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Game Review: Who Killed Jason Leder? On 'Lifeline: Crisis Line'

 

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The "cover," or loading screen.

Junior Writer/Designer Dexter Woltman here with a game review for you. At Brunette Games, we're all big fans of the Lifeline game series, so I thought I'd take a moment to review Crisis Line. If you love the mystery genre, you should definitely check it out.

Who killed Jason Leder? That’s the question everyone is asking in Lifeline: Crisis Line, a game of interactive fiction that allows the player to shape the story as it unfolds. Written by Matthew Sturges, this mobile game sets the player in the position of a HelpText volunteer. After being contacted by Austin homicide detective Alex Esposito, the player is asked to assist in a murder investigation, one that spins a tale of suspense, mystery, and unexplainable circumstances.

Crisis Line is one of numerous installments in Big Fish’s Lifeline series, where players are put in contact with well-developed characters facing dangerous situations in real-time. Previously on the blog, Lisa conducted an interview with Dave Justus, the author of the original Lifeline installment and its various sequels, Lifeline 2: Bloodline, Lifeline: Silent Night, and Lifeline: Halfway to Infinity. This installment set squarely in the mystery genre proves the series has legs far beyond its first author.

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Your chat companion this time is Alex Esposito, a detective who unofficially deputizes the player into becoming his partner on a murder investigation. The victim is Jason Leder, a lawyer who had recently been put in charge of selling mysterious crystals with unexplainable powers. With the crystals missing and no suspects, it’s up to the player to help Alex progress through the investigation and solve the case.

While the original Lifeline story put players in contact with a stranded astronaut on a desolate moon, Lifeline: Crisis Line finds its main character in a less isolated environment, on the streets of Austin. With a populated setting and numerous characters for Alex to interact with, it feels as if there’s more to this world than just the player and the main character. In addition, the concept of Lifeline: Crisis Line also takes a different format. Rather than just trying to survive, as in the original game, in this one, players try to solve a murder. This allows the opportunity to choose which clues and suspects to follow, as well as orchestrate numerous interrogations and interviews with other interesting characters.

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However, with this expansion also comes a greater suspension of disbelief. Despite taking place in a more realistic setting than other games in the series, such as the original game’s desolate moon or Lifeline: Whiteout 2’s nuclear wasteland, it can be harder to accept that the player has been put in communication with Alex Esposito. In the populated streets of Austin, Alex could talk with anyone. There are several other people at his immediate disposal, from an official partner at the police station to his own sisters. The game puts a lot of emphasis on Alex’s career and his dedication to the law, yet he blatantly obstructs confidentiality to talk about private details regarding a murder case to a complete stranger on HelpText. However, there's a clever acknowledgement of this, with Alex sarcastically mentioning, “Usually I only open up to strangers on the Internet,” when talking about his difficulties with trust.

One core aspect of Lifeline: Crisis Line is its emphasis on choices. In this regard, Lifeline: Crisis Line is a triumph. In most situations, the choices the player is left to make truly do impact the game's story. There are only a few instances where choices feel irrelevant, such as Alex disagreeing with the player on whether to add Jason Leder’s wife to the suspect list, regardless of which choice the player actually makes. However, most of the time, the choices do feel relevant. Not only can the player make choices that determine Alex's survival, but the player can also frame choices regarding clues and suspects, all which play heavily into the ultimate goal of the game, which is to solve Jason Leder's murder. Depending on the player’s eagerness to explore or willingness to put Alex’s life in danger, it may be a lot easier - or more difficult - to reach that goal.

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The choices also allow the player to shape what kind of detective Alex Esposito is. One prime example is when Alex is interviewing a close confidant of Jason Leder. This confidant, truly heartbroken by Jason’s death, is presented in a very fragile state. It is up to the player to decide whether Alex should tell the truth about the gruesome reality of Jason’s death or instead tell the confidant that it was quick and painless, ultimately weighing emotion against duty. Situations like this are presented frequently throughout the game, allowing various opportunities to discover which manner of detective work is best needed for each encounter.

The choices presented give players the opportunity to shape the game according to their own needs. One example is when Alex describes the details of the murder to the player and asks whether the player wants him to leave the gory details out of his description. Ultimately, this allows players to filter the game to their own sensitivities. There are also choices that allow players to either stay focused on the main story or allow it to be derailed at moments to explore the depth of Alex’s character. It entirely depends on player choice.

