Lifeline: Silent Night (3 Minute Games)

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 10.55.29 AMLifeline: Silent Night is a (very lightly) Christmas-themed sequel to the original Lifeline (though, mercifully, it has no important connection with the disappointing Lifeline 2). In it, Taylor, the gender-nonspecific protagonist of the original game, has gotten into trouble aboard the ship home after the events of Lifeline. (I have always thought of Taylor as female, so I refer to Taylor as she below, but your version of Taylor could well be “he” or “they” if you prefer.) There’s less mystery this time around, because we basically know the parameters of the kind of universe we’re inhabiting. Taylor still spouts pop culture references from Futurama and The Simpsons (and the conversation even lampshades this overtly). There are still long pauses where Taylor is “traveling” or “resting” – perhaps somewhat less plausibly now that she is not on a vast moon but are instead poking around what is described as a small spaceship, and during an emergency.

But Silent Night offers a couple of other tweaks on the formula of the original. There are fairly long stretches of non-interactive text in between choice points – sometimes a page or two of text messages on my iPad, more than I remember from the original Lifeline. This text-to-choice ratio wouldn’t seem that odd in, say, a Choice of Games piece, but it’s more noticeable when the text is formatted as text messages (where we’re used to a rapid back-and-forth) and when it’s printing on a delay.

There are structural changes, too. Taylor is no longer completely on her own. The ship is crewed, and Taylor’s connection renders their dialogue in contrasting colors so that you can see the conversation when we’re around them (which is not very often). These other characters are still out of the way for most of the duration of the game, perhaps because otherwise it’s hard to explain why Taylor would be taking our advice to the exclusion of theirs, and it’s also not quite obvious why we can hear them but they can’t hear or see the advice we’re giving back to Taylor. But we just have to accept that that’s how the communication link works.

Second, Silent Night comes with a schematic map of the ship, allowing you to pause during conversation and check out where Taylor is and what she’s doing. This is kind of cool, from a feelie perspective, and helps sell the idea of the ship as a particular place. I wouldn’t ever say that the map becomes necessary, though, and in fact it frequently felt to me as though it had been awkwardly appended to the game after the script was already complete.

For one thing, the game frequently has Taylor making long trips through solitary corridors. Empty corridors are a staple of television and movie spaceships, certainly; but they don’t appear anywhere on the schematic. On the schematic map, all the rooms are directly connected to one another, wasting no time with intervening space. (I couldn’t help thinking of Coloratura here, which also included feelies but felt like the ship had been rigorously researched and planned.)

Similarly, to the extent that there are directional decisions to make for Taylor, the map doesn’t necessarily give you what you need to solve them. Silent Night is not like Mayday: Deep Space, where you have to steer the protagonist past antagonists that you can see on the schematic plan. Here, antagonists appear when the narrator wants them to, and there’s no system involved in getting past them. You mostly still learn by dying in order to solve the piece. If I have one piece of advice, it’s that you should always search an area until you’ve found everything you can, because Taylor always needs inventory. But if you’re an adventure game player, you know that already.

But the main thing I come away with, and I actually mean this as a kind of praise: there is impressively little here given how successful it is. It is not that long a story; it is structurally not very involved; you could stick this narrative together in Twine in a pretty short time. The writing is, yes, more polished than the average IF Comp entry, but there are a bunch of times where it feels like it’s operating more or less on automatic. The characters banter in a standard fashion and then Taylor spots something and says OH GOD and the player has a choice of two ways to say “What? What do you see?” This is the core loop.

But the UI is slick and the time delay mechanic is still fairly effective even though I’ve now seen the gimmick in half a dozen other pieces. And simple though the design might be, the imitators of Lifeline (and even Lifeline 2 itself) demonstrate that there are lots of ways to take this basic idea and get it totally wrong. (See One Button Travel.)

Anyway, my impression is that there’s a large audience for this material and it’s comparatively easy to write. So there will be more Lifelines, I’m sure of it. The end of this one pretty much says so, but it would be a commercial certainty anyway. I’m reviewing this one by reader request; I’m not sure I will review future Lifeline sequels, since I suspect they may get quite same-y. But 3 Minute Games has achieved its own commercial subgenre at this point.

Ultimately, Silent Night feels less consequential than the original and is probably not really worth playing on its own if you haven’t already tried Lifeline. If you did play Lifeline and really like it, though, Silent Night will probably entertain in much the same way.

(Disclosure: I played a copy of this game that I bought with my own money.)

I have one spoilery remark about the ending, which I will place after some spoiler space.

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The end of Lifeline was a struggle for control over Taylor with the green mind-controlling alien entities. The end of Lifeline: Silent Night gives Taylor a little more agency over her destiny, though she still defers to you: should she attempt a wildly dangerous and implausible suicide mission, or should she save herself by getting in an escape pod and leaving the rest of the ship to its fate?

It’s the kind of thing that wants to be a moral/emotional call, on the order of the last scene of Fallout 3, but it fell flat for me for two reasons.

First, the suicide mission doesn’t merely sound dangerous. It also sounds really unlikely to actually work. The first time I played through this section, I steered Taylor away from it because I was hoping that she might find some alternate way of building a trap that might be more effective than the plan she does have. Steering Taylor away from fatal mishaps is what I’ve been doing for the last 1.75 games. At this point I was used to making choices about practicality rather than choices about heroism.

Then, because I had her take the coward’s route at the end, I also discovered that it’s a feint. If you try to make Taylor escape, she just gets caught and perfunctorily killed, game over. And that in turn slightly undermines the heroism of the scene where she does execute her hair-brained scheme and save humanity (until next time, because inevitably there will be a next time).

So. This isn’t terrible: it makes more sense than the ending of Lifeline 2, and it’s offering a consequential decision that makes sense in the framework we’ve had so far. It just also tended to remind me – as so many other aspects of the game do also – that I was playing within a world of narrative contrivance, rather than one in which a consistent world model applied.

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