Dexter Woltman Feed

New Release! ‘RollerCoaster Tycoon Story’ for Atari and Graphite Lab

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Official Start Menu

It’s no secret Brunette Games works with amazing clients from all across the world, but this new release hits far closer to home. Developed by Atari and Graphite Lab, RollerCoaster Tycoon Story launched this week as part of the latest installment of the classic Atari franchise. Not only did Brunette Games write the dialogue and in-game text, but we had the honor of working hand-in-hand with Graphite Lab through every step of the script process.

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Official In-Game Screenshot

Like Brunette Games, Graphite Lab is centered right here in St. Louis. They have some amazing talent in their studio, and our two companies’ relationship goes beyond the walls of work. So much so, that one of their employees and I are actually neighbors! RollerCoaster Tycoon Story was one of my first big original writing projects, and getting to sit down and talk with their team face-to-face as we developed the narrative was an experience I’ll never forget.

St. Louis is slowly growing its own gaming community, one both Brunette Games and Graphite Lab are happy to be part of. We had the great opportunity to work together, and RollerCoaster Tycoon Story is the product of that collaboration. For the first time in the series, this new release has a rich narrative built around exciting Match-3 puzzles. Even more, Graphite Lab has evolved the typical Match-3 genre by including a rails mechanic never before seen in these types of casual games. A third St. Louis studio, Fat Bard, provided music and sound effect support as well, making this a truly homegrown effort all around.

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Official In-Game Screenshot

If that’s not enough to sell you on this new release, hear it from the developer themselves with the official App Store description:

Welcome to RollerCoaster Tycoon Story! The legendary Eagleland theme park has fallen into despair and it’s up to you to restore it to its former glory by solving exciting Match-3 puzzles. Based on the beloved RollerCoaster Tycoon franchise, RollerCoaster Tycoon Story uses an innovative rail match system to earn tickets that can be used to complete tasks such as repairing rides, cleaning up park grounds and rebuilding shops. Partner with Sam, your dependable mechanic and other park staff to help restore the land around the park, unravel hidden mysteries, meet interesting characters and become a true RollerCoaster Tycoon.

Features:

• Hundreds of Levels: Match three or more pieces using the rail match system to complete fun puzzles or earn powerful boosters. Complete more complex puzzles to uncover special items including the famous Screechin’ Eagle booster.

• Exciting Story: Finish each round to progress through the storyline and advance to the next level. As you continue to play, additional zones of the park will unlock revealing classic RollerCoaster Tycoon rides like the Log Flume water ride.

• Renovate and Decorate: Improve sections of your park by removing debris, adding decorations, and investing in research to further upgrade rides, attractions and more.

• Endearing Characters: Interact with multiple characters including Sam the maintenance worker, Maggie the mechanic, Tyler the panda mascot entertainer, and many others.

• Daily Rewards: Earn bonus rewards each day for restored rides and attractions. More rides, more money!

• Leaderboards: Top the global leaderboards and compete against friends.

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Official In-Game Screenshot

Also, did I mention you get to name a pet squirrel? Download now, and tell us here at Brunette Games what you think!

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For more information, visit the official website here!


PixelPop Festival 2019: A Community for Gaming

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I’m Dexter Woltman, a Game Writer / Designer here at Brunette Games. On the weekend of September 13th and 14th, I had the pleasure of representing our narrative design company at PixelPop Festival. For those who aren’t familiar, here’s an official description of the event:

PixelPop Festival is a game conference and expo in St. Louis, Missouri, that celebrates unique games and the many people who make them possible.

PixelPop Festival features independent tabletop, digital, and experimental games produced by local and national game creators. Two full days of diverse conference sessions from industry professionals are curated to equip you with creative tools and resources to make remarkable work that makes a difference.

There are two main components to PixelPop. The first is the expo hall, where dozens of designers show off their creative visions in gaming, whether that be video gaming or tabletop gaming. The second is a series of talks coming from industry veterans that cover a wide range of game design topics.

