"Can anyone read me?"
You can. Only you. Become a stranded astronaut's last connection to Earth in Lifeline, an interactive story for the space age.
Meet Taylor, an ill-prepared science student who boards the Varia to take an educational trip to Tau Ceti IV, only to lose contact with the crew and the rest of humanity after her escape pod crashes onto a strange moon amidst inexplicable technical difficulties. The best part about Taylor? They never confirm their gender identity. Despite numerous reviews and blog posts slapping he/him/his pronouns onto our hapless hero, we don't actually know a thing about Taylor's gender. Taylor could be a girl. Or non-binary. Or genderfluid. Or agender. Maybe they're transgender. Or intersex. We don't know! Taylor is who you want them to be! In a world where every non-male gender faces abysmal representation in media, it's awesome that Lifeline lets us players fill in that detail for ourselves instead of shoving another dude protagonist down our throats.
Hiding Taylor's gender probably wouldn't be possible had Lifeline not allowed us to interact with them directly, instead of bogging down the story with tedious narration. As Taylor gives you updates on their situation, you have to advise them on their next course of action. Don't take this lightly. Taylor trusts you and will live or die based on your choices. If you give them bad advice, they're probably done for. Because of this, it's easy to get invested in their well-being. While playing, I was constantly aware of how high the stakes were, encouraging me to choose the best course of action for our poor adventurer. You're always given two options, sometimes sending you in vastly different directions. Tell Taylor to either brave dangerously low temperatures or take shelter near a potentially dangerous reactor. Look for the Varia or trek out to a mysterious landmark. Other times, the choices are virtually the same, which can feel like tedious filling if you're anxious to advance the story.
One very cool feature is that everything takes place in real time. Is Taylor going to sleep? Check back tomorrow morning. Want to journey to the mountain? Talk to you in 3 hours. For a game with no graphics, the level of immersion is staggering. This is a game that doesn't want you to know it's a game and it succeeds.
Of course, if you screw up and get Taylor killed, you probably don't want to have to wait all over again after rewinding to a more favorable point of the story. You can skip through all the "[Taylor is busy]" sequences with a "Fast Mode," though this might take away some of the realism.
If you go back far enough, you might as well send Taylor in an entirely new direction, set it on "Slow Mode," and see what happens. Lifeline is extremely replayable. Every time I rewind, I discover something new, adding another dimension to the story that I hadn't even been able to consider during my first playthrough. Sure, I "won," but can I do better? Can I do more for Taylor? Lifeline makes me want to try again. And again. And again.
Unfortunately, while I totally want to help Taylor, I also kind of want them to shut up. The writers obviously tried to spice up the SMS format by adding in some tongue-in-cheek dialogue. Sometimes its funny. Sometimes it's so ridiculous, I almost blow an artery eye-rolling so hard. "It's darker than a goth kid's journal, and colder than the prom queen's shoulder." You know what, Taylor? Maybe I do want you to freeze to death, if that means you'll never say anything like that to me again. Aren't you in a traumatic situation? Then act like it. I like a healthy dose of sass in my protagonists, but at least have them say something people would actually say. Out loud. To other human beings.
If bad dialogue were a deal-breaker for me though, I'd never play another video game as long as I lived. Overall, Lifeline is a treasure. It's one of the most engaging and innovative games out on the mobile market and I can't wait to plan Taylor's next move.