On the most recent episode of Shall We Play a Game?, my podcast with former NPR producer and correspondent JJ Sutherland, we review Lifeline, a game designed for the Apple Watch, and Fallout Shelter. I also talk to Cara Ellison, a game designer and critic, about working on Grand Theft Auto IV and Dishonored 2.
Lifeline, which has been riding high in the iPhone charts for the past month or more, adds a wrinkle to the text adventure: time. I don’t own an Apple Watch (shocking, I know), so I played on my iPhone, and the conceit still worked. Taylor, an astronaut who has crash-landed on a distant planet, sends you a series of texts and asks for your advice as he tries to survive. The twist is that Taylor will disappear for minutes at a time, or even hours, which adds to the illusion that he really is out there among the stars, doing your bidding.
Waiting to hear from Taylor made Lifeline feel like something new. It’s a kind of ambient storytelling, a game that interjects itself into your life at odd times, not unlike the way your phone does when a friend emails you, or texts you, or DMs you on Twitter.
Lifeline also made me unexpectedly tolerant of the waiting that so frequently occurs in free-to-play games. (Lifeline is pay-once-to-play. The waiting is a narrative device, not a tactic to ask for more money.) In the polygamous cult simulator Fallout Shelter, often you find yourself waiting for the women in your vault to bear children, or for an adventurer to return from the Wasteland. If you want to advance in the game more quickly, you can buy lunchboxes that contain bonus items.
Pairing Fallout Shelter with Lifeline made this slight annoyance more bearable, especially because there was a fictional justification for it — for the waiting, that is. There is no explanation for the lunchboxes.
Of course you have to wait for a pregnancy to end, or for a traveller to make a long journey. Why wouldn’t you?