In-game art for the 'Stepping Stone' case in Homicide Squad: Hidden Crimes.
Here's BG team member Dexter Woltman, with some insight into what it's like to transition from student to a career as a game writer/designer.
During this past year, I had the amazing opportunity to join Brunette Games as a junior game writer/designer. This job has connected me to developer teams at game studios all around the world - our BG clients. One of the studios I’ve had the pleasure of working with is G5 Entertainment.
G5 Entertainment is the proud developer of Homicide Squad: Hidden Crimes. In Homicide Squad, players put their detective skills to the test as they search for clues, find hidden objects, solve cases, and arrest criminals. It’s a popular game that G5 continues to support and update, and it’s also the game that provided me with my first professional writing assignment, a murder case that would come to be called “Stepping Stone.”
When I first joined Brunette Games, I was still a student in college. As I continued to deal with the complications of school, my work in game writing was more limited. I was new, and my focus largely stayed with editing and localization work. But while I was still a student, Lisa Brunette gave me my first opportunity to write an original piece, a case for Homicide Squad, after editing several cases for G5's localization team. Safe to say, I was more than excited.
As the writing developed, that excitement turned to hard work. G5 provided us with a case outline about a woman who walked into her flower shop one morning to find three strangers dead. It was my job to turn the outline into a full-fledged piece of writing fit with charm and mystery.
Initially, the hardest part for me was the characters. Although the new characters introduced especially for this case were easier and fun to develop, it was the longstanding characters that proved more difficult. Here I was with a game whose main characters had been around for a long time. They’ve grown and developed over the course of numerous cases. G5 had given me two tremendously popular main characters in Detective Turino and Detective Lamonte, and I wanted to respect those characters and make them as spot-on as I possibly could.
Official G5 art for Detective Lamonte and Detective Turino.
The process for me meant going back to a lot of Turino and Lamonte’s older cases. I played through their dialogue again and again, trying to get the best sense of their characters I possibly could. In the end, I persevered, and I was able to keep them true to their characters while also adding a new layer to Turino’s sympathy.
Since this was my first original piece, another thing I wasn’t as familiar with was the revision process games typically go through. 'Stepping Stone' went through a lot of rounds of revisions, eventually resulting in about half of my dialogue getting cut. But in doing so, I learned to take advantage of textual spaces and really focus on efficient writing. So even though I lost half my dialogue, I didn’t actually lose any story. This is especially thanks to both Lisa Brunette and G5, who were extraordinarily helpful in making the case the best it could be.
'Stepping Stone' was an impactful, transitionary moment in my life. It opened the gateway to new projects with other clients, as well as further projects with G5. As a student, I wouldn’t have imagined I would make it this far in the game design industry at this age. I didn’t even think I would be a part of the game design industry at this age. That’s why, even when the stresses of school or other work were pressing down, Brunette Games always remained my priority. I knew what I was doing was important, and it made me feel better about myself every day.
There was also my transition from student work to real-world professional work. In my writing classes at school, I could basically write whatever I wanted. I didn’t have to regard tone or theme, I could just write. Then, maybe there would be an in-class workshop or two, and it was done. I was passionate about it, yes, but I was also writing for the grade. When I started writing professionally, it was a lot different. There is no grade, it’s just me always making the writing the best it could possibly be. Everything must always be efficient, quick, and top-notch.
In-game art for the 'Stepping Stone' hidden object scene.
Another notable difference between student work and professional work is the creative freedom. When I’m writing for a class, I essentially just write whatever I want to write. Whatever characters or stories I wanted to be in the story could be in the story. With professional writing, it’s no longer always just me deciding what goes into the writing. I have clients with established characters and worlds. They have stories they want to see happen. But in that way, I’m almost more creative. Writing literally anything is a hobby. Writing specifically for a client’s need is where my real skill starts to show. So even if I’m writing something I didn’t necessarily consider myself wanting to write, I always strive to make it something I want to write. In doing that, I’ve created some truly extraordinary stories I’m very proud of.
When it comes to my growing professionalism, not only do I owe it to the guidance of Brunette Games, but I also owe a lot of it to our client, G5. After 'Stepping Stone,' I took on the role of regularly editing the game’s many other fantastic cases. Through repeatedly having opportunities to edit real, professional text, I’ve learned what makes game writing work. I know how to be efficient with my writing and create natural-sounding dialogue. Every time G5 has a new editing job for me, I get excited because it’s another opportunity to enhance my writing. Well, that and the team allows me a lot of latitude in creating puns for their quest titles, and that’s always the highlight of my day.
In-game art for one of Detective Turino's quest debriefings.
Brunette Games and G5’s 'Stepping Stone' case marked a lot of firsts for me. I’m young, sure, but I’m growing into becoming a real professional. With our amazing clients and extraordinary team members at Brunette Games, I feel comfortable evolving into something better. I went to school for writing so that I could have a chance to become something more with my storytelling. Brunette Games and our clients have given me that chance, and I only become prouder of it with each passing day.
