2015: Lifeline

by Dave Justus
Released: Apr 16, 2015 (App Store)
Developer: 3 Minute Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Language: Objective C, Twine (authoring)
Platform: iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch

Opening Text:

[incoming communication]
[establishing connection]
[receiving message]
Is this thing working?
Can anyone read me?

In the first week of May 2015, the #1 paid game on Apple’s mobile app store for countless months before and after—Minecraft—briefly lost its place on top. For a few days that week, the best-selling mobile game on the best-known software storefront in the world was a choice-based text adventure called Lifeline, which had also become the #1 title for the just-released Apple Watch. If it had still been easy to declare text games commercially dead five or ten years earlier, it was a little harder to do so that week in May, when hundreds of thousands of players had paid for an app that let them text with a fictional astronaut.

3 Minute Games had come together in late 2014 as a kind of skunkworks within casual gaming giant Big Fish. Led by Colin Liotta and Mars Jokela, it was tasked with making rapid mobile game prototypes, “testing different styles of games, different pay structures, seeing which combinations worked best.” A new feature announced at that year’s Apple’s developer conference had caught Liotta’s attention: developers in iOS 8 would be able to add actions directly to device notifications, allowing users to interact without needing to unlock and open a full app. Liotta had been musing about an asynchronous narrative game, and realized the new feature meant “it would be possible to let the player make choices directly from the notification and that they could actually play the game” that way. When the Apple Watch was announced a few months later, it seemed like “an absolutely perfect platform to launch the game on,” so the team rushed the concept into production, hoping to have something ready for the device’s launch day. The basic idea was of a game where you’d get texts from an astronaut in trouble who needed your help, “sort of like if The Martian were a game instead of a movie, and you got to talk to Mark Watney the entire time he’s stranded on Mars.”

All right, so my escape pod came down in some kind of desert.
The ground is all cracked white rock. There's a huge white peak a few miles away.
Or, uh, kilometers, I guess. (They tried to get me to think metric for the trip, but some things are just hardwired.)
It's weirdly symmetrical, like it might not be a natural formation.
My IEVA suit's compass places the peak northeast, and then, i the opposite direction -- south and southwest, to be precise --
...are two funnels of black smoke from what I have to assume are two pieces of the Varia.
Best case scenario, it's ONLY in two pieces.
The crash sites look closer than the peak. What do you think I should do?

- Check the crash. [tap]
- Head for the peak.

Yeah, cool, that makes sense. There might be other survivors... fingers crossed.
(It's not actually possible to cross your fingers in an IEVA suit, but just take my word on it.)
Or at the very least, there should be some supplies I can use.
Okay, I'm headed south now. Looks like the smoke is at least an hour away. Or whatever the metric equivalent of an hour is.
I'll let you know once I'm there.
[Taylor is busy]

The team reached out to a contract writer they knew, but he was busy and recommended a friend who was almost a complete unknown. Dave Justus was a Texas-based writer trying to break into comics, but he had only one professional credit, and “no background in games whatsoever.” He later liked to note that the most recent game he’d played before writing Lifeline was 1997’s Tomb Raider II. “3 Minute really took a chance on an unknown quantity when they brought me on board,” he later recalled.

They gave me some parameters—this was to be a science fiction story about a marooned astronaut…—but otherwise gave me free rein to create the character and world, which was a big gamble on their part.

Justus had just five weeks to write a novel-length branching story, doing most of the worldbuilding, character development, and plotting on his own: “free to do whatever I wanted... which was both amazing and daunting.” Certain parameters had already been set: choice points could only have two options with just a few words in each, to minimize scrolling on a tiny Watch screen; the main character should remain ungendered so players might imagine them however they liked. Justus decided to make his protagonist a young lab assistant rather than an experienced hero, to better explain why they needed constant help from the player and who could be relatably freaked out by crash-landing on an alien moon. Messages would arrive in short bursts just like texts, so the writing had to convey character and situation while still being economical. And another key part of the concept was that Lifeline’s messages would arrive in real-time. If Taylor went to sleep, you’d have to wait until the next morning to hear back; if the reluctant astronaut needed to climb down a steep slope into the bottom of a crater, the player might need to wait an hour or two for an update.

Holy crap. It’s a lot further than it looked. My legs feel like Jell-O, and I’m maybe halfway there.
Great. And now all I can think about is how much I want Jell-O.
[Taylor is busy]

“We wanted Players to be tense, anxious to see whether their advice had been Taylor’s doom or salvation,” Justus recalls. “When people are playing it, it’s not just about the time that they’re interacting with Taylor. It’s all the rest of the time when they’re thinking about Taylor. The whole goal was to make something that would become a part of people’s lives.”

Okay. At long last, I'm in sight of the Varia. Or what's left of it, at any rate.
It seems to have cracked hard once it hit atmosphere. 
Like I figured, it came down in two major chunks...
...with a ton of scattered debris thrown around just to make the whole scene look terrifying and post-apocalyptic.
(In case anyone asks, it's working; I'm appropriately terrified.)
Looks like the flight deck came down pretty far from the crew quarters. Where do you figure I should go first?

