“Help me.” These two words kick off Lifeline…, propelling you headlong into one of the most engaging pieces of interactive fiction in modern gaming.
A second message appears — “Hello? Is this thing working? Can anyone read me?” — and buttons for two simple replies. Tap one and your answer is sent into the ether. You discover you’re communicating with Taylor, an astronaut of unknown gender, and Taylor is in a bit of a pickle.
There’s been a spacecraft crash of monumental proportions. Taylor’s survived, but is marooned on a distant world, surrounded by twisted metal and broken bodies. Despite being armed with a vivacious sense of humour, Taylor’s not armed with anything else, and you soon feel even the bubbly replies are little more than a shield, attempting to block out the horrific predicament that’s presented itself.
Taylor’s also not great at making decisions, and so absolves that responsibility to you. Try the galley or stick with rat food? Camp by a heat source emitting possibly lethal radiation, or risk the planet’s sub-zero night? Search for strange glowing scuttling things in the dark, or stay put and hope they were a figment of the imagination? You press buttons and Taylor responds accordingly.
This is hardly cutting-edge game structure. In the late 1970s, similar stories played out in print, by way of Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks. On mobile, the excellent 80 Days recently took such branching narratives to their logical conclusion, with pacey, fluid dialogue threaded through a race around the globe at the service of a drunken gambler with a penchant for making stupid promises.
By contrast, Lifeline… might be brutally simple, but a day or so in, it seems more sleek and elegant than pared back. In part, this is down to excellent writing, Dave Justus (Fables: The Wolf Among Us) providing a compelling, emotionally charged script that makes you care what happens to Taylor; you feel like you’re communicating with a real person rather than receiving a series of canned responses from an app. Additionally, the game cleverly plays with time. Conversations happen quickly, but when Taylor needs to sleep or hike across a crater, it might be hours before the next reply.
It’s a curious device, especially in a gaming ecosystem that typically prizes immediacy. But the sense of anticipation transforms a simple text adventure into an exciting and sometimes oddly stressful experience, enabling your imagination to run away with you regarding decisions you’ve made on Taylor’s behalf. (After a couple of playthroughs, a ‘fast mode’ option appears, for the impatient. The game also sensibly ‘pauses’ Taylor’s actions until you access the app, but this doesn’t detract from the effect.)
The masterstroke, however, might be Apple Watch support. Lifeline… is fine on an iPad or an iPhone, boasting a moody background soundtrack. But on Apple’s wearable, silent though that version is, there’s a sense of intimacy that’s lost when tapping out replies on a larger device. Given that it’s currently surrounded by a universe of mediocrity, it’s perhaps not saying much to call Lifeline… the best Apple Watch game so far; but it says a lot that you’ll frequently return to it regardless of other gaming systems you own, because sessions are short but rewarding, the story is compelling, and Taylor’s life is in your hands (or at least on your wrist).