers seem to forget about for the modern day is the cell phone. Seems to me that if everyone's got easy communication, it'd be easy to send warnings, clear up misunderstandings, and so forth. Kind of ruins some plot seeds, and it gets kind of forced if endangered people keep dropping their phone every time they're kidnapped.

So, since I've been chronically dragging my heels when it comes to cell phone use in the real world, anything noteworthy coming to mind? In the off chance my game gets popular, I don't want millions of geeky emails asking, "In [scene], why didn't Zag just use his cell phone?"

I would have posted this on GDL, but I feel a wider audience would provide better answers.

19 comments:

cassol said...

I think this might just segregate the times when he can and can't use his cell phone. Sure, he has one, but in half of the worlds I can remember offhand, there's no cell phone network, and it'll be a while after the game starts before he can use the network in the other, just because of wrangling between providers.

So, frankly, most of the time he'd be better off making smoke signals with bombs.

Bronze Dog said...

True, he'll be off the network on other worlds, but that won't always be the case. Just trying to think ahead before the plot takes him to modern worlds.

Paul Hutch said...

Half the time I need to make a cell call I find the battery is dead. I really should put it on the charger every night, Doh!

I've seen this used in a few movies when they want to make sure the character can't get help.

Rhoadan said...

Even in a world with working cell phone networks, there are places where the blasted things don't work.

Usually these are in remote areas with no tower in range, e.g. I routinely lose service on runs across the state because big chunks are not that heavily populated and I'm driving in (sometimes literally, through tunnels) mountains which makes line of sight transmissions difficult.

There are also places in urban areas where getting a signal in or out is difficult if not impossible due to the architecture. Subways are frequently no-cell zones. I've also been in buildings with steel frames where a signal couldn't get in or out. Real world example: I-CON at SUNY Stony Brook. The Dealers Room is in the gym which for all intents and purposes is a big Faraday cage, at least where cell phones are concerned. There's something rather amusing about watching a bunch of merchants at an SF convention taking their cell phone networked credit card terminals outside in order to run charges
, at least when you're not one of them.

Do you think you could make use of this?

There's also turning it off for some reason and forgetting to turn it on again which works for the character being able to make the call and unable to reach someone. This can be played up with the intended recipient getting the voice mail too late to do any good.

Surely I'm not the only one with a bad habit of leaving the phone in the pockets of clothes I'm not wearing. This can work for either being unable to make the call or having the message get through too late.

Rhoadan said...

"it gets kind of forced if endangered people keep dropping their phone every time they're kidnapped."

Just noticed this bit on re-reading. You do realize that competent kidnappers would search the victim for a cell phone and take it off them, right?

Bronze Dog said...

Good point on the specific. Probably should have been more general: It gets pretty noticeable if there's always some easy contrivance to get the victim out of contact or unpowered in the face of danger.

Dunc said...

First rule of fiction: everything is subservient to plot. This is inescapable. Really good writers (and I mean really good) manage to to avoid drawing attention to this fact. Mediocre writers try to make excuses for it (the ol' Star Trek trick of having a Negative Space Wegdie that conveniently means that transporters / communicators / Troi's empathic abilities / whatever don't work at critical junctures). Bad writers just don't give a stuff (the Star Trek:TOS approach of just forgetting that last week, they could do X, which would instantly resolve this week's scenario).

For example, how many Star Trek plots would completely fall apart if people just said something before wandering off alone to investigate? These are supposed to be highly trained specialists, with years of experience?

On the subject of phones, I think we're now seeing the development of a new trope - a lost or non-functional phone is fast becoming the modern-day equivalent of getting lost in the forest, or having a flat tyre on a lonely road at nightfall.

For my money, the writer who's done the best job of getting his head around his own technology is Iain M Banks - for example, in his books, "fields" get used for everything, from forming spaceship hulls and holding giant space habitats together, to making really comfy beds and mirrors that show you the right way round.

Rick Pikul said...

Another option, (for not being reachable), is to steal a design flaw from my cell phone:

It's a clamshell type that is set up so that you don't have to open it to change the ringing mode. This is convenient, but creates a small issue in that it is easy to have the mode switched accidentally, (and I _have_ missed calls because it got bumped to silent).

I'll also second the battery life solution. In fact you should decide just how long the charge lasts with the phone on standby, and how much talk time it has. You can, obviously, fudge exactly when it cuts out.

Bourgeois_Rage said...

Zag has bad credit and was unable to purchase a phone.

Tom Foss said...

I'd keep the phone working, at the very least when outside on Earth, but remember that that opens up a weakness, too--it's loud, and tends to ring or give off tones at inopportune times.

There's also the weakness of the embarrassing ringtone. I think it'd be great to have an NPC ask "is that 'Wannabe'? Really?"

I think the real trick is, rather than trying to ignore the phone's existence, finding ways to make the phone equally a liability and a benefit.

I don't know if you've seen it yet, but you might give "Veronica Mars" a view if you haven't already. Cell phones proliferate, and tend to be used in a smart, realistic way.

