Yesterday I wrote a bit about Mr Robot 1.51exfiltrait0n.apk, which is a fun, solidly-written game with some game-stopping programming issues. Today, it’s Lifeline, a game I saw tangentially mentioned in an article about Mr Robot.
Mechanically, Lifeline is similar to Mr Robot. You’re in contact with someone via a texting app. You have a limited number of responses (two instead of up to three). Because that person is doing things in the gameworld, their text conversations are spaced out: if it takes Taylor four hours to walk somewhere, he might contact you in four hours when he’s there.1
The setup for Lifeline is this: astronaut crashes on a moon, contacts you for help, you help him try to survive. I went in expecting The Martian. While the game starts off like that, it later turns into something like, oh… Leather Goddesses of Phobos.
You begin with Taylor at an escape pod with little or nothing around: he needs to survive and you provide him with advice (which, being a game, he’ll obey). A little less of Choose Your Own Adventure and a bit more of Choose Taylor’s Own Adventure.
There’s a neat thing where Taylor is relying on your advice: night is coming and there’s the crashed ship’s engine throwing of a lot of heat. It’ll keep Taylor warm, but he’s worried about the radiation: can you check to see if 150 rads over eight hours is life-threatening? You have to leave the app, look that up, and get back to him as quickly as you can. It’s a nice moment that takes advantage of the medium. Unfortunately, that’s the only moment like this in the game.
There’s concern about time and getting back to safety by nightfall, but that’s only in the first half of the game. By the time he gets to the start of the second half of the game — when he reaches the crater with the peak to the north — it’s like the whole game throws the “I have to help this guy survive” concept away.
The bit right there infuriated me. It’s obvious that the story continues in the direction of that peak to the north, but the way the entire game has been presented to us so far we’ve got to help this guy survive on an inhospitable planet. So we tell him to go back to shelter and he starts to, but decides against it.
While this is fantastic and reinforces that we’re just giving this guy advice and he’s free to do as he pleases, this is the only time in the game where doesn’t do what we suggest. Why didn’t he do that anytime before this? Unfortunately, the answer is: the rest of the game is at that peak to the north, so we’re going there.
It’s also illogical in the game’s fiction, yet when I keep telling him to walk away from the crater’s edge, back towards supplies and shelter, he’s constantly complaining how my choices are “anti-climatic” and “irrational”. Here’s what we know and what’s going on in the story to this point:
- Taylor has screwed his shoulder up and is in pain. Climbing will be rough.
- When night falls on this moon, the temperature plummets — there’s a good chance Taylor will freeze to death.
- Taylor has just walked four hours. Shelter is four hours behind him. Sunset will be in eight hours. (And if you’re in the bottom of a crater, you’re in darkness a few hours before sunset anyway.)
- Taylor is standing on the rim of a crater that is “a long way down into that crater”.
- He has no climbing gear and even states he doesn’t know if he will get down safely or if he will ever be able to get back out.
- We passed his escape pod, which had moved the night before when the winds on this moon picked up the chutes and dragged it.
- There is wreckage of at least two ships on this planet.
My options: “Go for it” or “Turn back now”.
See, turning back means Taylor can get back to a decent shelter in four hours. There, he can find a knife or maybe a jagged piece of debris to cut the chute free from his escape pod. Maybe cut the parachute into strips. Maybe braid those strips together to create a long rope. Maybe then go back to the crater the next day and use a rope to go down which would also give Taylor assistance to get out of the crater if he needs to. You know, because the game is all about being safe and keeping this guy alive.
But that course of action is irrational, so Taylor goes back to the shelter, goes towards the escape pod, is pissed off at me because Taylor is apparently eight years old and wants instant gratification, so he turns around, walking back to the crater and starts to climb in.
Which would mean it’s about nightfall when he does this. However, the game from this point on isn’t The Martian. Time of day no longer plays any part in the game: we don’t have to worry about keeping Taylor alive any more because this just turned into a basic knuckle-dragging text adventure game where you need to tie an onion to your belt to get past the Cyclops at the end of the Zoo of Death or whatever.
There’s a fight sequence Taylor gets into, where he’s texting furiously about what’s happening in the fight. This completely breaks the fictional construct.
There’s several bits in that last half where he’s startled by something and your responses are “Are you okay?” or “What happened?”, both of which aren’t really things that would branch the conversation. They feel like they’re in there to just break up Taylor’s constant stream of texts.
Similarly, there’s a few sequences where you’re giving Taylor the same command over and over, which also seem like they’re non-responses to break up Taylor’s descriptions.
That last half: so very, very disappointing.
That last half also breaks the other expectation of the game: that we’d be getting messages from Taylor with significant delays, letting you just go about your day and you get a notification two hours later and Taylor has finished searching the wreckage. Oh, it’s a casual game, and you can just pick it up whenever. But as soon as he’s scrambling to that peak in the north, you need to stick by your phone because everything switches from hours between updates to moment by moment updates.
That first half, so good. That last half, such a different game.
Skip this one. Save yourself the two bucks.
- Or in two hours if he’s bored and wants to tell you what he’s seen so far. [↩]