Stranded in Space: How ‘Lifeline’ Stole My Heart


Before now, the only app games I’ve played have been Angry Birds and Temple Run, so I’m not exactly well-versed in the art of playing games on my phone. That being said, I might just be sold on the idea. Lifeline is an app for iOS and Android (price ranging from totally free to around $1), and it is one of the most engaging and satisfying games I’ve played in a long time. Developed by 3 Minute Games, Lifeline is a genre-bending sci-fi RPG survival horror story mashup … thing. And it’s really, really good.

The game begins when you are contacted by Taylor, a gender non-specific astronaut who is the sole survivor of a disastrous crash on some far-flung moon, and as Taylor’s only point of contact, it’s your job to keep them alive. The narrative is structured much like a choose-your-own-adventure story where you’ll be confronted with situations and given two options to pick from. It’s exactly the right balance of plot and interactivity to keep you entertained. Some of these choices are easy and conversational, and some are much more serious. Sometimes you’ll find yourself confidently deciding on one, where others you’ll be second-guessing both yourself and the game.

A lot of these situations rely heavily on tried-and-true horror tropes, with Taylor hearing strange noises in the dark and wondering whether to investigate or get the hell out of dodge. But although this could have gone either way, it’s actually something I really loved, because the game is extremely genre-savvy. Taylor will even point out the similarities to a horror movie; “Right now, I’m the idiot on the screen.”

In practice, this basically means that Lifeline knows exactly how to play off your expectations in order to subvert them. You’ll have to balance objective logic with your gut instinct, and often, the choices that everything is telling you are stupid—the game and Taylor themselves, included—turn out to be right on the money.

"Can anyone read me?" "I read you." "Oh, thank God! It's so good to have human contact!"
“Can anyone read me?”
“I read you.”
“Oh, thank God! It’s so good to have human contact!”

So in form, then, Lifeline is not exactly unique, although it reworks tropes in a way that keeps you on your toes. However, the biggest difference between Lifeline and most other games I’ve played of this sort is that here, you’re guiding someone other than yourself. For me, my relationship with Taylor was the strongest part of the game. They, themselves, are fabulous. They’re well-rounded, good company, and react to things with a satisfying mix of fear and humor; “If I weren’t terrified of dying alone in deep space at any given second, I’d take a moment to be really, really awed.” Taylor feels like a real person; they get grumpy and annoyed, they get scared, they’re impressively funny and charming, and they even have some degree of autonomy, refusing to listen to your suggestions if you frustrate them enough.

As you hear Taylor complain and snark their way across the moon, you’ll grow increasingly attached to them. It feels like you’re guiding a fully-realized person to safety. There are several moments when you’ll find yourself just chatting, and getting to know Taylor is honestly the best part of the game. I felt like I had a real connection to a real person (don’t judge my social life), which made my responsibility of looking out for them all the more engaging.

The moments when your choices are validated—by finding food, shelter, or even just not getting Taylor killed overnight—feel great. The game gave me a real sense of achievement and completion that other choice-based games I’ve played recently just didn’t (*cough* Dragon Age *cough*). On the flipside, the moments when you screw up are devastating. The element of danger is omnipresent for Taylor, and steering them to safety is utterly rewarding.

Despite how intense it might all sound, the game is delightfully low maintenance. Not all of Taylor’s messages need responses, as sometimes they’re just updating you on what’s going on, and even those that do need your input can be left hanging for as long as it takes you to get round to them. Miraculously, this doesn’t take away from the sense of urgency when you’re actually playing the game as it can with many RPGs. “Sorry,” I’ve often found myself saying as I perform some mundane side-quest, “but saving the world can wait.” Taylor’s situations always feel real and important—no matter how long you’ve kept them hanging.

There are also lots of natural pauses in gameplay, as there are long breaks in-between groups of messages while Taylor is sleeping or walking or performing some other task. When they’re not currently in contact with you, the app will simply say “Taylor is busy.” This again adds to the sense of realism as you can’t whack through the (ultimately very short) game in a single afternoon. Instead, Taylor will talk to you on and off for however long it takes you to complete the game—probably a couple of days overall, although I managed to stretch it out over a whole week.

"Are you all right?" "I managed to get the pod's mobile transmitter working, but -- lucky you -- you seem to be the only one in range of the signal."
“Are you all right?”
“I managed to get the pod’s mobile transmitter working, but — lucky you — you seem to be the only one in range of the signal.”

Because the game is so small (it’s an app! Come on), it will sometimes funnel you in a particular direction to make you follow the plot, but the couple of times I was aware of this happening, it never felt unnatural or forced. Although there were not always direct consequences for my actions that continued to affect the story, Taylor’s chatter (and, yes, complaining) always made it feel like every one of my choices had importance and meaning. There are still whole branches of the story I left unexplored, and though I only finished the game this afternoon, I’m already tempted to head right back in again.

The funneling effect did make me a little cocky, though, as it sometimes felt like there was no wrong answer. On the contrary, it is perfectly possible to fail, as I learned to my (and Taylor’s) cost. The moment I got the chilling message [Connection terminated] was actually surprisingly emotional, considering the game is essentially just scrolling text sent out at intervals. I was genuinely moved by Taylor’s fate—the direct result of my own choices—and even later, when replaying for a second chance. Whenever Taylor thanked me for saving them, I felt a twinge of guilt over that one time I didn’t. Towards the end of the game especially, I grew increasingly worried for Taylor’s safety in the times when they weren’t messaging me and I had no idea what was happening to them—moments which often came at the most inopportune times, creating impressive cliffhangers.

My friendship with Taylor, the knowledge that I absolutely could get them killed, and the uncertainty over what was the right choice made the game utterly engaging, precisely because of my relationship with Taylor. Had I been making decisions that affected me, the game just wouldn’t have packed the same emotional punch. When playing games, you get used to seeing your avatar die. Games like Life Goes On are even parodying the fact that video game death can cease to have any meaning. But when it is Taylor—sweet, funny, scared Taylor—who is in danger, and it’s your responsibility to save them, suddenly it’s not so trivial anymore.

For a game that’s so low-budget—and under $1!—Lifeline is incredibly impressive. It tells a better story and is more engaging than a lot of $60 big-name RPGs. The writing is great, the choices are not clear-cut, and the element of waiting in real-time to be updated works both to keep the game low maintenance and to build suspense. It’s well-made and satisfying, and keeps you invested throughout. Wonderfully, it manages to maintain a level of intensity while still being low effort and charming.

And the best part is Taylor. Your responsibility for someone who feels so much like a real friend makes the game both pretty tense and extremely gratifying. Taylor’s successes are your successes, and your failures hit ten times harder. It’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster—especially towards the end—but the sense of achievement you’ll feel is second to none. I don’t want to be overly gushy, but seriously. I really loved this game.

"Connection lost."
“Connection lost.”

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