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I Play – Lifeline

September 16, 2015

In the I Play series, I share my thoughts on the games I play. While these opinions may touch on the general fun/quality of the games, they are meant more as learning opportunities than game reviews. I play with my game designer hat on, looking for things to learn or good examples of things I care about in my designs. This means that I’ll find stuff to critique in an enjoyable game and good lessons in less pleasant experiences as well.

Onward to my first I Play article! I picked a small game so that I can get a feel of how I want to write these (and you can quickly see what you’ll get out of these articles.)

I consider this article spoiler-free as I don’t share any specific plot point.

Game Overview

Lifeline is a text adventure in which the player makes binary decisions to help save Taylor, a student astronaut whose vessel just crashed on Tau Ceti. It was developed by 3 Minute Games and is available on iOS and Android for $1.29.

Three main things I’ll draw your attention to:

  • The almost seamless introduction of both Taylor’s character and the player’s role;
  • The smart use of pacing as a key to the emotional experience;
  • The elegant capitalization on the chosen game platform.

If you’re up for it, I recommend that you play the game and get a sense of these things before reading my analysis.

Character Introduction & Player Role Induction

As a text adventure written as a conversation between Taylor and us, Lifeline has a very limited set of narrative tools to portray the stranded astronaut and let us know what role we play in the game. Yet, it only takes a few lines to establish the basics.

Some of the facts are introduced plainly as Taylor briefs us: the student scientist got picked to travel on the Varia, crashed, is seemingly the only survivor and finally managed to contact someone (us) for help. This is supplemented by elements we can deduce from the way the dialogue is written:

  • Taylor is a smart ass to deal with fear (as evidenced by the increase of sarcasm in dire circumstances)
  • Taylor is probably an American who joined an international crew (given the vernacular, the use of Imperial measurements and the attempts to convert them to Metric.)

That’s pretty much all we need to know, and it doesn’t include Taylor’s gender. *mind blown*

Through the interaction, we quickly understand that our role in this game is to help Taylor, be a lifeline in any way we can. And we’re cast as ourselves. There’s a bit of a cognitive disconnect here: in real life, our space technology isn’t up at a point where we send people near Tau Ceti, and if it was, Taylor should give us a way to contact NASA (or whoever has the tech) for a rescue. That being said, Taylor’s dialogue flows so naturally (most of the time) that I didn’t have any issue suspending my disbelief. In fact, I got so engaged in my interactions with Taylor, it bugged me to be limited to binary choices instead of typing actual messages.

By crafting Taylor’s voice around easy-to-grasp key facts and casting us in a role close to whoever we are, Lifeline manages to introduce interesting characters in very few lines and without visuals.

Pacing

Pacing in Lifeline has one goal: simulate what an exchange of text messages would be in the setting of the game. This means that there are moments of intense communication, followed by stretches of silence as Taylor does things (which means, for example, an 8 hour delay when Taylor goes to sleep.)

This may sound simple, but this careful use of delays in communication is (along with the writing) what makes Taylor lifelike. What makes the game, really.

I had moments of stress when Taylor said something would take an hour, but didn’t get back to me even though the time had passed. Even more telling, my friend Adam and I started using language such as “Damn, I haven’t heard from Taylor in a while.” which promptly got the other one to whip out their phone, too. We referred to Taylor (aka a bunch of sentences) the same way we would an actual person.

By having a clear goal for the pacing and executing it well, Lifeline comes to life and engages us emotionally.

Platform Use

Based on what I’ve said about Lifeline so far, take a second to imagine playing it on another console. Any other console. It would never work the way it does on a smartphone, would it?

Lifeline relies on our use of the smartphone outside of games to strengthen its gameplay. The exchange of text messages is ingrained in our habits and makes it easy for us to slip into the world of the game. Receiving notifications from friends’ messages happens to us on a daily basis. In a way, Taylor fits right among our social circle.

3 Minute Games even uses the feature that allows simple interactions with notifications, making the game entirely playable without opening the app after the first session. And if your phone has notification enabled on the lock screen, you don’t even need to unlock your phone to play.

Beyond adapting to the controls and gameplay patterns of its target audience, Lifeline capitalizes on the specificity of the smartphone and the way people interact with it outside of games as the keystone of the game experience.

Closing Words

As I’ve said before, my aim is to spark discussions with this blog. Have you played Lifeline? What did you think? Do you know other games that are good examples for one or several of these points? Any questions or comments?

Since this is the first post of this series of articles, did you enjoy it? Any feedback on the format?

Lastly, I’m currently prepping for my GCAP panel on narratives, so I have a list of games I want to play through and some of them will become I Play articles. That shouldn’t keep you from suggesting games you’d like to read my thoughts on. Please note that due to my multiple relocations in the past year, my only game platforms at the moment are my Android phone and my computer.

Go on, now. Hit the comment section!

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2015 11:07 pm

    Great analysis! It really makes me want to play the game too, even though I don’t own a smartphone. I love this kind of clever use of the platform.

    I really enjoyed your analysis. It was quick to read, straight to the point, and gave me interesting takeaways that I’ll keep in my game design toolbelt. I’ll be looking forward to more of these!

    • September 17, 2015 7:59 pm

      Thanks Daisy! I’m glad you enjoyed it. “Lifeline” is short, but definitely worth a play if you get a chance. You’d only have to borrow a device for a few days to get to the end (which, interestingly, didn’t mean the same thing for Adam and I.)

  2. September 17, 2015 9:01 am

    Reblogged this on The Writeaholic's Blog and commented:

    This Wednesday on Games’ Bustles, I share my design analysis of the text adventure, “Lifeline.” These points kind of apply to writing, too. 😉

  3. September 17, 2015 9:29 am

    Text adventures. I used to play a lot of the way back when, but now I think of them less as games and more as Interactive Fiction, a la The Stanley Parable. Wish more narrative focused products went that route. But that’s just my opinion.

    • September 17, 2015 8:03 pm

      Yeah, I see where you’re coming from. For me, Interactive Fiction is a genre of games. And I fell in love with The Stanley Parable. A few minutes in and I was charmed by the love/hate relationship I developed with the narrator. *laughs*

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