Stogoe said...

It's a clamshell type that is set up so that you don't have to open it to change the ringing mode. This is convenient, but creates a small issue in that it is easy to have the mode switched accidentally, (and I _have_ missed calls because it got bumped to silent).

I concur. Also a drawback of clamshell phones? flipping it so that it opens up just enough to answer the call, but then it quickly flips shut and hangs up.

And Veronica Mars is a great show. The first two seasons are masterpieces. I have yet to see Season 3, though.

Bronze Dog said...

Good point on inconvenient rings, Tom. Easy way to blow a stealth mission, just like the Sneeze of Doom. Hard way to learn to put the thing on vibrate.

Tom Foss said...

Stogoe: I have yet to see Season 3, though.

I just spent the last couple of days watching it. Not nearly as bad as some suggested; there are a couple of times where it feels like the mysteries were wrapped up a bit too quickly, but even the done-in-one episodes toward the end work well. The whole thing is worth it just for the special feature presentation of the VM Season 4 proposal--Veronica in the FBI.

BD: Curse you for linking me to TV Tropes again! I just spent a couple of hours last night reading through. I thought of you, though, when reading the Grand List of Console RPG Cliches. Might want to look at that, just to be aware of it. There are several things you could do just by bucking those trends that would send players for a loop--personally, I want to see the enemy track you down and blow up the inn you're staying in to recover health at night. For the character to learn that the Inns are not safe havens would be a fantastic twist on an old trope.

Bronze Dog said...

I have the original (at least I think it was the original) bookmarked. It's been a while since I've looked it over thoroughly, so I think I'll do a review.

Probably make a relevant post over at GDL, after I'm done with a bit of dream diary inspiration that'll probably not appeal to anyone except me.

Stogoe said...

Veronica Mars is a Magnificent Bastard. And yet she's the protagonist...

Rhoadan said...

Also a drawback of clamshell phones? flipping it so that it opens up just enough to answer the call, but then it quickly flips shut and hangs up.

Ooh, I know this one... intimately. A related one for candy bars is the locked keypad that you can't remember how to unlock before the call goes to voice mail.

Actually, I think "left it in my other outfit" could work. Carrying a cell phone in an accessible location is a habit that you have to learn. My housemate has had one for over a year now and still hasn't got the habit.

If your character is spending a lot of time in places with no network, he's gonna have a hard time developing the habit and is more likely than most people to forget his phone or have it buried at the bottom of a bag or pack where he can't get to it without drawing attention to himself.

TheBrummell said...

flipping it so that it opens up just enough to answer the call, but then it quickly flips shut and hangs up.

I have the opposite problem, actually, and it relates to that annoying-bad-timing-ring topic. My clamshell is supposed to quickly route the incoming call to voicemail if I open it a little bit then close it. Problem is, this never works, even accidentally, and I usually end up furtively hunting for the off button without looking as my phone rings in the middle of an important meeting. Success at finding the off button just dumps the call, never sending it to voice mail and sending the clear signal to the caller "he hung up on me!".

Back OT...

I like the ideas of a) absent networks, b) competing networks, and c) phone in "my other pants". Variations on these could probably be thrown into a number of situations without getting cliche right away. The problem might be in taking away control from the player-character: the player should be able to remember to put the phone in the correct pocket, and remember to recharge the batteries as they see fit.

Other ways to ruin cell-phones: a) the previously mentioned building-is-a-Faraday-cage,
b) destruction of the phone, by accident or design,
c) bad guys (or heavy-handed law enforcement) have set up a jamming device,
d) cultural sensitivities (easy to put into SF) against phone calls in public, at certain times of day, in languages not locally spoken, etc.,

More ideas:
Like probably many people, I no longer memorize or even write down phone numbers - I enter them into my phone and let it remember for me, since this saves time dialing numbers anyways. The obvious risk here is that the phone's memory is erased or altered ("I'll phone my buddy for help!" [beep, boop, beep] "Welcome, sexy, to 1-900-BIG-BUTT" "WTF? Dammit!"), or that the character gains access to a new, undamaged phone on the local network but can't call anyone.

In some situations, the individual phone could be important - you can only call the top-secret government underground supercentre with one of a very limited number of specially-coded phones, and the one you were issued just fell under a bus.

This is fun. Any other tropes-or-soon-to-be-tropes we can pick apart here?

Rhoadan said...

To the Brummell:
Don't you have a mute button on the side of your phone to shut up the ringing? I think every flip phone I've ever had did.

TheBrummell said...

Don't you have a mute button on the side of your phone to shut up the ringing? I think every flip phone I've ever had did.

Sure. Problem is I'd have to remember that my phone is in my pocket before walking into a meeting. Same problem as before, just a different button to deal with it - turning the phone off accomplishes the same thing, but I'd have to remember to turn the damn thing off, and back on later.

Speaking of which, there's another way to have the characters lose the advantage of owning a cell-phone - it's turned off. Do any roleplaying games (electronic or otherwise) include a "memory check" roll or something like that? I keep failing those in real life...