Lifeline – A Game in Review

Foreword: Stepping Back from Serious

Most of you who are on my site have come for WordPress tips and tricks – by all means, those are still coming. However, I’ve been suffering from a bit of writer’s block lately – it’s certainly that I don’t have a long list of topics to write about (it’s a spreadsheet), but that it takes a whole lot of time to make a quality post – time I don’t necessarily have with WordCamp Columbus coming up (July 18th, 2015 – come see me speak!).

I also have much neglected categories in my blog – in my day-to-day activities, I do a whole lot more than play in WordPress. I’m passionate about a lot of things – tech as a whole, but also gaming, storytelling, and science fiction. That’s why today we’re going to do a whole different kind of blog post than I’m used to, so strap in and let’s get started!

Lifeline – An Interactive Fiction Mobile Game

Last weekend I found myself in a very long-feeling car trip. With a disinterest in reading or doodling, I decided to browse the Google Play store for a fun little distraction to take up the next couple of hours – it was then I stumbled on Lifeline ($0.99 – App Store | Google Play), a text-based RPG for both iOS and Android.

What kind of game is it?

For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, don’t feel bad – text-based RPGs have been long and dead for quite a while now, at least on mainstream gaming. The best analogy would be a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book where you’re thrown into the shoes of a character and ultimately make the decisions that determine their fate. It’s a very basic predecessor for the huge blockbuster RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and so on.

Time doesn’t typically hold well for these games. Often they’re confusing for players unfamiliar with the system, and they’re relentlessly punishing – turning left down a passage could lead you to riches, and turning right straight to ruin. Back to the start. I was feeling a little nostalgic, so on seeing so many positive reviews for Lifeline, I decided to splurge and pay the minimal cost for the app.

What is Lifeline?

Lifeline, surprisingly, was something totally different compared to what I’d expected. Most text-based RPGs can be played out at your own pace – assuming there’s a save slot, you can take as much or as little time as you’d like and play through in one sitting.

This is not the case with this quirky little game. Instead, Lifeline uses a drastically different gameplay hook. The second I fired up the game, here’s what I saw:

The opening dialogue for the game.

Instead of the typical intro of “You find yourself in a forest…”, I was getting what was the equivalent of frantic text messages from a strange person in distress. Interesting! After a brief set of messages I was given one of two answers to choose from – I would select, and almost immediately you’d see waiting dots, and within a few seconds a brief, humanlike reply from the other line. This time, you weren’t the hero – you were talking to the hero. A nice twist!

Semi-Spoilers - It's all revealed in the first five minutes, but still.

You quickly come to find that the protagonist, a young science student named Taylor, is the sole survivor from a spaceship wreck on an uncharted planet. As if that weren’t bad enough, the hostile environment and stress seems to have thrown the character entirely off balance – suddenly, he’s asking YOU to make life or death decisions for him, and it’s up to you to take the reigns.

The story follows Taylor through the next few days on his voyage across the planet in hopes of finding something, anything, he could use to find his way home.

Lifeline Gameplay

Like I mentioned before, Lifeline touts itself as a text-based adventure where you choose the outcome. The interesting hitch about it is that it happens in real-time… You heard me – real time. Tell your character to work on opening a door? You’ll get an affirmative, and no further communication for the duration of his exercise. Tell him to go to sleep? You better be ready to wait six to eight hours – he won’t text, and you can’t even ping him for a status update. It’s an interesting twist – on the offhand you’ll peek at your phone throughout the day to see if you’d lead your little friend into a deathtrap or if he’d made it through that narrow canyon. Occasionally, something unexpected will happen and you’ll receive a flurry of frantic questions – should I push on or look for rations?

I hadn’t seen a dynamic like this before, so I almost instantly recommended it to a friend.

To clarify, although you get messages periodically, you aren’t forced to answer within a certain timespan. Taylor will wait for you, so this wouldn’t ever interrupt meetings or make you lose progress because you went to a movie. Good foresight by the developer.

Two Playthroughs In – My Opinion of Lifeline

Now that we’ve gotten mechanics out of the way, let’s talk about what I feel to be the notable points of the game.

Character Development

Among the rave reviews in the Google Play store, so many people said they felt a ‘deep connection’ to the character. To this, I say baloney.

The character is in an almost constant state of whining and complaining. While the state is totally understandable given the circumstances, the writing has the complexity of a fifteen year old’s best imitation at a panicked adult – with little to no depth or real character development, there are few things to get attached to.