This was my first time attending PixelPop. Aside from stories of past years, I didn’t know what to expect. I put on my Brunette Games shirt, filled a pack with notebooks, and went in with an open mind. The first thing I saw when I entered the expo hall was an overarching sense of community. Not only were there dozens of faces I recognized from classes and industry appearances, but everyone was actively engaged with one another. They were talking, laughing, and, most importantly, playing games together.

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An image of the PixelPop expo hall.

The community of PixelPop was filled with visitors from various cities across the country, like Chicago. Many local St. Louis developers also attended. As for the presenters themselves, some were part of companies with personal IPs to showcase, and others were independent developers demonstrating their design skills. Everyone was there to be part of something and engage in a supportive atmosphere.

As for the expo hall itself, it was a large room to accompany the dozens of stations and tables inside. Oddly enough, I noticed a strange lack of prominent lighting in certain areas. As the day went on, I realized this dim lighting lead to an explorative atmosphere where the games shined.

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Gamers playing a chicken-themed dice game called Dice Fight.

In the hall, imagination flourished in small-scale indies. While some presenters told a story with their games, others displayed gimmicks. Both concepts were equally as entertaining. I went from playing a game where you slap a fish controller in a dual fighting game to a narrative tale focused on the discovery of Earth’s roundness. 

Coming from a narrative design company myself, I couldn’t help but wonder about the story behind each game I played. I asked the developers what their inspiration was for their games, as well as the messages they’re trying to convey. One particularly adorable dog shelter management game, To the Rescue, had a darker, more hidden message. It called attention to the ongoing issue of kennel euthanizations, something players in the management game could do when their kennels got overfilled. Of course, this mechanic was optional, especially for younger audiences.

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To the Rescue is adorable and honest.

Beyond that were a plethora of narrative-based games. I spent over an hour playing a fun tabletop roleplaying game called Thalassophobia. The game was described by its creators as Dungeons and Dragons meets The Thing. My friends and I were each given occupations and were tasked with investigating reports of missing patients at a nearby hospital. I received the role of doctor. Coming from a narrative background, I constantly strived to push motivation onto my character. The end result was an obnoxious doctor who heals critical injuries with band-aids and who probably but definitely doesn’t have a real doctor’s license.

I also can’t forget to mention the roleplaying game, Starry Messengers, where I could only communicate with other players through handwritten letters. The setting may have placed me centuries ago, but I still found ways to put modern-day memes in all my letters. There was also the occult choice game, Hills & Hollows, that features tarot cards as a decision device. I’m proud to say I’m one of the lucky few who discovered a hidden ending and somehow summoned the Devil. Last but not least, I found a texting game called We should talk, where I texted my in-game girlfriend from a bar. Again, I discovered a rare ending that definitely got me broken up with.

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The poster for Hills & Hallows.

Throughout these many narrative-focused games, others also relied on the amusement of gimmicks. I probably spent too much time at Hellcouch, a game where an actual couch is a controller. A previous professor of mine and an active member of the St. Louis Game Developer Co-Op, Rob Santos, also presented two incredibly fun games. One featured an Infinity Gauntlet as a controller and put players in the shoes of Thanos. The game was a parody of the recent blockbuster hit, Avengers: Endgame. An endless runner, players used Infinity Stones to avoid being caught by Ant-Man before the superhero flies up Thanos’ personal “endgame.” Santos also showed a mouse cursor battle royal. There were computer mice scattered around the table, and players scrambled to find an active cursor to move around and shoot others with.

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Santos' Infinity Gauntlet and mouse battle royal games side-by-side.

 

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Hellcouch is a game you control with standing and sitting.