One distingquishing aspect of gameplay for Lifeline: Crisis Line is its “idle” time. Idle times are moments in the game when Alex is occupied with something and is away from the conversation, intending to immerse the player in a real-world environment. In the aforementioned interview, Justus remarked, “The ‘idle' time was essential to Three Minute's concept of a real-time conversation; it takes time for the characters to walk to a new location, or to eat a meal, or to rest for a bit.” Sturges upholds this aspect of idle time to good effect, often having Alex take breaks from HelpText to rest or drive. These idle times are also presented realistically, with one example being a drive taking 30 minutes instead of 15 due to traffic.

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Idle times also present players with opportunities to take a break from the game without becoming overly addicted. However, it should be noted that the game does also offer a “Fast Mode,” which skips the idle times entirely. But as Justus points out in relation to the original Lifeline game, “What we found was that, overwhelmingly, the majority of players chose to switch back to ‘real-time’ after trying ‘fast’ mode. The preference for the delays is considerable.” It is true that playing in real-time does add a greater sense of depth to the story that makes it seem more vibrant and present in everyday life.

Further mechanics of the game also include the ability to rewind the story to previous choices and re-make them. For players curious about all the possible branches for each choice, this feature will be welcome. It also allows players the opportunity to go backwards in the story if they reach an untimely situation in which a choice has led to Alex’s death.

However, this also means that the makers of the game were aware of this feature and thus, more willing to create intense situations with a lot of potential for failure. At several points in the game, Alex finds himself stuck in a difficult encounter where every choice seems to lead to death, truly forcing the player to double back and examine the outcomes of each potential choice. While this may become infuriating at times, it does succeed in demonstrating the danger and high stakes of this particular murder case.

 Justus laid a lot of groundwork for the Lifeline series, especially regarding the Greens, an alien species often referred to as “Occupiers” that like to take host in living bodies and assume control of the body’s mind. The Greens are a primary focus throughout the series, with Lifeline: Crisis Line even being labelled as part of the “Green Series.” In most cases, the story of Lifeline: Crisis Line stands on its own. However, there are multiple instances where Sturges works to connect Alex’s murder investigation with the Greens. It’s not necessary to have played the other games to understand these moments of the story, but these instances do take prominence and often distract from the ultimate goal of solving the investigation.

The presence of the Greens in Alex Esposito’s story is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s nice for the game to reference other games in the series and maintain an overall narrative in the Lifeline universe. On the other hand, this alien story often distracts the player from the more grounded story of discovering who killed Jason Leder. Just when the game is cementing an emotional connection between Alex and the player, an alien shows up and traps Alex in a space-like realm, entirely withdrawing the player from the immersion of what should be the focus of the game. The aliens add a touch of surprise to the story, but it’s not necessarily the kind of surprise the game needs.

 

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Source, all images: 3 Minute Games.

The Greens distract from the main thread up until the ending moments of the game, which itself is a weak point to an otherwise fulfilling adventure. Without giving away any spoilers, the endgame does a great job of making players feel accomplished in their investigation of Jason Leder’s murder. However, the fault comes in the game’s very last moments, where even the best achievable ending of the game leaves Alex in an uncertain fate, ending on a cliffhanger that sets up a sequel that has yet to be seen. Even though HelpText assures the player they did the best they possibly could, certain players may not be able to help but feel their efforts less impactful than in other games in the series.

Lifeline: Crisis Line is a well-woven tale of mystery and suspense. Its main character is very well-developed and sure to entertain the player throughout the entirety of the story. Sturges takes the Lifeline formula and applies it to a new environment, cementing the player in a deep murder investigation that breathes new life into the series with a strong narrative and solid framework of mechanics. In addition, Sturges proves he can respect the original writer’s legacy by establishing the Greens as a factor in the story. While this factor may seem overly distracting to some players, others may appreciate its deep ties to the rest of the series. Ultimately, the promise of Lifeline: Crisis Line is to engage players in a choice-driven, real-time story. Not only does it succeed in this promise, but it may even surprise players with its extraordinary depth and numerous twists. All in all, this is an entertaining game with more strengths than weaknesses. However, the only choice that truly matters in Lifeline: Crisis Line is whether you’ll allow it the chance to entertain you as well.

Lifeline: Crisis Line is available now on the App Store and Google Play. It was developed by 3 Minute Games and published by Big Fish.

Full disclosure: Lisa Brunette is former manager of the narrative design team at Big Fish. She consulted on Lifeline: Whiteout.

 


What Would You Like to Read on the Blog?

 

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

It's been a while--since January, actually--since I've posted on the blog, and for that I apologize.

