Like so many in today’s workaday world, I find myself absorbed in my phone on this morning’s commute to work. Keeping up with the latest videogame news, half-reading the status updates of my friends on Facebook — oh! Taylor is messaging me. He’s wondering whether or not he should spend the night sleeping next to the warmth of a potentially radioactive generator, or tough it out in the middle of a hostile, frigid dessert. Quickly, I close my open tabs and running applications; I had better take this.
No, my friend isn’t the world’s most irresponsible camper, but rather, the protagonist in 3 Minute Games’ innovative sci-fi text adventure Lifeline. Spanning three real-time days, the game tasks you with guiding the survivor of a futuristic crash landing to safety as he navigates the challenges of staying alive on the surface of an unfamiliar planet. Not a wholly unique setup in this genre, perhaps, but thanks to nuanced writing by Dave Justus (of Fables: Wolf Among Us fame) and a genuinely novel mechanical hook, Lifeline manages to feel like a window into a living, breathing world.
You see, the key differentiator between Lifeline and any other text adventure is 3 Minute Games’ bold decision to introduce a semblance of true-to-life time passage to the proceedings. From initial contact until you discover one of Taylor’s several possible fates, everything happens in somewhat “live” fashion. Through one of two possible text prompts, you can guide the story in multiple different directions, at a pace that is out of your control. Advise Taylor to take a nap or settle down for the night? Expect to hear back from him several hours later. Caution him against cutting through the middle of a large crater by instead navigating the permitter? The ensuing trek will have him MIA for measurably more time.
While at first blush I was worried that this would prove to be a frustrating gimmick, the reality is much more fulfilling. By isolating interactions to sparing moments throughout the day, Lifeline infuses your normal grind with a palpable sense of adventure and consequence. During my playthrough, it’s not an exaggeration to say that I woke up nervous about what might have happened to Taylor, or paused in mid-conversation with colleagues to check on the outcome of a decision I had made on his behalf. I’ve played many games that I find engrossing, but Lifeline may be one of the first that changed the way I thought about my daily routine, which leapt off the screen and became a part of my lived experience.
This is due in no small part to writer Dave Justus’ excellent script, which bolsters the clever design by presenting in Taylor a truly engrossing character. Perhaps unavoidably, there are some moments of clunky exposition that flesh out Lifeline’s backstory, but that practice never extends to Taylor himself. Deftly interspersing sarcastic asides with moments of downbeat introspection and nervous rambling, Justus crafts a flawed but endearing protagonist who can both annoy you and earn your sympathy in the span of one conversation. In other words: the pitch perfect representation of a young adult out of his depth and looking for help. Without broaching any spoilers at all, it suffices to say that the overall narrative is filled with enough tension and surprise to keep you engaged, but Lifeline’s ultimate feat is the way that it will have you genuinely caring about Taylor.
Like Mayday! Deep Space before it, Lifeline is a game that rises to the challenge of an overcrowded genre and even more stuffed app ecosystem. The game’s drip-feed of content – would-be fertile ground for predatory in-app payments – is used instead as an innovative way transform your relationship with the technology that sits at the centre of your life. Meanwhile, a tightly written story full of branching paths serves as a vehicle to test the boundaries of what mobile games can do, and challenge you to invest yourself in the fate of someone you’ve never met, stranded millions of miles away. Someone who also happens to be made of ones and zeroes.