Beyond the expo hall and games was an impressive line-up of industry talks. While I didn’t attend every talk of the festival, I did pay special attention to the ones with a narrative focus. The first I attended was a talk about visual novels. They spoke of the various ways to go about writing a visual novel and how to deal with branching choices. As someone who recently worked on an interactive novel with many, many choices, I was particularly interested in their organizational methods.

There was also a talk on depicting mental health in games. This can be a sensitive topic, and I admit struggling with it in my own game writing. The talk focused on ways to approach mental health respectfully and realistically. The largest takeaway for me was that writers must consider mental health as part of the character, rather than merely a status ailment.

Lastly, I attended a talk on procedurally generated storytelling in the real world. It was all about how designers can use sounds and images in the real world to influence the story of a game. Not only was this a very intriguing subject, but it opened my eyes to various ways in-game environments can convey stories beyond just typical dialogue and cutscenes.

Oh, also there was a mini talk about Bad Tetris. Someone intentionally made an aggravating version of Tetris that moves a character around based on regular Tetris block movements. The comments the developer received for sharing the game online were just as funny as the game’s actual existence.

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Bad Tetris, "It made me frustrated but like in a good way."

Throughout all these games and talks, PixelPop taught me that no one has to forge the gaming industry alone. This festival builds a community. It’s about finding reliance and mutual interest in ideas and mechanics. It’s for people trying to bring awareness to their creativity. It was an honor to be part of the festival, and I hope Brunette Games is even more involved next year.


When Your Friends Become the Story: A Narrative Beginning

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A screenshot from Ellen: The Game

Here's Dexter Woltman with a window into the student assignment that helped him get a job in the game industry.

Before I was hired on as junior writer/designer here at Brunette Games, I was a student in Lisa Brunette’s class at Webster University. It was a narrative writing class, of course, and one that specialized in video games. Over the course of the semester, Lisa had taught us all sorts of useful practices and tips. When it came time for our final, we students were given a choice. We could either write the script for a game, or turn in an entire game we made ourselves. I did the latter, and it’s part of what led to my involvement with Brunette Games. 

Anyone who has known me for long knows that I’ve always had a habit of writing stories about my friends. In high school, it was short stories and books about friends. In college, it evolved into a different format... first movie scripts, and then games about my friends. Writing about friends is actually a great practice for any writer. It allows you to draw upon pre-established, deep, complex characters, and craft a narrative around them. It helps writers realize the complexity that comes into each character, and how every little quirk is just part of a larger whole. Once a writer understands that, it makes it easier to craft original, equally complex characters. I’ve been practicing my craft this way for a lot of years now, and I’m not even the only one on my campus who does it. 

When it came to Lisa’s final assignment, I decided to create my own game using a software called RPG Maker MV. Coincidentally, during that same semester, it was my roommate Ellen’s birthday. To celebrate the birthday of one of my closest friends, I decided to make my game about her, which is the beginning of how Ellen: The Game came to be.

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Ellen: The Game proved to be a successful venture for me. Clocking in at about three to four hours of game time, it was an enjoyable story about my friends and me living inside an actual video game. It also took itself very literally. In the game, my narrative counterpart had created the game world for Ellen, only for the characters to lose control of it to a mysterious villain. Not only did Ellen and my friends love it, but Lisa Brunette did, too, and that helped pave the way for me to eventually join Brunette Games. 

Ellen: The Game also taught me a lot about game development as a whole. To start, it’s so much more than just writing a story. RPG Maker MV does a lot of the heavy lifting for creators, but there’s still a lot of programming and development that goes into the creation process. There are maps to account for, resources, limitations, items, et cetera. All of that had to be funneled into narrative. Just about everything a game needed, I had to create on my own. And when RPG Maker MV couldn’t match my preferences, I had to look to external sources for coding and plug-in management. It was a lengthy process, but also an enjoyable one.

