Lifeline (3 Minute Games)

lifeline-ios-02Lifeline is an iOS and Android* mobile game in which you are fielding a distress call from someone named Taylor (gender never actually specified — I’ve seen some reviews refer to Taylor as male, but I pictured a woman). Taylor was the youngest, most naive crew member aboard a space ship that has crashed on a distant moon. They have no previous space experience and only the most rudimentary safety training. For some reason you are the only person in communication range, so they need you to prompt them through a series of survival decisions.

(* Sorry, Android users, I could’ve sworn I read there was a version, but I can’t find it now.)

The story plays out in roughly SMS-sized messages from Taylor, which sometimes come in rapid succession and sometimes only after a substantial real-time delay. These exchanges are backed by atmospheric music, and though the actual content is quite bare-bones and without visuals, the presentation is glossy and solid.

Lifeline has also garnered reviews calling it the best game available for the Apple Watch — one of those statements that might feel like faint praise while still being quite important from a marketing perspective. As far as I can tell from here, Lifeline is another example of the success of commercial IF on mobile. (This Offworld article talks a bit about how the piece was actually prototyped in Twine.)

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Mystical Creatures: Hunting Unicorn (Chandler Groover); Iron Rabbit Encounter (Caeth)

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HUNTING UNICORN, Chandler Groover (play online). HUNTING UNICORN is the recasting of classic unicorn legends, the story of a poor and unattractive woman whose chief income comes from serving as unicorn-bait, drawing the animals out so that they can be captured by hunters. It often feels as though there is nothing she can do to improve her situation, and the story is in part about whether that is really true. The unicorn itself is a fearsome animal, not at all sparkles and rainbows, which can only be controlled via its own consent.

Groover’s authorial notes explain that one of his main aims is to make the player feel like it’s not necessary to replay, in contrast with forms that encourage lawnmowering all the possible endings. For me this partly worked and partly didn’t: when I got to the end I felt that I’d experienced an effective story with a good narrative arc. Certainly there was nothing that formally encouraged me to go looking for the other branches in order to understand the piece better.

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Tentacles Growing Everywhere (Squinky)

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Tentacles Growing Everywhere is the story of three young tentacled aliens who are just transitioning into their lifeform’s version of puberty.

The primary mechanic is one of editing posts: each of the three protagonists keeps a blog, and you’re in the role of helping them write, sometimes deciding what to take out and what to leave in place — which puts this story in perhaps a very small genre with a few other interactive epistolary pieces. I happen to be quite fond of this form, which explores both what someone is thinking and what they’re willing to write down about their thoughts, and Tentacles uses it to good effect as the characters fuss over how their friends might interpret their adventures, whether it’s a good idea to give one another advice, and so on.

These interactive passages are interspersed with excerpts from a “helpful” guidebook to puberty, written in the same faux-casual voice so often employed for this purpose. Here’s its guidance about being bullied:

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Overall the story is pretty linear: there are some choices to make, but I don’t have the impression that they have more than a local effect on the story (if there’s major branching available, I missed that fact). Even so, there’s a fair bit of text here — 77 pages, with your current page number clearly visible as you play. It’s a novella-sized interactive read, with each protagonist having their own plot arc, though they have a fair amount of interplay as well.

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ShuffleComp, 2015 edition

ShuffleComp is an interactive fiction comp in which participants send in lists of songs; the songs are shuffled and redistributed, and each participant writes a game based on one or more of the songs they received. (Last year’s competition yielded some 34 games and is responsible for not one but two games titled Fallout Shelter.)

Here are some favorites from this year’s comp:

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Spring Thing 2015: Doggerland (Alan DeNiro)

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Alan DeNiro’s Doggerland belongs to the interactive poetry school of Twine: highly personal, only loosely narrative, making play with hover effects as well as links in order to evoke some connections that aren’t explicitly stated. It concerns, among other things: winter and isolation, global warming, childhood, problems with America’s health care safety net, parenthood, glaciation, the passage of time, and a personal decision which (since the work is described as autobiographical) I assume is true to DeNiro’s actual experience.

There is, as far as I could find, one branch point where you can choose which of two vignettes to read, and since links are marked with icons rather than with text, it’s hard to call this a choice: it’s more of a lottery. The work is otherwise linear-exploratory, allowing the player to decide only how much depth to experience at each point before moving on.

I might almost have preferred not to have that branch. I replayed the story to see what I had missed the first time around, but the structure is otherwise so tight and the emotional impact so much tied up in the process of revelation that playing for completeness the second time felt like a diminishing of the experience. Perhaps. But then, the theme of opportunity cost is also appropriate for the story. And then, also, I understood the shape of the piece better the second time around, so perhaps it was worthwhile to encourage this. I don’t know.

I do know that it has a quality I associate with good poetry, which is that the more I think about it, the more it pulls together, the more the different screens and different text seem thematically interrelated.

The rest of what I think about this is not about craft but about content, so I’m going to put a spoiler jump in now.

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Spring Thing 2015: Ruiness (Porpentine); Missing Since ’77 (Andrew Watt)

Ruiness is a Porpentine game, and as such is typically difficult to summarize. It takes place in an evocative post-apocalyptic wasteland in which people have roles like “scavenger” and “dustrunner”, as well as apparently belonging to different species and riding various creatures.

Most of the gameplay is exploratory and concerns uncovering new places to go, or else new kinds of character to be — in this regard it reminded me of Contrition. Both Ruiness and Contrition take some concerted work to explore fully; they don’t feel like puzzle games, precisely, but they are more demanding to navigate than the average Twine. (In fact, I’m reminded a bit of Toby’s Nose, here.)

I’m not sure I could summarize what happens here at a plot level, and sometimes the descriptions become more prose-texture than denotative. One of the curious things about Porpentine’s work is her ability to make worlds and stories that are navigable even when they take place in an utterly alien environment. This effect is fully in force in Ruiness.

Through both mechanics (the replacement of one protagonist with another and another) and content (the endgame), the story suggests that the experience of individuals is relatively unimportant, that their culture and history is being shaped by supervising forces far beyond their comprehension. I found this simultaneously bleak and comforting: bleak because it was hard to enter into any one character’s life in any depth, comforting because the supervisory force seemed to at least desire positive outcomes such as a reduction in war.

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Missing Since ’77 was entered in the Back Garden because it’s a demo of an unfinished game. The results were certainly polished enough to have made this a reasonable contender in Introcomp, and I’m glad to see the Back Garden option used for a variety of purposes.

The game identifies itself as fantasy, but most of what we see in the setup is set in the real world. This appears to be a portal story in which a character has gone missing in an alternate fantasy universe, but it’s told from the points of view of those looking for him, namely his wife and the young detective she’s hired. The game starts out in the detective’s view, then switches to the wife’s and retells the same events (some of which depend on what the player did the first time around) with an alternate perspective. Like KING OF BEES IN FANTASY LAND, it uses a change of typography to indicate when we are seeing through new eyes.

This is an ambitious approach, uncommon if not absolutely unknown in other IF: Stephen Granade’s Common Ground did multiple-perspective retelling in the form of parser IF, and a handful of time travel puzzle games record what the player has done and repeats these back to allow the player to collaborate with other selves — Fifteen Minutes being a notable recent example.

To work, this kind of design requires rigorous state tracking (though possibly this is less fiddly in Twine because there’s less state to worry about) as well as good enough writing to make a second pass through the same scene interesting to the player. Missing Since ’77 did pull this off, at least for me.

I enjoyed this and would be curious to see more.