Long story short, I've struggled with what amounted to two full-time jobs for the past year, since I took that visiting professorship at Webster University, AND AT THE SAME TIME, MY INDIE GAME STUDIO BLEW UP. Don't get me wrong; this is a good problem to have these days. But when your priority list exceeds the number of hours in a given week, some things need to drop off, and sadly, this blog was one of them. 

But I've missed it. And you--its reason for being. As I look ahead to hopefully a more life-balanced rest of the year, I'm mulling over what this blog should and shouldn't be, and I'd love to get your opinion. So I created a survey.

It's short. Survey Monkey tells me you can take it in two minutes. If you've got two minutes to spare, please weigh in on the types of topics and guests you'd like to see on the blog.

The survey is completely anonymous. I'm not collecting any data on who fills it out or when or why or what your first-born child's name is, I promise. I will analyze the results in the aggregate and pay attention to any "other" comments you've written, no names or strings attached.

And if you'd rather share your opinion in the comment section below this post, feel free. The survey asks general questions about reading and gaming habits and interests, and then basically asks what you'd like to see here on the blog in the future. I'm all ears. Thank you!

In case you missed that survey link above, here's a button! Go ahead and push it! Or click on it! Just go there!

 

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What If How the Story Ends Is Up to You?

An Interview with Lifeline Writer Dave Justus

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Dave Justus is author of the first and many other games in the Lifeline series from Big Fish—including the eponymous original; Lifeline 2: Bloodline; Lifeline: Silent Night; and Lifeline: Halfway To Infinity—which have enjoyed nearly 7 million worldwide downloads to date. He is also the co-writer, with Lilah Sturges, of the comic books Everafter: From The Pages Of FablesPublic RelationsFables: The Wolf Among Us; and more.
 
Lifeline games are games, but they're also novels. Part of the growing "interactive fiction" genre, the games are entirely text-based, with the reader making choices throughout. It goes like this: A stranded astronaut contacts you, asking for help in the form of a person to talk to as well as ask for advice. 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. 
 
Lisa: How did you get involved in writing the Lifeline series? Did you have any background in the game industry? What was the genesis for the first game?
 
Dave: I came to Lifeline in a sort of roundabout way. The original game was being developed by Three Minute Games, a tiny three-man skunkworks within Big Fish. They'd had some minor successes, but they'd come up with the concept for Lifeline and wanted its release to coincide with the release of the Apple Watch. They offered the job to my friend Daryl Gregory -- who is one of the best writers I've ever read, and I thought as much before I ever met him -- but he was too booked to do it, so he very kindly suggested me for the position. Three Minute took a chance on me (I'd barely been published at that point), and gave me tremendous freedom under a very tight deadline. They knew they wanted about three days of gameplay, a sci-fi story with a nongendered protagonist in a "choose your own adventure" style, and they needed it in five weeks. Beyond that, I was free to do whatever I wanted... which was both amazing and daunting.
 
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I had no background in games whatsoever, but I honestly think, in this case, that worked to my advantage. I'd been an avid NES gamer in my childhood, had spent plenty of time with Infocom games like Hitchhiker's Guide (whose DNA you can certainly see in Lifeline), and had played several Playstation games growing up, but the last one I'd really sunk any amount of time into was Tomb Raider 2, back in college. Once I graduated, I had very little "mad money," and I chose to apply that to comics (which I've been collecting since I was eight) rather than video games. But in the case of Lifeline, I think it worked out very well, because I wrote the game purely as a conversation. I wasn't thinking in terms of "power-ups" or acquiring weapons or 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. And the feedback we've gotten has largely indicated that that's exactly what people feel when they're playing: They're not controlling a sprite, they're talking to an actual person.
 
Lisa: How much text is in these games? As much as a typical novel, say 80,000 words, at least? Or far fewer? Also, you say they wanted three days of play, but I note there are breaks when Taylor is busy. What's the breakout between "idle" time and actual play? How did you figure out how long the breaks should be? What's the longest? The shortest?
 
Dave: The first Lifeline game is a little over 50,000 words -- more in the range of a novella, or possibly a YA novel. Because of the way I ended up structuring the game (in that I didn't really know what I was doing and wanted to give people the most bang for their buck), a Player who makes it to the end of the game alive will actually have seen the bulk of the game's text. Hopefully no passages that contradict any others, obviously... but I wanted to put as much info as possible on the screen.
 
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Lifeline 2: Bloodline had almost twice as many words. It was very freeing for me, because I felt like I could go into so much more depth on Arika's character, her world, and her quests... but it was a lot to ask of the team on the other end, specifically in terms of translation to other languages. For subsequent games, we've looked for a happy medium in terms of word count: not so much that it causes panic attacks at the Big Fish offices, but enough that the authors can stretch their legs a bit and the Players can, we hope, feel satisfied with the end result.
 