Throughout the entire development process on Ellen: The Game, there were two things I learned that stuck out to me the most. The first was the value of honest feedback. As much as my friends loved the game, nothing is perfect. Bosses were too hard, the level cap was small, and the non-manual save system was limiting. The second thing that stuck out to me was narrative planning. When it came to Ellen: The Game, I thought of it more as a minor, personal project. A lot of the story was sort of made up as I went along, including the ultimate villain reveal, which happened to be a vacuum cleaner named Fuego. I knew that in the future, I had to plan out these narratives more thoroughly. I had to know exactly where I wanted my characters to be, and when I wanted my characters to be there. And that is exactly the mindset I carried into Paradise: The Sequel.

I began creating Paradise: The Sequel the summer after I finished Brunette’s class. A much more ambitious project, it was the next step on the road that eventually came to be the New Dork Trilogy, New Dork City being a primary location in the games that features hundreds of Ellen duplicates as its citizens. This time, I was much more prepared. I learned from my experiences with Ellen: The Game and came into the project with a full narrative outline, as well as with all the feedback I received from my first venture. Bosses were easier, the level cap was doubled, and now players could save on the fly. The story itself was also more ambitious, bringing the characters from the first game into the “Trash Bin” of the original game world. It ultimately led to a split narrative, with an important choice that brought players to one of two entirely different final chapters.

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The player makes an important choice in Paradise: The Sequel

Paradise: The Sequel was a hallmark of my personal projects. It gave me a great experience with game and narrative development. By the end, it was about eight hours of adventure, if players included both endings, as well as the different post-stories attached to each one. By the time I was done with it, I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to finish the story and go out with a bang, which is exactly why I began developing Parallel: The Finale.

Parallel: The Finale has been my most ambitious project yet. Nine months in, and I’m still not finished with it. The story follows a large time jump and takes the characters to a parallel universe, doubling the cast with parallel counterparts. The narrative is also much deeper, now having characters deal with losses and personal developments. By this point, I had perfected the characterizations of my friends, and now I wanted to show how I could change them. I’ve also taken what I’ve learned from my time at Brunette Games, doubling down on narrative and emphasizing the value of teamwork by bringing in friends to help with character designs, narrative feedback, and custom animations.

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The player enters New Dork City in Parallel: The Finale

What started out as a hobby grew into an academic project. What grew as an academic project led to a position, one that I can continually learn new things from that enhance my writing skills. Filled with passion and commitment, the New Dork Trilogy has been an incredibly momentous project for me. It’s something I will likely never forget. And now, as I evolve to new, exciting things, it’s very likely Parallel: The Finale will be the last story I ever write about my friends. As sad as I am to see that go, it’s almost like a final send-off for me as I graduate college, something that will drive me into the next era of adulthood. Ellen: The Game started a new chapter of my story, but it certainly didn’t end it.


From Game to Movie: A Review of 'Escape Room'

Ever since 1993’s live-action Super Mario Bros. movie, the trend of turning video games into movies has only grown stronger. In the past couple decades, gamers have seen many of their most cherished games make it to the big screen. The last few years alone have seen the Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider series arrive in theaters. Even now, gamers are expected to see both Sonic the Hedgehog and Pokémon get live-action adaptions in 2019. Yet, throughout all these adaptations, one genre that always seems to work is horror. Whether it’s the two-part Silent Hill movie series, or the six installment Resident Evil series, movies based off horror games seem to have staying power. And one thing that helps keep this trend interesting is that this horror movie treatment isn’t always limited to video games. Right now, escape rooms have become a growing trend as a type of physical adventure game, and it was only a matter of time before audiences saw it taking to the big screen as well.

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My name is Dexter Woltman. Not only am I Junior Writer/Designer here at Brunette Games, but I’m also an employee at Escape STL, a company that creates and operates escape room games. Essentially, escape rooms are games that see players locked in a confined space where they must work together to solve a series of puzzles and escape a room before the timer runs out. Much like most video games, escape rooms always have a story. Players are in there for a reason, and if they don’t get out in time, their lives are at stake. But what if these stakes were real? Director Adam Robitel tries to answer that question with Escape Room, a 2019 psychological thriller that pits six adventurous strangers in an escape room where the matter of life and death is a very real concern. As an employee at an actual escape room, I can say this film is both logically insane and satisfyingly enjoyable.