Play the Game
Homicide Squad: Hidden Crimes is developed by G5 Entertainment, with narrative design, writing, and editing support from Brunette Games. Find it on the App Store, Google Play store, Amazon App store, and wherever mobile games are sold.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Is 60 seconds enough time to prepare for a nuclear apocalypse? Polish indie developer Robot Gentleman tries to give players the tools to answer that question—but you'll have to choose between saving your daughter and saving three cans of soup. 60 Seconds! is a dark comedy atomic adventure game that puts players in the role of a suburban dad. Much like the title suggests, players have 60 seconds to collect as much supplies from their homes as they can and evacuate to an underground bunker before an incoming nuke hits the ground. It’s a dark-humored game that contains interesting mechanics, unique characters, and plenty of groundwork for its follow-up, 60 Parsecs!
60 Seconds! opens with a fascinating blend of apocalyptic music and flashy animations. It’s a title sequence with multiple variations, all which fit the mood of the game quite well. The fun only continues from there in the tutorial, where a strict, yet humorous military general commands players through the basic mechanics of the game. Essentially, players have 60 whole seconds to run around their house and grab as much as they can. Players only have four open inventory spots, meaning that they have to make multiple trips from the entrance of their bunker to the rest of the house. One minute might not seem like a lot of time, but like the military general assures, it’s a very advanced warning system.
The intro sequence gets harder when certain objects take up more inventory space than others. A can of soup or bottle of water only takes up one space, but the gun on the wall takes up double. There’s also the factor of family members. Players, being put in the role of the dad, can choose to save their wife, daughter, or son. They can take all of them, take some, or leave them all to die in the blast. One might think it’s an easy choice, but that’s just more food players have to share. Plus, choosing to grab a family member means players have less inventory space to grab other things. Those three cans of soup could ensure survival for at least a few days, and the overweight daughter and her tuba might become a burden.
The opening sequence is fun in the way that players have to make a lot of quick-second decisions. However, the game also finds itself burdened by clunky controls. Moving around the house feels particularly awkward, and the constant maneuvering around random barricades certainly doesn’t help. This may easily frustrate players, and when they only have 60 seconds, every step counts. The animations for this part of the game also don’t suit the rest of the experience, subverting to 3D graphics over the rest of the game’s 2D visuals. It puts a damper on immersion and breaks consistency between different parts of the game. Players might even choose to play a different game mode where they start in the bunker with a randomized selection of supplies, just so they can skip this clunky first part. On the bright side, however, if players do choose to stick around for this first section of gameplay, the house randomizes its layout every playthrough, making sure memorization is never an unfair advantage.
Once the timer counts down, and the players are safe in their bunker, the real fun begins. Playing out on a day-to-day cycle, players get to watch their family slowly descend into madness as randomized events determine their future. It’s a bit awkward at first. When players start the game, they’re put in the role of the dad. However, once the players get into the bunker, it really doesn’t matter, seeing as how they now have control over the entire family. Despite this, what follows is still a lot of fun. Going forward, it’s up to the player to ration the family’s food supply, make important decisions, and send family members out on scavenging runs. There’s also a daily journal that keeps players updated on events and the family members’ thoughts and feelings. The best way to describe this part of the game is with only one word: hilarious. Does the player want to grow a mutant fern, worship a bunch of cats, eat his kid’s hamster, explore a crashed spaceship, play with a sock puppet, or all of the above? Just when you think you've seen it all, your daughter mutates into a giant purple monster and beats up a gang of raiders. It’s always entertaining, and always wildly unpredictable.
The bunker survival is definitely the meat of the game. Not only do each of the different characters play out their own stories in surprising ways, but the game is riddled with funny visuals that let the player know just how much their families have descended into madness. Day by day, players can watch as characters physically degrade, their eyes growing weaker and their faces going paler. Players will even see odd, yet disturbingly cute pictures being drawn on the pages of the daily journal. This part of the game also keeps great track of your collected items, letting players know when family members need food or water. It also tells players what items can be used in certain events, as well as what items could have saved them if they had only chosen to grab that from the house instead of their tenth can of soup.
The only major struggle with the bunker portion of the game is a clear end goal, at least in terms of story. There are hints dropped along the way that certain endings might happen, but the game makes itself so wildly unpredictable that finding a clear pathway can sometimes be tough. There also isn’t much given between the family members themselves. Players might think the mom character would be upset when they choose to leave the daughter behind, but the mom could hardly bat an eye. While there’s plenty of conflict in the world, characters have little conflict between each other, which is a bit of a missed opportunity when such diverse family members are thrown in an underground bunker together with zero privacy.
Despite the missed potential in story, the game does still propose an interesting conspiracy. Sprinkled throughout the game are clues about "Astrocitizens," people that may just have survived the atomic blasts from the far reaches of space. Did these people abandon Earth, or steal its supplies? All this theorizing finally pays off when it gets to 60 Parsecs!, the thrilling space-bound sequel to 60 Seconds!
