Lifeline – Game? Narrative? Or the Future of Immersive Interactive Cinema?
[Spoiler Alert: This article contains minor spoilers regarding the narrative of the mobile game Lifeline by 3 Minute Games. If you have never played the game before and wish to remain fresh for your own game experience, please consider carefully before going on to reading the article.]
The time was 1 o’clock in the morning. I woke up for reasons I couldn’t explain, and – almost at the same time I turned my eyes to it – my phone screen lit up, just as it would when I received messages or emails. “Who would text me in the middle of the night?” I was confused. But then it came to me, “Oh, it’s that astronaut…whom I told to sleep in a cold, crashed spaceship a few hours ago instead of by a reactor. God, he woke up? In the middle of the night?…This isn’t good.” Anxiously, I grabbed my phone to check out what he texted me.
“c c cant feel hands frzzng clld” was all that was left on the screen followed by a system message reading “[connection lost]”.
“I killed him.” I sat in my room with the phone in my hand, and that was all that I could think of and kept repeating to myself for the next 10 minutes, along with a wave of complex feelings comprised of guilt, shock, and sadness that were turning my stomach sick.
That was my first play-through experience with the “Choose-your-own-adventure text game” Lifeline, as termed by Laura Hudson (Hudson, 2015). Apparently I sucked at making decisions and ended the game way sooner than it should be, but what I have experienced – just as many out there already have – is something that probably, in my point of view, has never before emerged and has huge potentials to change the game for future cinematic experience: a fully-immersive interactive cinema where a spectator/player and their surroundings become part of the narrative before they know it.
Scholars from both film and games studies might try to stop me before I continue any further. According to Jan Simons, neither of the side intends to overlap their field of study with one another. The games studies scholars, or, ludologists, as Simons calls them, are sparing no effort in separating games from narratives, avoiding in their study all the “ordinary and ‘serious’ activities” (Simons, 2007) that dominate narratology. Even Simons himself, who acknowledges similarities in theories and methodologies games and narratives (ibid.), would probably think twice before agreeing that one could take a game structure and crown it “the future of cinema”. Before this turns into another academic debate of defining and labeling, let me start by observing myself in the situation described in the beginning of this article.
As much as terming varies, I would call that a “scene” from the game’s narrative. The scene has two characters: me and Taylor. It has two settings: my bedroom, and Taylor’s deserted moon. And it also has one spectator, which is myself.
You can see the “spectator” as the reflexive part of me observing what I was doing and rethinking my reactions and decisions critically as most human beings do in daily life, only this time I am a spectator of a fictional “scene”, because what happened in it obviously did not actually happen in reality.
Observe my thoughts in the description of the scene and you will realize why I also called myself “a character”. In responding to Taylor and reacting from his response, I totally forgot for a moment that I was playing a game, but rather was communicating with a real human being. When I read his last words and learned that he died, my emotion response was not the frustration of loosing a game, but rather the guilt of giving somebody a stupid piece of advice that cost them their life. I became fully immersed in the narrative of the game and was reacting to it intuitively, and what and how I responded has reciprocally filled in the missing part of the story.
The setting was essential, too, since when and where you are could affect your judgments and decisions, and therefore affect the narrative of the story. In the online discussion section of the game, one user described how they were at work during texting with Taylor and making poor decisions that eventually led to the character’s death, and how bad they felt afterwards because they weren’t focused enough in thinking through their choices [source]. In other words, we as players of the game not only became immersive in the narrative of the game, but were also experiencing “fully-immersion” where the entirety of the world around us all became part of the story, part of the settings, and through interacting with Taylor under these settings we forged our own version of the story.
Dan Selleck, one of the designers of the game, called it “player-driven narrative”, saying that what is missing in the current game market is releasing the freedom of formulating imagination and experiences back to players (Hudson, 2015). In a sense, I interpret what Selleck meant was to endow a game’s narrative with more interactivity, to turn the traditionally “non-playable” (Simons, 2007) parts of a game playable or, even better, to make an entire game on interactive narrativity. To Thomas Elsaesser this might be yet another oxymoron (Elsaesser, 2014): how does one intervene actively in an activity with possibilities to generate a whole new narrative (the notion of “player-driven”), while at the same time sit back and spectate what was determined by the storytellers (the notion of “narrative”)? Elsaesser thus proposes “hyperselectivity” (ibid.), meaning a series of predetermined paths that are “carefully and cunningly devised” (ibid.) to create an illusion of freedom of choice.
To me, however, that is nothing more than another game of phrasing and rephrasing. In my view, what Elsaesser meant by “hyperselectivity” is what most people mean by “interactivity”, and what he meant by “interactivity” is not only impossible to the notion of “narrative”, but also to any exchange in human society or nature, because that calls for the philosophical notion of “true freedom”, but there are always restrictions and limitations in every exchange that none of us could ever overcome. Therefore, to suggest interactivity as to intervene an activity at free will is essentially a pseudo-proposition. Once we agree on the fact that the realization of interactivity is always governed by restrictions, rules, disciplines, limitations-whatever is called in any known field, I believe we are good to say that Lifeline is a game that incorporates an interactive narrative.