In the film, the six players enter the escape room much like any other group I’ve personally seen come through one of my rooms. They’re all there to play a game, and ultimately, they hope to win it. The six players in the movie are told they’ll receive $10,000 each for winning, which is already a much higher incentive than anyone would actually get for completing a regular escape room. The catch? This escape room has deadly consequences, but of course the players don’t know that going in. These players are also complete strangers to one another, having never met before being put in the room together. This introductory aspect of the team initially comes off as a bit odd. Typically, escape rooms are for groups of friends or families. It’s for people who want to have fun. Personally, I’ve never seen someone who wanted to be locked in a room entirely with strangers, but I’ve also never seen someone being offered $10,000 to do it. 

Leading the film are stars Taylor Russell and Logan Miller, playing the respective roles of Zoey Davis and Ben Miller. They’re joined by fellow cast members Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis, and Nik Dodani, together forming the team of six players. Ben and Zoey are the first characters the audience is introduced to. Zoey is a socially inept college student. She’s a genius, but also too shy to speak out. Meanwhile there’s Ben, a young man struggling to make a living in a grocery market. While both actors give convincing performances, it’s Zoey who proves time and time again that her oddities are merely part of a larger, brilliant whole. Rarely do we get to see young women of color leading these types of films, and Taylor Russell never fails to go all-in with every scene. There’s also much to see with the supporting cast, with Deborah Ann Woll giving a noteworthy performance as a veteran struggling with ongoing PTSD.

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Deborah Ann Wolf awaits the beginning of the game. Official trailer image.

 The film certainly has interesting characters, but where it often falls short is with these characters’ interactions with one another. Right at the beginning, the only one of them that has ever even done an escape room is Nik Dodani’s character, Danny. Not only has he done an escape room before, but he’s done over 90 of them, making him quite the expert. His character acts as a vehicle for introducing the rules and logistics of an escape room, especially seeing as how an employee lecturing them on the rules, something I frequently have to do, just isn’t very immersive to the movie-going experience. However, despite being the only member of the team with any experience, most of the other characters just make fun of him. They think he’s weird, and they’re rather mean to him. One would think that if $10,000 were actually on the line, people would listen to the only person that’s done one of these things before. There’s also the matter of the two leads, Taylor Russell and Logan Miller. Separate, they're intriguing, but together, the characters just don’t make sense. There’s no real chemistry between them, and it makes their trust for one another seem uninspired.

What is inspired, however, are the games themselves. Escape Room takes its players through a series of several rooms. Most modern escape rooms actually have more than one room, but this movie takes it to a new extreme. Honestly, it makes real escape rooms look almost dull in comparison. Each room is brilliantly designed. Not only are they diverse, but they contain truly unique concepts you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Although this film certainly pays homage to such horror franchises as Saw and Hostel, albeit with considerable less gore, its concept takes it places no other film can go. The puzzles are also fresh, bringing unique ways of thinking to every challenge. Truly, it’s just a fun movie to watch. Even in areas where it lacks depth, it makes up for it with spectacles and action pieces that continue to carry the film forward.

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The players enter a new room. Official trailer image.

Another highlight of the movie is its sense of danger. At first, none of the characters know that their actions might have lethal consequences. Even in the first room, what seems like danger they try to brush off as just an effect. However, when the first character dies, the reactions of the rest of the cast are truly intriguing. For the first time, these characters are aware of the danger. At that split-second moment, everything changes for them inside, and the actors portray it wonderfully. 

