Friday, January 22, 2016

2015 Recommendations in Review: Lifeline and Her Story

Last year, my friend Steven Wong very generously purchased two iOS games for me and requested I weigh in on them: Lifeline and Her Story. It has taken me a criminally long time to do this, and I am rectifying this oversight now.

Lifeline is really an extended SMS conversation with a fictional astronaut named Tayor, stranded on an alien planet. Periodically, he or she (gender is never established), asks you for advice and you get to pick between a couple options. It's a very basic form of interaction, but the constellation of cause and effect is enormous, and the lack of art and mechanics allows for even greater storytelling variance than Tell Tale Games' offerings. I mean look at this flowchart!

Well. Don't look too carefully if you haven't played and don't want spoilers. It was a fun little trip with a few minor issues. The writing wasn't really my style; Taylor's voice would frequently stray into excessively quirky/zany territory to keep things from getting too heavy (and rarely garnered a laugh). There's also a built in waiting period between texts, which contributes to realism, and makes is very suitable for mobile play play, though I found myself more thoroughly engaged at the end of the story, when the waiting periods were shorter. Still, there are some very original elements to the story, and it is a strong proof of concept for a format: decision-tree storytelling with an SMS wrapper (as opposed to something like Twines which tend to run more verbose).

I was a bigger fan of Steven's second recommendation, Her Story. In the game, you have been given access to a police database case file containing 271 video clips of a woman being interviewed. Each clip is the answer to a question you can't hear, and the archive must be searched based on the words her responses contain. It's a murder mystery, and while the culprit seems fairly obvious from the start, the specific circumstances surrounding the killing, and your role in the story, are pretty novel and open to some interpretation.

The writing here has a creeping sordidness with a cryptic delivery that requires you to read between the lines; much more to my liking than Lifeline. It has garnered a bunch of awards for writing. I think some people have given it best of 2015 accolades for writing, which seems aggressively plausible in the App space, but it really doesn't compare to the masterful quality and colossal breadth of the content in say, Witcher 3 (which I swear I will write about one day; for now,I will just say that it is my GOTY for 2015).

My only quibble is that you can missing out on most of the game's content and solve the core mystery fairly quickly by asking astute questions....but is that really a problem? The creator of the story, Sam Barlow, set out to make a better detective game than LA Noir, and in terms of actually 'solving' a mystery using your own powers of deduction, he succeeded. In Noir, you essentially steer an avatar through an interactive maze that leads to heavily scripted choices to interpret a case. There are points where you can get ahead of Cole in the core case, which, in detective novels, is a sure sign that something went sideways.

That said, I like the idea of pairing Her Story's archival mechanic with Noir's facial recognition interviews and crime scene investigation sequences. If you need to check the boxes for driving and combat (which both feel like part of the detective experience, but also a knee jerk compulsion for video game adaptations), I would replace the open world shooting and driving in Noir with something like the QTE combat in Wolf Among Us. I know some people at GA Tech who might lynch me for suggesting as much, but Tell Tale has convinced me that well timed button-pressing has its place in narrative-driven games.

Many thanks to you again, Steven! Again, if anybody else recommended something, or wants me to weigh in on something from last year, lemme know and I will try to do a write up.

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