I would not have expected text-based games to make such a comeback, but here we are. Twine is becoming more and more popular with novice game developers, and the discussion around Depression Quest nearly brought the entire video game medium to a grinding halt. Now, we have Lifeline, widely regarded as one of the killer gaming apps for the Apple Watch. That’s right: the hottest tech device is being used to play choose-your-own-adventure stories.
Android Wear support will be added later this summer, but without the benefit of futuristic wrist-wear, Lifeline takes the form of phone notifications, like text messages. It begins as an intercepted transmission from an astronaut whose ship crash landed on a barren moon. The astronaut, Taylor, was merely a science student working on the vessel and he or she (gender is intentionally obscured by the developers) needs the player’s assistance to make various survival choices.
Interaction is brief and simple. The player never has more than two options to choose from. These choices, however, range from selecting a reaction to Taylor’s corny jokes to deciding whether to power an injured crew-mate’s stasis pod instead of a rescue beacon. This can make the smaller decisions seem trivial, but they often serve to build Taylor’s character, and luckily, she’s fairly interesting.
The greatest weakness of Lifeline is that it is clearly written by a good writer who wants the player to be entertained. Like a Tarantino movie, its dialogue is engaging because it’s clever, not because it’s natural. This seems a bit at odds with a game that presents itself as a series of text messages, but it’s hard to be mad at the writing for being “too good.” Without spoiling anything, the “bad” endings are a welcome change – exactly as abrupt as they need to be.
Those abrupt ends never feel unfair, though. With every difficult decision, Taylor offers her own input and a chance to second guess oneself. My early death (or her early death, as it happened) came as a result of me not trusting her instincts. Later on, I was much more careful to listen to her, but not in a way that made me overcautious. It’s about an even split between choices that reward caution and those that reward risk.
The game is paced rather well, too. Taylor takes time to perform each task, and will even sleep through her nights (unless something wakes her). It’s refreshing to have a mobile game that will leave me alone for eight hours. Toward the end (the good, real end), things pick up, and they admittedly drag on a bit, with one or two too many suspenseful moments. But I still think it’s worthwhile to see such a unique structure play itself out.
Taylor is fun to talk to. You’ll feel terrible when you lead her to her doom, and you’ll be elated if you actually manage to get her off that rock. She’s a friend who won’t annoy you by texting every second, and she can tell some pretty good stories.