In contrast, however, sometimes the danger is also almost distracting. As far as actual plot goes, this film doesn’t have much. It’s really just people trying to escape rooms, and that’s about it. The film spends so much time with its dangerous set pieces, it fails to develop an ongoing narrative. Even the Saw movies, which also feature people going from room to room, always features a secondary story that correlates with its main games. Sure, in Escape Room, certain characters develop in certain ways, but it doesn’t really pay off as well as one might hope. It doesn’t help that the film seems to kill off its more likable characters first, leaving its less likable characters to carry it through the end. By the time the players actually do reach the final room, it’s hard to really care about what happens to some of them. This is only weighed down even further as the film suffers through its final act. Almost as if it wasn’t sure what it wanted to do with its finale, when the actual escape room ends, the film just seems to stagger, jumping around, as if the show creators weren't sure how to wrap it up. It also feels like the movie ends 10 minutes too late as it tries to stuff what could have been two hours worth of conspiracies into just a few scenes. So while it’s an entertaining ride, it doesn’t hold a lot of substance.

With a movie like this, there are also expected deviations from its source material. Its source material being actual escape rooms, that is. To start, it’s definitely a lot more extreme. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of the wild costs it would have actually taken to make each room. And when one of the rooms practically destroys itself, I leaned over to the person next to me and told her how much of a nightmare it would be to reset it before the next group. From an employee’s perspective, this movie is downright impossible. But from a movie-watching perspective, it’s quite the thrill ride. After all, the film does still stick to the core of what makes an escape room what it is. There are puzzles, players, a locked door, and hidden means of escaping. One core aspect of escape rooms that might seem to have changed, however, is the timer. Escape rooms typically always have a ticking clock on the wall. It lets players know how much time they have to escape  before it’s a mission failure. In the movie, however, the ongoing timer is noticeably absent. Yet, in an intriguing move, the movie replaces the actual timer with a timer that’s a bit more creative. Instead of a clock ticking down on the wall, each room has its own type of environmental timer. Whether it’s increasingly dangerous heat or an escaping gas, the players still always feel a sense of urgency. Even if there’s not a real timer on the wall, the players will still fail if they doddle for too long. It’s a move that strays from its roots, but keeps the film more fun.

Overall, Escape Room is an enjoyable ride. It takes a modern trend and evolves it into a theatrical set piece. While the story itself is lacking, it’s hard to expect anything too deep from this type of film. The movie certainly lives up to its promise of displaying an extreme escape room with death as an actual consequence. And, even if some of the character choices are dull or difficult to accept, Taylor Russell does a great job at keeping the audience engaged. The creators stayed true to the concept of an escape room, all while pumping the film with scenes meant to spike adrenaline and thrills. While this film may not leave a lasting impact on its audiences, it's sure to keep them entertained for a couple of hours. And with this kind of concept, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel in the near future.

 Escape Room is now playing in theaters.

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Game Review: Who Killed Jason Leder? On 'Lifeline: Crisis Line'

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The "cover," or loading screen.

Junior Writer/Designer Dexter Woltman here with a game review for you. At Brunette Games, we're all big fans of the Lifeline game series, so I thought I'd take a moment to review Crisis Line. If you love the mystery genre, you should definitely check it out.

Who killed Jason Leder? That’s the question everyone is asking in Lifeline: Crisis Line, a game of interactive fiction that allows the player to shape the story as it unfolds. Written by Matthew Sturges, this mobile game sets the player in the position of a HelpText volunteer. After being contacted by Austin homicide detective Alex Esposito, the player is asked to assist in a murder investigation, one that spins a tale of suspense, mystery, and unexplainable circumstances.

Crisis Line is one of numerous installments in Big Fish’s Lifeline series, where players are put in contact with well-developed characters facing dangerous situations in real-time. Previously on the blog, Lisa conducted an interview with Dave Justus, the author of the original Lifeline installment and its various sequels, Lifeline 2: Bloodline, Lifeline: Silent Night, and Lifeline: Halfway to Infinity. This installment set squarely in the mystery genre proves the series has legs far beyond its first author.