The "idle" time was essential to Three Minute's concept of a real-time conversation; it takes time for the characters to walk to a new location, or to eat a meal, or to rest for a bit. The first "long" break in the original Lifeline comes when Taylor sleeps on the first night -- the Player must give Taylor some information that creates a life-or-death scenario overnight, and we wanted Players to be tense, anxious to see whether their advice had been Taylor's doom or salvation. I believe that the longest break is six hours (for a character to sleep); delays can be as short as a couple of seconds, if we want to employ them to help with the timing of a joke or something. I originally feared that the breaks would be a turn-off to Players, that no one would want to wait an hour while Taylor walked around a crater. And indeed, after one death, the games give you the option to switch off the "real-time" mode and play with no delays whatsoever. But what we found was that, overwhelmingly, the majority of Players chose to switch back to "real-time" after trying "fast" mode. The preference for the delays is considerable.
 
Lisa: Let me return to what you said about wanting players to feel as if they're talking to an actual person instead of "controlling a sprite," and how your lack of game-industry experience felt like an advantage to you. This might rankle seasoned game writers and narrative designers, since we're quite serious about our craft and its tradition beyond power-ups and what's "typical." Have you since become part of the game-writing community, instead of a sort of self-described outsider? Or do you still see yourself that way? I'm asking because text adventures in particular have a history and set of best practices that predate what we think of as video games today.
 
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'Lifeline' Fan Art
 
Dave: Please believe me when I say that the last thing I intended here was to cause offense. When I say "typical" structures, I only meant the things that I, personally, thought of as aspects common to NES and arcade games, based on my own history with them. As I mentioned, I'd also played many text games back on my old Apple IIe, and I was primarily drawing from my (admittedly fairly hazy) memories of those while trying to construct Lifeline.
 
I would definitely still consider myself an outsider when it comes to game writing. I'm in Texas -- nowhere near Big Fish or Three Minute, out on the West Coast -- and I don't wind up getting to attend all the expos and conventions with them. I would be very interested if you could point me to resources for the best practices that you mention -- I perpetually feel like I sort of stumbled into success with Lifeline, and I keep waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, "We know you're just faking it. It's time for you to leave." That day is going to suck.
 
Lisa: Great answer ;). I'll send you some links later on so you can join the game-writing party! Next question: Older players or those younger who've discovered the series anew might compare Lifeline to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which were first popular in the 80s (I was a huge fan). Were those an inspiration for you?
 
Dave: They absolutely were. I was a voracious reader as a child -- the sort who would read the back of cereal boxes, just because they had words on them. My parents and grandparents, much to their credit, always indulged this behavior, so I had shelves and shelves of books, including probably two dozen or so Choose Your Own Adventure titles. The one that stands out in my mind, to this day, is Inside UFO 54-40, credited to Edward Packard -- it was a terrifying science fiction story, bleak to the point of nihilism, in which all paths led to defeat, and the best ending could never actually be reached. And it blew my tiny mind. It was the bridge between kids' books and adult literature for me. Once that book had broken me, I could not have cared less about Beezus and Ramona; I was ready for the Overlook Hotel and moon monoliths and Nadsat.
 
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More 'Lifeline' Fan Art
 
Lisa: I first came across your work back when I was with Big Fish, as manager of the narrative design team. How did the relationship between Big Fish and 3-Minute Games come about, in as much as you can share with readers?
 
Dave: I'm probably not the best person to answer this one. My understanding is that Three Minute were operating as a skunkworks under the auspices of Big Fish, coming up with all sorts of games like Feed Your Monster and Poll Party. Basically, they were testing different styles of games, different pay structures, seeing which combinations worked best. They had the idea for Lifeline -- from its style to its pay structure to its length, everything came from them. They had done the work in order to make the determination that this was the best admixture of elements... and they got it very, very right. How much I contributed to that, it's hard to say; they had laid the groundwork for me so well, all I had to do was step in and not completely fall on my face. I'm grateful every day that they set me up to succeed, and I'm happy that I was able to deliver something that achieved what they were hoping for.
 
Lisa: Let's talk about the structure for a Lifeline game. Branching choices can quickly lead to a very complex structure unless you create small branches that loop back to a main narrative, and/or employ the use of stats to track choices. How do you plot out the varying narratives in Lifeline
 
Dave: The "complex structure" that you mention is something I ran into very quickly when I was working on the first Lifeline. Even when you only provide binary choices -- which, so far, is all we've done -- those branches can quickly grow out of control as each one doubles, then doubles again, until from a single node you've created a mountain. I had to train myself to weave the elements back together, to keep things from ballooning out of control. When I took on the original assignment, I thought, "Oh, this will be just like writing a short story." But it's not; it's like writing thousands of very, very short stories, of a few sentences each. It took me a painfully long time to make that distinction, but once I did, I was able to realize where I'd gone wrong, and start to plot out "nodes" where the threads were drawn back together. That made my work so, so much easier.
 
