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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.

 


Announcement: The Brunette Games Team

 

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There are 3 of us now, and we cast loooong shadows.

As many of you know, I've been busier than a hive drone for quite a while now as a number of career opportunities surfaced for me all at the same time. The good news is, now I have help, in the form of two super-talented students I had the pleasure of teaching this past year when I served as visiting professor at Webster University.

Tamsen and Dexter were two of my best students, and I'm over-the-moon excited to see what they can do with real-life game projects. 

With the new recruits, I also took the opportunity to articulate our unique standing in the industry. Here's the new "What We Do" statement:

We are specialists in narrative games. 

The Brunette Games team is passionate about story, and we love our stories best when they are interactive, when the person experiencing the story is not doing so passively but actively, interactively, as part of the story. A player is different from a reader. Players can shape their own characters and make decisions that affect how the story goes—and how it ends. Players want to solve problems, complete challenges. They want to win.

We are wordsmiths with a nerdy bent for logic, poets with pocket protectors, storytellers who know better than to let text get in the way of the game. We play a lot of games and read a lot of books. We also read a lot of games and play some books. We’re a rare breed in this industry and in the world, and that’s part of why we’re in demand and growing. The other reason is because we’re very good at what we do—some say the best.

We have design and writing expertise in the following genres: 

  • Interactive and visual novels
  • Chat fiction
  • Choose-your-own-adventure stories
  • Hidden-object puzzle adventures
  • Narrative match-3 builders and puzzlers
  • Narrative resource management
  • Hybrids of any of the above
  • Retail and party games

While our current focus is on mobile games, we also have experience on console and PC titles.

And here's an introduction to the new team members. They'll be joining me here on the blog, too, so stay tuned!

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Junior Writer/Designer Tamsen Reed is studying for the BA in Games and Game Design at Webster University, with plans to graduate in spring 2019. Through her course work, including Brunette’s classes in narrative design and world design, she has written video-game scripts and game text as well as scripts for TV/film and radio/podcasts. She’s currently developing her skills in visual scripting and 3D modeling.

Reed has a near-perfect GPA and has consistently made the Dean’s List. Prior to joining the team at Brunette Games, her real-world experience included office management, events coordination, and ticket management for Harbor Duck Adventures. 

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Junior Writer/Designer Dexter Woltman is currently a senior pursuing a degree in Scriptwriting at Webster University. He also has a near-perfect GPA and ongoing standing on the Dean's List. Through his coursework, he has written scripts for television, film, newscasts, radio, commercials, and games, particularly through Brunette’s game design and narrative design courses. 

Woltman is also currently interning with Coolfire Studios and has had real-world experience with event coordinating, client dealings, and production development, especially through previous employment at REM SouthCentral Services and at Escape St. Louis, which provides in-person escape-room games.

Join me in welcoming them to the team!

 


Women in Games, Story in Games: Two Videos

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Image source: @Wallstormer

Those of you who saw the buildup (part 1, part 2) and recap posts know all about PixelPop 2018, the highlight of the summer for many a game developer. I spoke on a panel discussion on women in games - one of the best treatments on this topic of the many I've taken part in. I also delivered a presentation on game storytelling, the official debut of the acronym "CMC," for the three main elements of game storytelling, as I see it: 

  1. Conflict
  2. Mystery
  3. Connection

If you wanted to come to my PixelPop talks and couldn't, never fear. You can watch both on video right here! Catch me now before I trademark CMC, and it all goes into the vault. (Kidding... I think.)

Conference Presentation

Panel Discussion

Hungry for more? Watch other videos here.

Correction: At the beginning of my presentation, I mentioned Cesar Chavez but meant to say Hugo Chavez. I seem to have a habit of flubbing a bit in the beginning of a presentation... until I get my footing, and then it's relatively smooth sailing after that. While I've done a lot of public speaking, especially for an introvert, I still get wildly nervous at the beginning of every talk.

