The other week, the free app of the week on the Apple App Store was a choose your own adventure style game called Lifeline.
Made by 3 Minute Games, Lifeline features a stranded astronaut, Taylor, who needs your help making some pretty big decisions. And it’s about as simple as games come – text appears on the screen as Taylor communicates with you, then every so often you get a choice between two options. There are no pictures, only basic sound.
But as a game it’s utterly compulsive and nail biting. And the reason for that is excellent writing. It’s no longer free, but it’s totally worth the 79p/$0.99 it costs, because you can analyse the techniques used by the writer to improve your own craft. While having a really good time playing an excellent game. Win win!
What Lifeline can teach writers
How to create compelling characters
When we are introduced to Taylor, all we have to go on is his/her dialogue. It’s not even clear, with the gender ambiguous name ‘Taylor’, what the astronaut’s gender is. But despite limited information, we quickly get a sense of Taylor’s character, and start to like them.
They have what I like to call the ‘endearing freak out’ moment. The situation Taylor is in is clearly dire, and, understandably, they are a bit freaked out. But while Taylor does have a moment of ‘argh my life is awful right now’, they quickly recover and start being practical. It’s realistic. Who wouldn’t freak out if their spaceship had just crashed and they were all alone in the world? But they don’t dwell on it long, they’re resourceful, which makes us care.
With the bare minimum of words, we have a sense of the character and are starting to root for them. And that really matters – in a choose your own adventure game, or in your writing.
How to create Nail-Biting Tension
I’m going to start being less specific here because I don’t want to spoil the joys of this game for anyone who wants to play it. But while you’re playing, look out for techniques being used to create tension.
The writer makes excellent use of creepy setting, spooky noises and goings on, the suggestion of things happening just out of the character’s eye-line to make the player feel nervous. Simple decisions about walking down corridors become difficult to make because so much seems to be able to go wrong. The stakes are enormous, and anyone with even the slightest knowledge of writing knows that stakes have to be high to make the story compelling for the reader. For Taylor the stakes are quite literally life and death.
It makes you want to keep playing, the game equivalent of turning the pages. Although, it’s worse in Lifeline, because as the player you have a sense of responsibility and one wrong move could destroy the astronaut you’ve come to care so much about.
The importance of impossible decisions
Towards the end of the game, I was faced with a decision that I actually didn’t want to make. After deliberating about it for a while, I text my sister (also called Taylor, just to confuse things) who was also playing through the game.
You can probably tell from those messages that I was genuinely sweating about this decision. I bothered to text sister-Taylor for a start. That requires a degree of investment in the situation. (Also, note what she says about game-Taylor sending messages about chickening out and forcing her to decide his fate all over again – great tension building technique! Not sure how well this would work in a novel, but it’s something to think about.)
And to give you an idea just how invested I was in this decision, take a look at the timings here. Bear in mind that the initial message I sent is off the screen, but was probably around the same time as Taylor’s reply at 19:01. I make my decision at 19:13. That’s 12 whole minutes I spent deliberating the decision. 12 minutes! For a simple click and choose adventure, that’s a hell of a long time to think about something.
But the simple fact was, I really didn’t want to make the wrong decision. I was invested. I wanted Taylor to live. But neither of the options I was given looked good, and that meant that I couldn’t see a way either was going to end well. Hence the 12 minute deliberation.
This has really made me think about my writing, particularly my plotting. Characters should be faced with choices that aren’t easy. If there’s a simple solution, there’s no conflict, no tension. Impossible choices keep things unpredictable and they make the reader keep reading because you just have to see the choice play out.
Lifeline is particularly good at presenting you with choices that have pros and cons on both sides. It’s not like ‘push the red button’ or ‘leave the red button that says ‘self destruct’ well alone.’ You have to make difficult decisions about use of resources – like ‘set up a perimeter alarm and use up the power, or save it for the emergency beacon’. Both choices have merit, and without knowing what’s ahead, you can’t say which is going to be more vital. Choose the alarm, and you may never be rescued, choose the beacon and you might not last the night. Characters in stories should face those kinds of choices all the time, and the consequences have to be real and damaging. Without this, the plot will have no urgency, and the reader investment won’t be as high.
How to tell a really good story
Most of all, Lifeline shows you an excellent example of spare story telling. There isn’t a lot to go on. It’s just dialogue, and not much of it at that. But over the course of the game, you learn so much about the character, the situation, as well as the unfolding mystery about what actually caused the ship to crash. It’s an unconventional medium for delivering a story, but it works. And any example of good story telling is worth picking apart and examining, to see what can be applied to your own craft.
(And, incidentally, when I asked sister-Taylor’s permission to share the texts, she said, ‘[that] was really an intense moment in our lives.’ The impact of Lifeline is still memorable, some weeks later!)
You can use the same (free!) software that 3 Minute Games used to make your own Choose Your Own Adventure game. It’s called Twine, and is available here.