Review: Lifeline: Silent Night16 Dec 2015 0
Lifeline... was one of my favourite interactive fiction games of 2015. It had a simple gimmick. Rather than play at your own pace, the app stopped responding when the protagonist was doing things like walking or sleeping. You'd get alerts when it was time to pick up the game and continue. While this sounds awful in theory, it worked brilliantly. The game a sense of realism and dramatic tension that most of its stablemates lacked.
Now there's a sequel, seasonally subtitled Silent Night. It has the same setup as its predecessor. You're messaged from somewhere in outer space by Taylor, the astronaut protagonist of the original game. Taylor tells you what's going on and entertains you with characterful banter. Sometimes, Taylor will stop and ask you for help with a decision, which is where the branching points in the story come in.
At first, I had reservations that this narrative trick would work a second time. Having a long-lost spacefarer call you out of the blue for a chat felt forced as a setup. Then the game started reeling out all the little tweaks you might expect to make a sequel feel different. There are multiple characters for Taylor to interact with this time, each with their own colour of text. There's a map so you can see where Taylor is on the good ship White Star, although this has little gameplay impact.
Like the original, Silent Night is written by Dave Justus, one of the creative team from The Wolf Among Us. The quality of the script was a big part of its appeal, and he's worked his magic here, too. Little by little it broke down my initial cynicism, and I began to get immersed into the story. It was good to hear from Taylor again. It felt a little like hearing back from an old friend. And when it became clear that this was a continuation of the original plot instead of a spin off, it had me hooked.
What stands out is the way the writing draws the characters so differently from so little text. Taylor has plenty of screen time and comes across as a realistic, multi-faceted character. Sometimes funny, sometimes annoying but always brave. The other crew members have far less to say yet still come across as believable people, if very slightly stereotypical. There's the detached doctor, the beefy space miner, the cool as a cucumber captain. Bad things happen to some of these people and, when it did, I felt sorry for them in spite of their being nothing more than a bunch of words.
Like old-fashioned game books, there's little in the way of planning or strategy in Silent Night. You make most of your decisions in the absence of much information to help you make the right choice. Sometimes there's no real difference between them. The game is just giving you decision points to make you feel like you're doing something useful. Other times the choice can be critical to the outcome of the story.
There were points in the previous game where knowing stuff, like the amount of radiation a human can survive over eight hours, were important in shaping the choices. I looked these up when they came, and they helped to invest me even further in the realism of the story. I found no similar decisions in Silent Night. Indeed, it's rather more dependent on MacGuffins and hand-waving than its predecessor. Both changes are a bit of a shame.
It's still quite possible to fail and have Taylor meet a horrible end. When this happens, you get the chance to wind back to one of several predetermined save points and pick things up from there. These are a bit too widely spaced and leave you going through previous choices, and previous wait times, for too long. It's tempting to take different options just for variety, which is where you'll find out that some are irrelevant.
Developer 3 Minute Games designed all the Lifeline games to work with the Apple Watch. With their minimal text, frequent messaging and binary decisions it's one of the few games that works well on the tiny screen. I don't have a watch so couldn't test this, but if you're an owner it's a cool thing to add to your stable of apps.
If you have the patience to play through enough times to see the story end, it'll reward you with a satisfying conclusion to the saga. Silent Night isn't quite as good as the original Lifeline..., but it's still worth playing. Especially for fans of the original who'll get to meet an old companion again, and find out where their star finally comes to land.