At nearly every opportunity, he ridicules or disagrees with your answers to his questions. The only time he seems to react positively is when you tell him to do nothing – wait, go to sleep, hide out for a while… For a person in extreme situations, the character himself has zero desire to get himself out of the bad situation he’s in.

The (Illusion of) Choice

Typically, you’ll get a series of quick texts and updates, and then a question for advice. It will usually be something like “Check out the room” or “Move to the hallway”. When you choose the option, you’ll naturally get a complaint, but Taylor will do the actions…

… And then immediately turn around and do the other thing anyway. There are a few ways the game accomplishes this, here are a few examples I’ve seen countless times:

  • You tell Taylor to investigate Path A. He does so, finds nothing, and goes down Path B.
  • Taylor finds something of no significance at Path A. He might note that it’s cold in the room or something is broken, but there’s no opportunity to interact. Now, you’re given the option to go to Path B or Path C. Don’t get excited, though – Path C ultimately puts you back a few steps… You exit the ship and have to re-enter, choosing the same options until you get to the original A/B choice.
  • You flat out die. This is of course a regular thing in text-based adventures, but the difference between a good and a bad one is that the good might give you a chance to recover. Maybe you have an item you picked up earlier that you spend to scrape by – not so in Lifeline. You simply die, and can choose to restart from the beginning of any specific day. More repetitive choices.
  • The choices don’t matter. Go left, go right – oh look, it turns out they both ended up at the same destination!

This, to me, destroys the sense of an actual game. People will argue day and night what makes a game a game. There are some games that have no story and are purely what you make it – a la Minecraft. Others are entirely story, and you’re more along for the ride – Gone Home could be considered in this vein. I’m typically in the camp that a game requires some sort of player choice or skill – Gone Home redeems itself by forcing the player to actually explore and think on their own – you have no such option in Lifeline.

The decay of the pacing gimmick

Novel at first, having to wait 30 minutes to get through a repeated action is certainly not entertaining. Even worse – sometimes you wait four hours to have a “character building” conversation with Taylor, mostly where he complains, walks a bit, makes a fourth-wall breaking joke in an attempt to parody the sci-fi genre, and continues on his way.

On the other hand, sometimes the options won’t stop coming. They’ll be trivial things – a (paraphrased) example conversation:

  • Taylor: Should I check it out?
  • Player: Yes.
  • Taylor: Are you sure? It’s pretty scary in there.
  • Player: Yes, check it out.
  • Taylor: Okay… Hold on.
  • <Wait four minutes.>
  • Taylor: I’m in, but it’s dark. Should I look around or go back outside?
  • Player: Check out the hallway.
  • Taylor: I only have a single glowstick left, are you sure?
  • Player: Yes.
  • Taylor: Okay, but this is just like a horror movie, and I don’t like it.
  • <Wait two minutes.>
  • Taylor: Well, I didn’t see anything, so I headed back outside.


A Judgement call on Lifeline

The simple answer is that Lifeline is worth about what you pay for it – $0.99. Although it had the tools at hand to be a really interesting and dynamic story, the poor writing behind it turns it to more of a chore than a game. I stay hopeful that the developer (3 Minute Games) will see through a lot of the undeserved praise and learn from the first release – with the engine they’ve built, they could potentially make a very intriguing sequel or successor. At least their site is built on WordPress – that’s a good sign. 🙂

If you’ve got a buck to kill and a low tolerance for excitement, then by all means this is the game for you. For a player with any sort of experience in choice-based games or story-driven gameplay, just ignore the hype and let this one go by.

Positive Points Negative Points
  • An attempt to revitalize an old genre is always interesting.
  • The certainly unique interface is something I haven’t seen before – texting to a hero is a novel concept.
  • The real-time aspect is definitely cool, as it makes the game feel a little more immersive.
  • The ‘choice’ in the ‘choose your adventure’ aspect doesn’t really exist.
  • The Protagonist, Taylor, is a wholly unlikable character. At no point did he redeem himself.
  • Due to poor design, the game time is padded out in that you have to retrace your steps when you get an instant-lose option.
  • The “timed response” gimmick, while initially interesting, loses its novelty after the first day or so.
  • Eventually, the lack of story makes it feel more like you’re dealing with an acquaintance that won’t go away instead of helping a survivor get through a crisis.

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