 


Photos from PixelPop 2018 and the Big SLU Flashback Event

As mentioned previously, I gave a presentation this weekend at PixelPop Festival. (If you missed it and wish you hadn't, never fear. I'll be reprising the talk for the St. Louis Game Developers Co-Op in a couple of weeks. There's also coverage on the blog in the form of a two-part series: 1) Why Does Story Matter in Games? and 2) What Makes a Game Story Work? because apparently I'm obsessed with questions-as-headlines.)

Organizers Carol Mertz and Mary McKenzie Kelly and their super-cool army of volunteers did a fantastic job of creating and running a high-quality, highly-inclusive game con. More than one person I met commented on the open, friendly, encouraging atmosphere and the extremely helpful takeaways.

Here are some pics!

The expo hall was overwhelmingly dominated by console games, but I stumbled upon this awesome mobile game by developer Bravendary, and since I was tasked with judging games for the Select Award, I gave it my vote. Super Bobbert and the Infinity Tree is a "risk/reward collection game." You play by dragging your finger on the screen or tilting your device to move a pair of telescoping hands up a tree, rescuing kites, balls, and yes, cats--and avoiding collision with tree branches. I gave them some feedback about making the game more accessible to casual players, but I think it's super cute and has great potential. I'm excited to see two developers of color bringing something new to the table.

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Developer Philip Hayes demo-ing Super Bobbert.

One of the most interesting talks I attended was the fireside chat between Leah "Gllty" Hayes, a Street Fighter e-sports champion and Jason Li, a longtime fan and competitor in fighting games. Hayes first learned to play in the arcades of her youth here in St. Louis and is from nearby St. Charles. I knew nothing about fighting game culture and found her insights into the differences between U.S. and Japanese subcultures fascinating. For example, in Japan, gamers might be somewhat hostile to those outside the homogenous Japanese culture, but they are very supportive of women learning to game.

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Here's a demo of a game in development called Stepsisters. It's based on the darker, Grimm's fairy tale version of Cinderella, so the object is to, um, get your toes cut off in order to fit your foot into the glass slipper, marry the prince, and win the game. I feel kind of conflicted about it, but I was schooled on feminist references to classic fairytales in the style of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. What do you think?

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Created by students from Bradley University. Pictured here: Warren Guiles, who's in St. Louis this summer interning with Graphite Labs, and Jake Velicer. 
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Creepy, or cool? You tell me.

In the category of "That talk you wish you hadn't been late for" is Kevin Snow's presentation on accessibility in games, but I made up for it with a one-on-one afterward, and I managed to snap a pic of this super-helpful collection of resource links.

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Next is a couple of guys down from Chicago, reps from a student-run studio at DePaul University. I was drawn to their table because they had a bunch of books on display, and book/game crossovers are something I would like to see much more of at game cons. They used fish for controllers, so even though I'm not into fighting games, I had to play this one.

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Josh Delson of JDE, for Junior Development Experience.
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The game is called Sashimi Slammers.

One of the cool things about attending a game con in your own town is running into former students--which happened a lot! It was great to see so many game design majors from Webster University representing. Here's Sarah Brill, showing off a game she helped create through her summer internship with local developer Graphite Labs.

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Sarah created art for Compost Conundrum, an educational game about the value of garden composting.

Another Webster face in the crowd was my friend and former colleague Rob Santos, there showing off a unique game interface. You communicate with a spirit through a Quija Board to uncover a mystery in the game Good Luck. The planchette lights up over letters on the board, allowing the spirit to relate the tale.

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The creativity on display here is why students rave about Rob as a teacher.

I think I might have been the oldest presenter at this youthful con, but it's OK. I just told everyone the reason my hair is this color is because I'm a Targaryen.

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I chose "she" as my pronoun sticker only because "She Who Must Be Obeyed" wasn't an option.

Now in the headline I promised you something about a Big Flashback Event, and here it is. Some of you know last summer I moved back to the Midwest after nearly 20 years away. This con was at my alma mater.