- Look for the crew.
- Check the flight deck.

While not a gamer as an adult, Justus had played on the original Nintendo Entertainment System as a kid, and enjoyed text adventures on his parents’ Apple IIe—The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had been a particular favorite. He’d also been a “voracious reader as a child—the sort who would read the back of cereal boxes, just because they had words on them,” and had a collection of several dozen Choose Your Own Adventure books. But he was unfamiliar with interactive fiction since the 1980s, had never been to a game design conference or meetup, and was facing such a crushing deadline that there was little time to study up on design or craft wisdom. “I honestly think, in this case, that worked to my advantage,” he recalls, “because I wrote the game purely as a conversation. I wasn’t thinking in terms of... typical video game structures; rather, I wanted it to feel as much as possible like the Player was receiving texts from a real human being.”

OH MY GOD! You'll never believe it!
I'm still walking around a moon crater and it's still boring as hell!
...Sorry. I was just going a little bonkers, with nothing but the sound of my own thoughts.

- No worries. Wanna chat? [tap]
- Sorry. No time to chat.

Yes! Please. I mean, I don't want to be a bother, but you're kind of all I've got.

While the real-time delay mechanic smacked of the forced waiting common in free-to-play apps—where in-app purchases could skip over long delays—perhaps because of the project’s status as experiment rather than premeditated moneymaker, the creators included no such gotchas. “You can’t speed up time with a few hundred gems,” one reviewer noted. “You must be patient.” The game was designed to take place over three real-time days, or longer if the player didn’t always immediately respond (time doesn’t advance while Taylor waits for a reply). The team thought there was a serious chance the concept could fall flat. “This sort of approach ought, by rights, to backfire,” a reviewer wrote, “leaving gamers furious at shelling out for an app they can’t play. But amazingly, it works.” Another wrote that “by isolating interactions to sparing moments throughout the day,

Lifeline infuses your normal grind with a palpable sense of adventure and consequence. During my playthrough, it’s not an exaggeration to say that I woke up nervous about what might have happened to Taylor, or paused in mid-conversation with colleagues to check on the outcome of a decision I had made... The game’s drip-feed of content—would-be fertile ground for predatory in-app payments—is used instead as an innovative way [to] transform your relationship with the technology that sits at the centre of your life.

“As counterintuitive as it sounds, there’s something about interacting with Taylor through text messages that can feel very intimate,” game critic Laura Hudson wrote: “perhaps because we’ve grown so accustomed to communicating our most personal thoughts with our friends through texts—and waiting for their responses with bated breath.” The unlikely notion that people would enjoy reading text on the tiny screen of an Apple Watch turned out to be a non-issue: reading bite-sized chunks of text off miniature screens had long since become entirely normalized.

Justus used Twine to lay out and write his story, finding it a workable tool for someone like him with no technical background: the 3 Minute Team would later process the story file format to adapt it to their own proprietary engine. While the game’s overall plot follows the same general spine regardless of your choices, several small subplots and asides can be discovered; and, as in the classic gamebooks, there are lots of ways for Taylor to die. (After finding one, the game lets you rewind to an earlier choice and try again, and unlocks the option to disable real-time delays.) While many choices are frustratingly blind and it’s not always clear how to lead Taylor to success, on occasion the game shakes up its formula in intriguing ways. In one early scene Taylor asks whether exposure to a certain level of radiation is likely to prove fatal: you can guess, or you can actually do the research to look it up—something which became much easier in the wake of the game’s huge success, with Google helpfully pointing any remotely related searches toward Lifeline-inspired answers.

Lifeline’s explosive popularity would lead to a wave of copycats and official sequels, the first coming just five months after the original. The game’s success was a combination of great timing and great execution: a clever idea, some snappy writing, and a launch on a new platform where few other apps were yet available. “It’s the first game I’ve loaded on my Watch that is not only fun to play,” said TIME Magazine, “but fun to play specifically on a wearable.” Though distant from the innovations in technology or design happening in other commercial text games, Lifeline demonstrated the genre’s appeal even with the most straightforward of foundations. The team were blown away by the game’s unexpected success: by 2019 the series had amassed seven million installs. “The download numbers were staggering enough,” Justus recalls, “but then we started seeing fan art, cosplay, fan fiction. It was, frankly, completely overwhelming.” After some corporate reshuffling and a hiatus where the future of the series was in doubt, as of 2021 the original team have reunited to work on more games in the Lifeline universe and style.

“Texting adventures,” Jokela calls them.

Next week: the episodic mobile games that brought interactive fiction to millions more new readers.

Lifeline is available for various platforms from 3 Minute Games. Dave Justus is on Twitter @dave_justus. A major source was a 2019 interview on Brunette Games which is no longer online, but provided the quotations unattributed inline.