Review: Lifeline: Flatline17 Nov 2016 1
Review: Lifeline: Flatline
Released 26 Oct 2016
The Lifeline series is interactive fiction at its most basic. You read some text then you get two, and only two, choices as to how to proceed. It's a back to basics approach clearly designed to make the games playable and fun on a smartwatch. Yet it's been a critical and commercial success across all mobile platforms. I even recommended the first game for an end of year award after I joined Pocket Tactics. So it must be doing something right.
Lifeline has two tricks to keep it interesting. The first is that it forces you to proceed at a pace of its choosing. All the games have the frame that you're communicating with a distant person via your mobile, offering them support and advice in a crisis. So when they're busy, or asleep, the game stops responding to you.
The game build these waits into the pacing of the story, making them much more suspenseful than your average text adventure.
Of course, taking player agency away like that could easily result in a terrible experience. That it doesn't is down to Lifeline's other distinctive factor: brilliant writing. Lifeline and its sequel, Lifeline: Silent Night, featured the same protagonist, named Taylor. Taylor was superbly realised. A genuine person you could relate to, joke with, and who made feel good or guilty when your choices lead them to success or failure.
Yet when I reviewed Lifeline: Silent Night right here on Pocket Tactics, some of that magic was already fading. It was good to hear from Taylor again, but there just wasn't enough depth in the game to make another trip down the binary choices tree feel worthwhile.
Lifeline: Flatline knows it has to do something different to keep players engaged. Taylor is gone, replaced by a new character, Wynn. She is female, an interesting contrast to the purposeful androgyny of Taylor. The action has moved from outer space to a mysterious research facility. And the horror tone that licked around the edges of the previous game has moved center stage.
Good horror writing is hard, and Lifeline: Flatline gets it largely right. There are moments of real tension and terror and lots of options where you're forced to make hard choices between speed and silence. After a while the choice to throw so much gore into the mixture from the beginning backfires. You begin to become desensitised to each ripped limb, splintered bone and organ trail. And the trope at the heart of the story isn't particularly new or clever.
Previous games also used the wait timers to up the tension which ought to be a godsend for a horror game. But, like the blood, they're overused in Flatline. My recollection of Lifeline and Silent Night is that when they stopped responding, it tended to be for a good while. Flatline, by contrast, uses a lot of very short waits from the beginning. That breaks immersion rather than improves it. And some of them are for pretty dubious in-game activities. When it takes three minutes for someone to use a key it's both unrealistic and an irritating distraction for the player.
Wynn is both more and less engaging than Taylor. Players aren't encouraged to project onto her in the way they were in the previous games, and that allows the writing to offer a more solid sketch. Yet at the same time it makes that relationship less rewarding. Wynn isn't some sort of passive victim in this scenario but she can be annoyingly needy and repetitive. I got tired of her responding to my suggestions with "that makes sense" or variations thereof. But then again, I'm writing about her here by name, like she's an actual person, so she's still an effective portrait.
Shifting the focus has helped Flatline morph into its own game, rather than following in Taylor's footsteps once again. But in doing so it's lost some of what made Lifeline special in the first place. It's a problem that plagues every chain of sequels and the most effective solution is a very dramatic change to the narrative or mechanics. Lifeline is too basic to manage that. And while Flatline is still enjoyable, the simplicity that was once the strength of this series feels like it might be turning into a millstone.