I didn’t know Taylor before the crash. I don’t really know what kind of grades she got in school (they must have been decent if she got to go on the expedition), I don’t know about her family, or where she’s from. With a name like “Taylor” I don’t really even know if she’s a “she”. All I know is that my phone can somehow receive her messages and I’m the only person in the world she has right now.
Lifeline is an interactive story available on your mobile device where you speak with Taylor via text messages. She’s the sole survivor of a science expedition whose ship crashed onto the surface of some unidentified moon. Dialogue is mostly one-way with Taylor describing through texts what she sees or what she’s doing. She’s a chatty sort, sending long strings of pithy and sarcastic messages, but then again, she’s a kid, alone and afraid with little food and water on some cold rock. Occasionally she’ll ask for advice and that’s where Lifeline’s interactivity occurs. Taylor will pose a question like asking if she should sleep near the ship’s damaged but still somewhat active engine– the problem being the chance of significant radiation poisoning– or risk freezing to death out in the openness of this strange moon. Your choice/advice affects the branching story and Taylor’s fate.
It takes time for Taylor to accomplish anything. For instance, hiking to a distant peak to get a better vantage point takes her a few hours and it might be a while before you hear from her again. I really like that delay of the narrative as it’s often enough time to forget about Taylor, but then hours later worriedly wonder why she hasn’t checked in. I started the game early one work day and it was odd balancing real-life problems with responding to Taylor’s spurts of messages.
(Though I just want to point out that if someone in real life was in that sort of trouble I probably would be better about getting back to them in a timely manner. Plus, I obviously would have notified some sort of authorities. HELP. COLLEGE KID STRANDED IN SPACE. FOR SOME REASON SHE’S TAKING MY ADVICE.)
Here’s where we get into spoiler territory so if you care maybe play the game before reading further. It’s definitely worth a try.
With Lifeline I broke my number one rule about interactive fiction: only play through the story once. The thing about most pieces of interactive fiction is that they rarely hold up to repeated scrutiny. The more times you experience them, the more it becomes apparent that the story isn’t quite as branching as it seemed at first and that the choices you make don’t have as much impact as you thought they did. (That’s no indictment of these stories, just a fact that their development cannot possibly give equal weight to all possibilities without requiring an enormous amount of writing and time.)
My first playthrough of Lifeline ended with a “bad” ending. Taylor got an alien parasite inside her and I’m not sure that’s ended well for anyone, really. I was determined to save her, to get the “good” ending, so I restarted the story. And restarted the story. And restarted the story once more. After your first completion of Lifeline you can rewind to past choices instead of starting completely over, but I typically started over since I couldn’t always tell which of my choices were setting up the ending I got.
I grew weary of Taylor and far less sympathetic to her plight with each playthrough. Her exuberant sarcasm was no longer so endearing. I was tired of hearing that she was “more freaked out than she’s ever been” at every little thing. I also came to realize that in the greater structure of this story you don’t have as much influence as you think you do and even though the choices you’re offered seem to diverge, most often they lead to the same place. With each playthrough I screamed louder and louder at my phone, “Just listen to me! That way is death! DEATH!” Typical conversation.
I finally got what seemed to be the good ending– Taylor got off that moon unscathed– and a decent number of lingering questions had been answered. Sadly that moment wasn’t nearly as momentous as it should have been, I was just happy that I would no longer get any more of those “Taylor is waiting for you” nudges. Geez, I know Taylor, I know. I’m busy.
I know I’m ending this on a low note (again I really should have stopped playing after that first finish) but I do want to make it clear that Lifeline is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced on my mobile device and I’m glad that I tried it. It’s the first piece of interactive fiction I’ve played outside my desktop/laptop and Lifeline’s use of the platform is extraordinary, realizing that you’re likely to have your phone with you at all times and taking advantage of that by telling its story through real time. When I started Lifeline I was gripped by its narrative and I was completely invested in the safety of a plucky stranger stranded in space.
I promise, if any of you crash onto an alien moon and I’m the only one you can reach, I’ll answer your text messages as soon as I can, so long as I don’t have to go to a department meeting at work or something.