The Joys of a Transient Game

When a narrative is built around twists and surprises, then no matter how well written the game is it won’t evoke the same feelings a second time.

Lifeline is an intriguing high-concept game for mobile devices (even including the Apple Watch). You receive a distress text from the survivor of a crashed spaceship, and over the next few days in real-time, you must help him survive and escape the desolate moon by providing advice and support.

Her Story is a similarly high-concept game: You use a virtual search engine to find police interview clips of a woman who is a suspect in the disappearance of her husband. Watch the clips and piece together the story at your pace, in your own order.

What strikes me about these two games is that they're both inherently fleeting experiences. They're both very good experiences, but just like how you can't rewatch The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense for the first time ever again, any replay of Her Story and Lifeline will lose some of that magic that made them so compelling initially.

This is not a bad thing. For a medium that's often been obsessed with length and replay value, these highly focused experiences feel like a breath of fresh air. Part of their transience comes from the way that these two games put the player in unique positions that make us feel directly responsible for what happens. It’s a surprise, and like a twist ending, it’s a surprise that can only really be experienced once.

When I play Her Story, I'm playing as myself. I'm not assuming a role. I'm not inhabiting a character. I'm not an actor. I'm just me. My investigation is driven by my own curiosity and conducted based on my own assumptions or deductions. There is no detective vision like Batman has, highlighting important objects and short-cutting the investigative process. This investigative process rests entirely on my shoulders. It's a lot of pressure, but it is a fantastic pressure. It is a pressure that drives me further into the story, that makes solving this case feel important, like it's somehow time-sensitive.

There was one moment in particular in the game that made me recognize this experience as inherently fleeting. I had just stumbled across a big twist, a major revelation that forced me to reconsider everything I thought I knew, but before I could fully process the information, I stepped away from my computer. I leaned back in my chair and took in this moment, this calm before a mental storm. I imagined myself as one of those haggard detectives in a crime story, pouring over his notes in the middle of the night, eyes bloodshot, exhausted, and just then he finds the one clue that turns the case around. This was that moment, that turn, and that moment was fleeting because I'd never again be able to return back to a position of ignorance in regards to the subject matter of the game. I made sure to savor it before I dove back in.

When I play Lifeline, I communicate with the game's survivor character in real-time. When he eats lunch, he goes silent for a few minutes. When he's hiking or sleeping, he's silent for hours, and during the tense climax, he's chatting constantly for hours.

I found myself looking forward to his messages, like texts from a friend. I wanted to know what he was doing, what he was seeing, if he was alright. I felt guilty that I could only respond with two predetermined answers. Sometimes I wanted to say "Hi" or just a simple "okay," something to reassure him that I was still here and that he was not alone. I fretted over sleep because I knew that I might miss his messages, leaving him hanging for hours waiting for a response. Yes, the game will stop and wait for me, but that's logical thinking, and any good story allows you to forget the logical absurdity of its presentation. And Lifeline has a good story.

I realized as I was texting him that this sense of friendship could never be repeated. This worry I felt could never be reproduced on a subsequent playthrough. Even if I made different choices, they wouldn’t be my honest choices. They’d be choices made based on future knowledge.

These games are now done. I've finished them. The experience is over, and I can't bring myself to play them again. I haven't seen all the clips in Her Story, but I don't feel like I need to. "Her" story is complete and can never be retold the same way. I haven’t seen all of the endings or even all of the branching choices in Lifeline, but I already helped the survivor escape the moon, and I can't in good conscious strand him there again.

Her Story and Lifeline are obviously not the first games to do this. Heck, I even wrote a whole post about how Telltale's The Walking Dead evoked the same kind of feelings for me, but they're two of the most recent experiences like this that I have had, and they deserve to be highlighted.

Regardless of the particular game, when then narrative is built around twists and surprises, and tension stems from managing accidents, then no matter how well written a game is it won’t evoke the same feelings a second time. It’s not just that the narrative is so central in these games, it’s that our choices coming from a place of ignorance are so central to these experiences. We can’t unlearn what we already know, so the story can never feel as real as it did that first time. That's kind of sad, but also kind of amazing.

You should play these games and be sure to treasure them while they last.

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