60 Parsecs! takes the formula of the first game, gives it a new setting, and fixes a lot of problems along the way. It starts with the very Astrocitizens themselves. Living on a space station in the orbit of Earth, players, now in the role of space captain, have only a minute to grab their crew and flee to the escape pod before nuclear devastation contaminates the Earth and erupts the station. From there, it’s up to players to pilot their crew across the galaxy and find a new home. Only, it’s nowhere near as simple as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound that simple to begin with!
The first major difference with 60 Parsecs! is that players are now free to choose which character they want to play as. Rather than be forced to play as the suburban dad, they can choose to be either a male or female space captain. The captains, as well as the rest of the crew members, also vary in their races and ages, bringing some much-needed diversity to the series. Also, this game always makes it clear who the player character is. Unlike the first game, player characters can’t be sent on scavenging runs. As captains of their crews, it’s up to them to stay back and make sure everything on the ship remains operational. It brings a new level of immersion to the game now that players know it’s their character that is always making the decisions.
If 60 Seconds! does a fairly good job randomizing events to keep each playthrough fresh, 60 Parsecs! does a spectacular job. Not only is there an assortment of diverse crew members to take along on your journey, there’s also several different alien planets you can end up on, none of which are doing any better than Earth and its nuclear apocalypse. So, while one playthrough has players on a ravaged, stormy planet, another has them on a robot alien homeworld. And, as expected, each planet has its own assortment of events. For example, if players find themselves on the ravaged, stormy planet, they’ll also find themselves dealing with two alien groups battling for power. Because there are so many different scenarios that can play out, there’s also a lot of different endings. Much like the first game, some of these endings are good, some are okay, and some are downright horrible. It’s that diverse experience that keeps players always coming back for more.
With all the different planets and scenarios, there’s also a lot more story. Unlike the first game, the goals are more clear. Each planet seems to have a different main event line that gives players a clear end goal. This end goal takes a while to achieve, but it gives players something grounded to work towards. There’s also the aspect of crew members. Unlike in the first game, the different crew members must deal with conflict between them. Some of them might grow to hate each other, and others might grow to love each other. This also carries into the player character. Players might often find themselves with a crew member that has fallen in love with them, or a crew member that no longer wants to be their friend. So, even with the unknown dangers of space lying just outside, there’s still a lot of conflict going on inside the ship.
60 Parsecs! also fixes arguably the largest issue in 60 Seconds!, which is the awkwardness of the opening scavenging portion of the game. Like mentioned before, 60 Seconds! has the players running around their homes grabbing supplies in the first part of the game, a segment often weighed down by clunky controls and an odd 3D landscape. This segment always worked on a basic scale, but 60 Parsecs! improves it in many ways. To start, it switches the graphics from 3D to 2D. Not only does this make running around a lot cleaner, but it also keeps this portion of the game more consistent with the rest. The animations and graphics match the remaining parts of the game, allowing the entire experience to be more immersive. In addition, the new 2D layout makes the controls a lot smoother. Running around is no longer a frustration of walls and rooms, but rather a coast from one part of the space station to the other.
60 Parsecs! also changes up a lot of the base mechanics from the original game. Now the player has the option to romanticize and befriend other characters, allowing for a more personalized experience. It also includes a crafting machine, making sure players still have a way to get that one important item they may have forgotten on the space station 30 days ago. There’s also still the option to send characters out on scavenging runs. Only this time, players can choose exact locations to send them to, letting them weigh the risks and rewards of each area. It also adds more to the story, making it exciting and interesting whenever a new scavenging location is discovered.
The only base mechanic in the sequel that seems to have been changed for the worse is rationing. In 60 Parsecs!, players no longer have to care about rationing water. However, instead of one can of soup feeding a family of four for an entire day, like in the original, each crew member will eat his or her own entire can of soup each day. The game tells the player that each can of soup will last an individual crew member for several days, but, despite this, those characters can still be labelled as hungry just one day after feeding them. The revised menu system, although still an overall improvement over the original, also fails to let players know how many cans of soup they have left in a more convenient way. Despite all this, the soup humor in the game remains strong. Cans of soup can be found all across a multitude of planets, and even the captain will question how tomato soup is so universally widespread.
Speaking of humor, that’s yet another thing 60 Parsecs! amps up over the original. With all the different types of planets and aliens, there’s so much more potential for comedic encounters. One of the best examples that comes to mind is the Dancelord aliens, who abduct the captain and challenge him or her to an intense dance-off! There’s also the new journal system, which is actually a computer with a humorous mind of its own. And it would be a crime not to mention the ancient alien cow relic, which only raises even more conspiracy theories about the game and its wacky world.
Overall, 60 Parsecs! is definitely a worthy successor to 60 Seconds! Robot Gentleman did a great job of creating a series that combines simple gameplay with over-the-top humor and dangerous apocalyptic scenarios. While the first game explores life after a nuclear fallout, the second game journeys into the far reaches of space, diversifying the experience of each game in a multitude of ways. 60 Parsecs! also realizes the pitfalls of the first game, adding more diversity, smoother mechanics, and deeper story content. Really, the only question left is where possibly Robot Gentleman will take the series next. Give the games a try yourself, and you may be excitedly asking yourself the same question.