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My dorm from 1989-90. Back then it wasn't emblazoned with the school's name.
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I staffed this cashier booth when the garage first opened. It's now undergoing renovation, and maybe I am, too.

To conclude this pic-laden recap, I've presented at and/or attended big cons like GDC, Casual Connect, AWP, and PNWA. But this is one of my favorites for the inclusivity, friendliness, and hometown vibe.

 


What Makes a Game Story Work?

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Clementine, from The Walking Dead. Image source: screen cap.

Last week, we talked about why story matters in games, looking at how we experience games as well as what data and market performance has told us. Now I'd like to dive into how to make story work in games. In my own narrative design, it comes down to these three elements:

  1. Conflict
  2. Mystery
  3. Connection

You'd think conflict would be a given, the default first step for any game designer working on a narrative project. But at least in my experience, you'd be wrong. I can't tell you how many games I've been asked to triage, and the first thing I see is that while there might be a lot of WORDS in the game, there's actually no story. Because there's no conflict. And without conflict, you have no drama, no story "stuff."

To quote my buddy Evan Skolnick:

The fuel of fiction is conflict.

    - Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques

Let's take an example from a highly successful game that managed to suck me in despite its lack of story. (Because that happens. All the time. Just because I said last week that story can make games better, and that's been proved by data, doesn't mean stories without games are failures. Or that every game needs a story. These are not absolutes, people.) Anyway, the game is Farmville 2: Country Escape. I love, love, love this game. But there's no story in the game because there is no drama. What it does have are a lot of cute characters with little vignettes about them that you may or may not read because they are pleasant little scenarios, but no more. There's no conflict and therefore no drama, nothing for any of the characters to struggle against or triumph over. To return to the quote from Jonathan Gottschall, there's no "suction of story" for your mind to "yield helplessly to." Maybe that's OK, but it seems to me if you are going to go to the trouble of putting a lot of words in a game, you can use them to craft a conflict and get some more suction.

The first way to create conflict is to use the nature of the gameplay itself, but creating a STORY REASON for the gameplay. For example, in Matchington Mansion, players get to restore and redecorate a mansion. So it makes sense for the first bit of drama to be related to that, as in, uh-oh, this mansion I just inherited is falling apart!

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Image source: screen cap.

One of the most obvious ways to create conflict is to add an antagonist, as we did with the introduction of the character Rex Houston. He's the only surviving relative of the woman who left you her mansion, and he wants to take it from you--so he can raze it and build a casino on the site.

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Image source: Screen cap.

Now let's talk about mystery. Adding story can mean giving players something to investigate, but it's important to let them find the answer through gameplay, since this thing is a game first and a story second, most often. Then reward them with story reveals.

"Mystery" can apply to any genre, so it doesn't have to be a straight-up detective tale to give you that sense of something to discover or solve. In fact, I'm working on a game called Survivors: The Quest, and providing players with new mysteries to solve is getting me through hundreds of hours of new content in a game that I've been working on for more than a year.

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Image source: screen cap.

In Matchington, we gave players something to investigate in the environment itself, as part of the builder interactions.

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Image source: screen cap of in-development build.

Lastly is connection. While strict puzzlers like Tetris certainly have their appeal, players love game worlds filled with other people their player character can interact with. That's something that the aforementioned Farmville 2 has going for it, despite the lack of conflict. One of the best parts of that game is meeting a diverse crop of farmhands who help you find resources you can use in the game, like quartz from the mine, that you can turn into farm products, like a glass bottle for your wine.

Here we have your neighbor Edna Downing, a source of quirky amusement as she drops passive-aggressive comments like the one below or quotes from her downer poetry. But she also has a game reason for being there: She introduces players to the feature that allows them to visit other mansions.

Edna
Image source: screen cap of in-development build.

It's good when creating story in your games to think about C-M-C: Conflict, Mystery, and Connection. Watch these moments from The Walking Dead and see if you can spot conflict, mystery, and connection in them.

I'll be speaking on this topic this weekend at PixelPop! Hope to see you there.