There’s a tendency in interactive fiction for authors to use fairly dry, prosaic description to bring players into their worlds. It works, but perhaps it’s fair to say that there is room for experimentation. What’s so special about Lifeline is that it dispenses with that omniscient narrator in a very specific way: through conversation. Lifeline engages the player directly with its main character: an astronaut stranded on a distant planet. What follows from this conceit is a game essentially formed as an extended conversation tree.
Technically, Lifeline is based on the Twine 2 language, but is dressed up in such a way that even those familiar with the format would scarce recognize it. The cold, grey metal textures of the UI echo a more utilitarian Star Trek communicator, but are subtle enough to seem at home on any modern mobile device. The game features limited play options (no restarts, toggles only for the music and sound effects) and after a brief introductory message, the fiction is only broken when the player opens the settings menu. From the get-go, the player is ostensibly, believably using a communication program to chat with and direct the protagonist.
The lost astronaut, Taylor, is very personable and easily empathised with, which makes it very easy for the player to invest in whichever the branching outcomes of the story they encounter. Lifeline avoids identifying its protagonist in terms of more obvious attributes such as race or sex, allowing those details to be filled in by the player. That is not to say Taylor is a blank slate or that s/he lacks personality – indeed, that is one of the strengths of the work. Taylor regularly discusses, protests or endorses the player’s suggestions and it’s consistently fun to engage with the erstwhile traveller.
The tone of the work is set immediately upon opening the application with an echoey, alien soundscape that despite hundreds of loops over the course of the game never seems to grow old. The reason why it stays fresh is presumably because the game is only played in very short bursts (roughly a couple minutes at a time). This is arguably one of the most important features of Lifeline: the fact that it unfolds in real time. The game takes place over the course of several real-world days – with messages from Taylor being relayed to the player through push notifications on their phone. After choosing their response, Taylor will go away for anywhere up to a matter of hours to complete whatever activity or goal the player advises them to engage with. This unique use of mobile device infrastructure makes Lifeline stand out among its peers.
For the most part, Lifeline steers away from trying to convey any sort of moral or political message – it possesses no overbearing themes and instead focuses on telling an engaging, yet ultimately pulpy science fiction story, with appearances from some familiar tropes. This is not to say the story lacks depth, however; there are many small details and deeper nuances to the plot and world that make the game worth replaying.
Where Lifeline fails, perhaps, is where it forces the player to choose from ‘Snarky Response 1’ or ‘Snarky Response 2’ and slightly hamfistedly railroads the plot in a specific direction. But for the most part, Taylor’s banter makes for a convincing enough reason to go with the flow. The endings can be rather abrupt or drawn out as the tension wanes and the player becomes increasingly unsure as to why Taylor is messaging them instead of running for his/her life.
Ultimately, Lifeline is a rare example of interactive fiction which takes advantage of the unique capabilities of the medium. Text messaging is the norm for almost everyone these days and Lifeline taps into that world; it slips very easily into the background of everyday life. It’s certainly not the most revolutionary mode of storytelling, but especially for the modest asking price (<$2) it’s worth a shot.