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Your chat companion this time is Alex Esposito, a detective who unofficially deputizes the player into becoming his partner on a murder investigation. The victim is Jason Leder, a lawyer who had recently been put in charge of selling mysterious crystals with unexplainable powers. With the crystals missing and no suspects, it’s up to the player to help Alex progress through the investigation and solve the case.

While the original Lifeline story put players in contact with a stranded astronaut on a desolate moon, Lifeline: Crisis Line finds its main character in a less isolated environment, on the streets of Austin. With a populated setting and numerous characters for Alex to interact with, it feels as if there’s more to this world than just the player and the main character. In addition, the concept of Lifeline: Crisis Line also takes a different format. Rather than just trying to survive, as in the original game, in this one, players try to solve a murder. This allows the opportunity to choose which clues and suspects to follow, as well as orchestrate numerous interrogations and interviews with other interesting characters.

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However, with this expansion also comes a greater suspension of disbelief. Despite taking place in a more realistic setting than other games in the series, such as the original game’s desolate moon or Lifeline: Whiteout 2’s nuclear wasteland, it can be harder to accept that the player has been put in communication with Alex Esposito. In the populated streets of Austin, Alex could talk with anyone. There are several other people at his immediate disposal, from an official partner at the police station to his own sisters. The game puts a lot of emphasis on Alex’s career and his dedication to the law, yet he blatantly obstructs confidentiality to talk about private details regarding a murder case to a complete stranger on HelpText. However, there's a clever acknowledgement of this, with Alex sarcastically mentioning, “Usually I only open up to strangers on the Internet,” when talking about his difficulties with trust.

One core aspect of Lifeline: Crisis Line is its emphasis on choices. In this regard, Lifeline: Crisis Line is a triumph. In most situations, the choices the player is left to make truly do impact the game's story. There are only a few instances where choices feel irrelevant, such as Alex disagreeing with the player on whether to add Jason Leder’s wife to the suspect list, regardless of which choice the player actually makes. However, most of the time, the choices do feel relevant. Not only can the player make choices that determine Alex's survival, but the player can also frame choices regarding clues and suspects, all which play heavily into the ultimate goal of the game, which is to solve Jason Leder's murder. Depending on the player’s eagerness to explore or willingness to put Alex’s life in danger, it may be a lot easier - or more difficult - to reach that goal.

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The choices also allow the player to shape what kind of detective Alex Esposito is. One prime example is when Alex is interviewing a close confidant of Jason Leder. This confidant, truly heartbroken by Jason’s death, is presented in a very fragile state. It is up to the player to decide whether Alex should tell the truth about the gruesome reality of Jason’s death or instead tell the confidant that it was quick and painless, ultimately weighing emotion against duty. Situations like this are presented frequently throughout the game, allowing various opportunities to discover which manner of detective work is best needed for each encounter.

The choices presented give players the opportunity to shape the game according to their own needs. One example is when Alex describes the details of the murder to the player and asks whether the player wants him to leave the gory details out of his description. Ultimately, this allows players to filter the game to their own sensitivities. There are also choices that allow players to either stay focused on the main story or allow it to be derailed at moments to explore the depth of Alex’s character. It entirely depends on player choice.

One distingquishing aspect of gameplay for Lifeline: Crisis Line is its “idle” time. Idle times are moments in the game when Alex is occupied with something and is away from the conversation, intending to immerse the player in a real-world environment. In the aforementioned interview, Justus remarked, “The ‘idle' time was essential to Three Minute's concept of a real-time conversation; it takes time for the characters to walk to a new location, or to eat a meal, or to rest for a bit.” Sturges upholds this aspect of idle time to good effect, often having Alex take breaks from HelpText to rest or drive. These idle times are also presented realistically, with one example being a drive taking 30 minutes instead of 15 due to traffic.