But how does this fully-immersive interactive narrative experience make it a potential of the future of cinema? Nowadays 360 Virtual-Reality storytelling is rapidly recognized and accepted (by most) as a new form of cinema, most famous example being the Industrial Light & Magic xLAB’s Star Wars interactive project which is being introduced in numerous festivals and events throughout the year, the idea of a “personal”, isolated, fully-immersive interactive cinematic experience is no news to many in and out of the industry as opposed to the traditional definition of cinema being “the live projection of a film indoors, in the dark, in the prescribed time of a more or less collective performance…(Elsaesser, 2014)”.
The 360 Virtual-Reality cinema could be one end of the spectrum. Just as the video games that have become “saturated with graphics” (Hudson, 2015), the people of the film industry continue to push the limits of sensation by simulating life-like visual and audio experiences. But what if there is a simplicity version to this type of cinema at the other end of the spectrum? What if “virtual reality” is not “virtual” anymore, but instead, you-whoever you are-and your surroundings-whatever they are-become instantly an essential part of the narrative of the film whenever you-the sole spectator of your own version of the film-choose to start the viewing (and interacting) experience? Your plot hints could be a phone, or a watch, a pair of glasses, or, hey, even a dead body [source]. Your projection is whatever your sensation captures between the interaction of you and the rest of the narrative-this could include what you see, what you hear, what you smell, what you taste, and how you feel and imagine. You become fully immersed in a fictional narrative but part of it consists of the real world (and the real you). Years ago this would probably be mocked by many, questioning if a film or game would still maintain their entertainment quality if “virtual” is taking out of the discussion. But luckily, the existence and huge success of Lifeline proved that it works just fine.
The only question is, is Lifeline more of a game or a film? Certainly it was made and marketed as a game, and on a rough look it resembles more to those CYOA game books [source] than to films. However, never while you are reading a book would you spectate your own behaviors as if they were part of the narrative. This is possibly caused by the medium specific moves that are required to read a book (the action of turning pages to a specific number, for instance) that remind us constantly that we are performing an action to a medium and thus draw us out of the immersive experience. The existence of the medium and the act of using it is what makes us aware that we are accessing a fictional world and once we are aware of that, we as human beings would try to let our ration come into place to prevent us from over-reacting to a specific paragraph for the sake of our surroundings. Whereas in Lifeline, we became more unconsciously involved in the narrative partially because we as modern human beings have grown so used to communicating to an entity on the other end of the screen via text messages that we don’t feel the existence of the medium anymore. Therefore, we feel natural and immersed while we are engaging with the narrative, so immersed that when we spectate what we’ve just done, we realize that we reacted totally intuitively and we “looked” like we were in a scene of that narrative – a fictional scene in a cinematic sense.
Moreover, as we became used to making connections with other human beings via screen and text messages – just as Laura Hudson writes – “there’s something about interacting with Taylor… that can feel very intimate (Hudson, 2015)”. There is an intimacy between our relationship with Taylor not only because of the personal, one-on-one conversation that happens between us, or the helpless situation they are in with us the only chance of survival, or their small talks and poor jokes that make us love/hate them, but precisely because we are building a relationship through an electronic screen – as we always do in the rest of our life. The worry we feel during the wait for their response, the urge of checking and responding to their message, as well as how we imagine the situation at the other end unfolds (what does Taylor look like when they say this, what are they feeling when they say this, etc.), all are reasons why most of us feel a personal bonding with Taylor. In other words, unlike in some of the games where the player does not care about the character, Lifeline has more of a film quality where the player/spectator genuinely sympathizes and roots for the character (Of course, as Jan Simons suggests, there are games in which player identifies with their avatar (Simons, 2007), and there are films in which viewer does not care about the protagonist).
Perhaps, what sets Lifeline apart from most qualities of games is its entirety of “playable narrative”. As discussed before, a more traditional game would probably apply narrative as the “non-playable” parts in the game, showing player explanatory scenes to inform them the tone of the next task for example. Seldom is narrative used as the sole content of the game. Whereas in film, most of the time the only purpose is to finish the narrative, even in an interactive film like Kinoautomat (1967), or a more modern case like Late Fragment (2007), the interactive choices are given for the sake of continuing the narrative, and there are certainly no car racing skills to practice. In this sense, Lifeline resembles more to a film.
However, what I want to conclude is, Lifeline is one of the “hybrids” between game and cinema as a result of media convergence. While some of us are still used to the type of cinema on a big screen, there emerges interactive cinema that are best watched on DVDs, 360 Virtual-Reality cinema on helmets, and Augmented Reality cinema with a pair of glasses. One step after another, cinema is entering an era of immersion, individualization and interactivity. Who can predict, the next step wouldn’t be a fully immersive interactive cinema where the spectator became the story in a literal sense?
Word Count: 2171
 Laura Hudson. “I’ve been texting with an astronaut”. 2015.
 Jan Simons. “Narratives, Games, and Theory”. 2007.
 Thomas Elsaesser. “Pushing the contradictions of the digital: ‘virtual reality’ and ‘interactive narrative’ as oxymorons between narrative and gaming”. 2014.
 Reddit’s discussion thread on Lifeline (particular user response)
 ILMxLAB Star Wars interactive project
 Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things
 CYOA game books Wikipedia page
 ILMxLAB’s AR project
 Lifeline trailer
 Kinoautomat: One Man and His House, Radúz Činčera, Ján Roháč, Vladimír Svitáček, 1967.
 Late Fragment, Daryl Cloran, Anita Doron, Mateo Guez, 2007.