I’ve been a gamer for 90% of my 33 years on this earth. I kind of hate to say it, but I am a “hardcore” gamer. I hate to say it, because I don’t really think gamers need to be split into groups. That said, my gaming history has left me not all that interested in the mobile phone/tablet space other than for some mindless games to pass a few minutes here and there. Self-identifying as a hardcore gamer has not left me a snob, however. I understand and appreciate the casual space that mobile has monopolized and I think it’s great that there are games for everyone, but I just never saw myself truly loving a game or a game’s story on mobile. When I’ve been able to play things like The Last of Us, Journey and Enslaved on my various PlayStation consoles, I never felt like a mobile game would rope me in and make me want to finish it.
Then I had a few days with Lifeline.
I purchased this because I had some Amazon Appstore coins just sitting around and I caught a sale for 99 cents. I figured between the fact that the game was free to me (those coins were earned as promos) and it was getting very positive reviews, there was no reason not to give it a shot. Even though choose-your-own-adventure text games were never my thing, I thought maybe this would hold my interest.
The story is a sci-fi tale of a crashed space ship on a somewhat unknown planet with only one person surviving. That one person is Taylor, who you are tasked with both being a friend and a person to help guide Taylor to safety, hopefully back on a ship headed back to earth.
The text in the game comes in small chunks with a little animated ellipsis letting you know that more text is being sent in from Taylor. On a somewhat regular basis you get the chance to interact with Taylor either by giving commands, such as go here/do this, or to act as Taylor’s sounding board when things aren’t going so well.
This all sounds pretty basic for any text based game, but there is a twist and it works to make the game much, much more compelling than it might be otherwise. I’ve heard some people call it “ambient” storytelling, I’ll just call it what it is and that is a game that uses time and your notification tray to great effect. At certain points within the story, when giving Taylor a suggestion to go on a certain path, you’ll get a message saying [Taylor is busy] and you’re left to wait.
Here’s where the genius use of the Android or iOs notification system comes in. While you are waiting for Taylor, you really are waiting. Sometimes minutes and sometimes hours, but never are you left staring at the screen waiting for what’s to come next so you can continue on. Instead, you put the game aside and the phone back into your pocket until you get the buzz… Taylor’s back and needs some more help.
This feature helps the game seem more immersive. You can really picture telling Taylor to go towards the peak of a mountain only to have to wait a few hours until your next notification. It allows the mind’s eye to envision someone on a distant planet moving around in real time, doing their best to survive and getting back to you as soon as they can for some advice. The other way the timing and use of notifications helps to make this game greater than the sum of its parts is that, due to it’s nature of being “real-time”, the story is put into nice, digestible chunks which doesn’t make you waste 2 hours going back and forth with inane choices that I think end up as commonplace in other text adventure games.
As you follow Taylor on her (or him, I don’t think this was specified and I think a gender neutral name was used to allow the user to picture the person as they please) journey, you get sucked in deeper and deeper and you reach for your phone as fast as possible to see if Taylor is getting back to you, only to see a stupid real-life friend has bothered to text you.
While this sounds all like very serious stuff, Taylor is rather sarcastic for having to fight for her survival. There were a few times Taylor’s responses gave me a little laugh which helped to keep the story from feeling like nonstop, oppressive doom. I’m not sure if sarcasm is the “realistic” choice given the situation, but we’re talking about someone lost in space, realism isn’t paramount.
Choices matter and that was proven to me on more than a few occasions. You can push Taylor in the wrong direction and she will die from your poor choices. You then start the story over from that beginning of the day you failed (the story is split into three days) and at least you know the right path to choose once you get back to where you sent Taylor to die in an alien abyss. I failed three or four times and I think it actually made the game more entertaining in the long run, because I got to go down a few of the story’s forks-in-the-road.
I haven’t discussed story too much here, and that’s how any and every review should be for this game. The less you know going in, the deeper you’ll be able to immerse yourself into the story. The game reaches a stratifying ending while also leaving a few questions for you to ponder. It left me wanting more, but it’s probably a good thing the game didn’t give into the desire. This game, played over 4 or 5 days is perfect. It doesn’t offer much replay value beyond that (failing while going through your first time should give you enough opportunity to see a lot of the story’s choices), but it is absolutely worth a few dollars and your time. I can see this formula being copied quite a bit going forward, I just hope credit goes where credit is due. Stop reading this and go download this game on device of choice.