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Idle times also present players with opportunities to take a break from the game without becoming overly addicted. However, it should be noted that the game does also offer a “Fast Mode,” which skips the idle times entirely. But as Justus points out in relation to the original Lifeline game, “What we found was that, overwhelmingly, the majority of players chose to switch back to ‘real-time’ after trying ‘fast’ mode. The preference for the delays is considerable.” It is true that playing in real-time does add a greater sense of depth to the story that makes it seem more vibrant and present in everyday life.

Further mechanics of the game also include the ability to rewind the story to previous choices and re-make them. For players curious about all the possible branches for each choice, this feature will be welcome. It also allows players the opportunity to go backwards in the story if they reach an untimely situation in which a choice has led to Alex’s death.

However, this also means that the makers of the game were aware of this feature and thus, more willing to create intense situations with a lot of potential for failure. At several points in the game, Alex finds himself stuck in a difficult encounter where every choice seems to lead to death, truly forcing the player to double back and examine the outcomes of each potential choice. While this may become infuriating at times, it does succeed in demonstrating the danger and high stakes of this particular murder case.

 Justus laid a lot of groundwork for the Lifeline series, especially regarding the Greens, an alien species often referred to as “Occupiers” that like to take host in living bodies and assume control of the body’s mind. The Greens are a primary focus throughout the series, with Lifeline: Crisis Line even being labelled as part of the “Green Series.” In most cases, the story of Lifeline: Crisis Line stands on its own. However, there are multiple instances where Sturges works to connect Alex’s murder investigation with the Greens. It’s not necessary to have played the other games to understand these moments of the story, but these instances do take prominence and often distract from the ultimate goal of solving the investigation.

The presence of the Greens in Alex Esposito’s story is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s nice for the game to reference other games in the series and maintain an overall narrative in the Lifeline universe. On the other hand, this alien story often distracts the player from the more grounded story of discovering who killed Jason Leder. Just when the game is cementing an emotional connection between Alex and the player, an alien shows up and traps Alex in a space-like realm, entirely withdrawing the player from the immersion of what should be the focus of the game. The aliens add a touch of surprise to the story, but it’s not necessarily the kind of surprise the game needs.

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Source, all images: 3 Minute Games.

The Greens distract from the main thread up until the ending moments of the game, which itself is a weak point to an otherwise fulfilling adventure. Without giving away any spoilers, the endgame does a great job of making players feel accomplished in their investigation of Jason Leder’s murder. However, the fault comes in the game’s very last moments, where even the best achievable ending of the game leaves Alex in an uncertain fate, ending on a cliffhanger that sets up a sequel that has yet to be seen. Even though HelpText assures the player they did the best they possibly could, certain players may not be able to help but feel their efforts less impactful than in other games in the series.

Lifeline: Crisis Line is a well-woven tale of mystery and suspense. Its main character is very well-developed and sure to entertain the player throughout the entirety of the story. Sturges takes the Lifeline formula and applies it to a new environment, cementing the player in a deep murder investigation that breathes new life into the series with a strong narrative and solid framework of mechanics. In addition, Sturges proves he can respect the original writer’s legacy by establishing the Greens as a factor in the story. While this factor may seem overly distracting to some players, others may appreciate its deep ties to the rest of the series. Ultimately, the promise of Lifeline: Crisis Line is to engage players in a choice-driven, real-time story. Not only does it succeed in this promise, but it may even surprise players with its extraordinary depth and numerous twists. All in all, this is an entertaining game with more strengths than weaknesses. However, the only choice that truly matters in Lifeline: Crisis Line is whether you’ll allow it the chance to entertain you as well.

Lifeline: Crisis Line is available now on the App Store and Google Play. It was developed by 3 Minute Games and published by Big Fish.

Full disclosure: Lisa Brunette is former manager of the narrative design team at Big Fish. She consulted on Lifeline: Whiteout.

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