A few years ago when I was studying narrative design in video games, I discovered a mobile app that ended up being the best mobile game I had played. It wasn’t visual, it was emotional, and a story told entirely through text. When people talk about games with amazing narrative and difficult choices, most would think of something like Mass Effect or Until Dawn, both long form and largely visual experiences and not a small mobile game that can be purchased for $2.99. However, I want Lifeline to get the recognition it deserves for being one of the best narrative experiences I have had.
Lifeline starts with a message, “Hello?”. This message comes from Taylor, an astronaut stranded on a hostile planet after their spacecraft crashed and somehow their EVA-Suit was able to get them in contact with only one person, and that person is you. With only one person to talk to, Taylor tells you everything that is happening up in space, asking for advice and sometimes even for you to google something for them.
The game also plays in real time, when Taylor goes to sleep, you wait eight hours. When Taylor takes a walk across the barren planet, you wait for three. When I played it a few years ago, my friends were playing at the same time and when one of us felt their phone vibrate, everyone else’s would fill with concern. “Is that Taylor? Are they okay?”, we would ask each other because we were all equally invested in the life of this astronaut. It began to feel like we really were keeping them alive and that we had to answer quickly to keep them that way.
Taylor is also human. They try their best to make light of whatever situation they are in, laughing at their own misfortune. Taylor actually reminds me a lot of Mark Watney from The Martian. Both are characters that feel so real, they act the way you might expect yourself to act in these situations, trying your best to joke about what is happening, but flying off the handle when things take a turn for the worse. You want Taylor to survive, and after the first few hours it stops feeling like a game and starts feeling like a real conversation you are having with a real astronaut.
For a mobile game, it grips you in a way you would expect from a full prices AAA title. It doesn’t need any bells or whistles, the game is a chat dialog and nothing more, but this is all it needs to be. Without the graphics, the budget, or the length of a AAA game, Lifeline made me feel for a character and invested me in a story. Overall, I highly recommend Lifeline it’s not too long or too expensive but is one of the best story experiences you are going to find. It’s also been released on Steam, though playing on mobile is the best way to experience it.