I'm not a coder by nature. I use Twine as the basis for these games (and then a lot of proprietary processes happen afterward, most of which are beyond my comprehension), and in that program I do my best to branch and reconnect smoothly. It's a tremendously useful GUI for people like me, people who need their hand held throughout the process. No matter how carefully I've plotted things in advance, every Lifeline game has led me in unexpected directions; the story that wants to be told is, without exception, better and more interesting than the story I lay out at the beginning. I trust those feelings, trust that when Taylor or Arika or whomever pulls the narrative in an unintended direction, that I'm getting a real sense of what the story should be, instead of forcing it down avenues that aren't true to the characters. (This, by the way, is a fantastic way to drive the rest of the development team insane.)
 
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Lisa: What's an example of a node? Also, did those driving the process have a sense of what came before so you weren't all reinventing the wheel? What you're describing here reminds me of the awesome discussion over at Choice of Games, where they do a great job of teaching newbies how to avoid this kind of ballooning while preserving the need for meaningful choices. 
 
Dave: I think of nodes as "have-to" moments in the game. If, say, by the end of a day, Arika has to learn a certain piece of info, encounter a certain prop, have an opportunity to eat, and fight a specific foe, then I have four nodes for that day. If she can't move on without acquiring an object or having a conversation, then I know that, no matter how wildly things balloon, all roads must lead back to a single point. The order in which they're encountered may or may not matter, but generally speaking, these are the crucial passages; the Player's decisions upon hitting these nodes will have a major effect on what follows in the game. 
 
Lisa: How many different endings could players get in a typical Lifeline game? How do you make sure those endings make sense for the previous choices made in the game?
 
Dave: Generally, there are a few deaths along the way. These are paths where the Player has made an egregious mistake, or else has willfully decided not to aid the protagonist. Those are, of course, the "bad" endings -- no one should be proud of killing their hero. Then there are the "good" endings, where the Player has done most things right, and has achieved an ending that is satisfactory, although not the best one could hope for. The hope is that the Player will feel good about these... but will still have a nagging sense that they should return to the game, and work for the best possible ending. And we'll tell you when you've achieved that; we want Players to know when they've gotten all the items, or defeated all the villains, or done the best they can. I write stories with Pyrrhic victories, sometimes -- blame Inside UFO 54-40 -- but there's always a "best" ending, and that's the canon ending that leads to the next game in the series.
 
Lisa: Does this ever backfire? It strikes me as different than most casual gameplay, where player character deaths are generally avoided. Do you lose some players by opting for Pyrrhic victories?
 
Dave: I had that fear at the outset, but to the relief of all of us, the Player reactions to character deaths seem to be a deepening of involvement, not an abandoning of the game. It seems to largely be the case that, if a Player loses Taylor by pushing the character too hard or by supplying incorrect information, there's generally a sense of culpability in the death that makes the Player want to try harder the next time. I've seen dozens, maybe hundreds, of people on social media expressing genuine grief and sadness over character deaths in the Lifeline games. 
 
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Lisa: (This last one's for my stepson, who loved the first game when it went viral at his high school a few years ago.) You set up Taylor as a gender-neutral character, an interesting choice. Can you talk about your reasons for that? My stepson notes that most of his classmates assumed Taylor was either female (most of the women did this) or split evenly between male or female (mostly guys).
 
Dave: The gender-neutrality of Taylor's character came from Three Minute Games, but I thought it was a fantastic idea. At that time, it was easier than I thought it would be to write such a character -- when gender signifiers are removed, you realize how similar a kick-ass male and female protagonist actually are. It's grown increasingly difficult, as Halfway To Infinity introduces a doppelgänger Taylor, to keep the pronouns correct -- but I'm happy to face down that challenge. Seeing so much fan art for the character has made me realize just how much room we've left for interpretation. I don't consider that there's a "right" answer at all. People who know me have told me that they see a lot of me in Taylor... but for every argument for "male," I see another one, just as convincing, for "female." I love that I don't have a definitive answer. I hope that I never do. I hope that I can continue to write a character that resonates with everyone who reads it.
 
You can download the game to your favorite device. See the Big Fish Lifeline page for more info.