A few weeks ago, I reached out to Dave Justus – the writer of the original Lifeline mobile game – to ask questions following a reveal that a new Lifeline game is in the making years after the last one was released.
Dave was kind enough to forward my questions alongside fan questions to 3 min. games, and both he and the team answered many of them. Thank you again, Dave and co!
Below you’ll find answers from Dave Justus, Colin Liotta, and Mars Jokela of 3 Minute Games, with the addition of special guest answers from Lilah Sturges.
This Q&A is divided into two sections: The first section is comprised of my questions. The second part is solely comprised of fan questions including an indication of the person who asked the question.
Before we dive into the Q&A: If you’re unfamiliar with the Lifeline series, they are mobile games where you chat with a fictional person on the other hand and help them with their quests. If you’re not careful, your help could cost them their lives.
I purchased and played the first lifeline game around 2015-2016, and I immediately fell in love. I’m in no way sponsored by 3 Min. Games, but I would totally recommend these games to anyone who will ask.
If you’re reading these questions and answers and have never played the games before – some of these answers include spoilers! I’ll not warn you again.
Let’s dive in!
Oren: Dave and co, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions! Before we begin diving deeper into the actual game, I want to start with an introductory question: Can you tell us a bit about how the lifeline games started and what ultimately happened that led to this “big pause” that has now ended with the revival of the games?
Dave: Mars and Colin from 3 Minute Games originally asked author Daryl Gregory to write the first Lifeline game. His schedule at the time didn’t allow it, so he was kind enough to suggest that they tap me for the job… and by doing so, he changed my life in ways I’ll never be able to repay.
I had only a handful of professional credits at that point, so 3 Minute really took a chance on an unknown quantity when they brought me on board. They gave me some parameters – this was to be a science fiction story about a marooned astronaut, gameplay should last about three days, here’s your deadline – but otherwise gave me free rein to create the character and world, which was a big gamble on their part. Fortunately, it seems to have paid off.
The “big pause” that you reference was a result of 3 Minute’s parent company, Big Fish Games, deciding to try some new things with their interactive fiction apps – which led to Lifeline Universe – but then ultimately deciding to focus on other priorities. Lifeline Universe never made it out of Android beta, so a lot of players – iOS users especially – never got to see those games.
And by that point, the three of us had all gone our separate ways from the company. I’d given them an outline for the fourth Taylor game, Bad Astronaut, but I don’t know how much of it (if any) got used, because I never got to play it on my iPhone.
The three of us started talking again last year, in hypothetical terms, about acquiring the rights to Lifeline and picking up where we’d left off. Colin can tell you more about what it took to move from “hypothetical” to “holy crap, this is happening,” but that’s where we are today: It’s happening, and we couldn’t be more excited to be polishing up the old games and creating new ones to continue expanding the world of Lifeline!
Colin: While at Big Fish, Mars and I ran a small semi-independent studio called 3 Minute Games where we tried out a wide variety of different experimental game ideas. One of those experiments, Lifeline, succeeded beyond our wildest expectations and led us down a whole new path of creating interactive fiction games.
As Dave mentioned, over time Mars and I left Big Fish and the priorities within the company shifted. Unfortunately, this meant that the original Lifeline games went un-updated for several years and there were no new stories in that series being created.
The three of us kept in touch though, and after some discussions with Big Fish, we realized that we could start our own fully independent company and take complete control and ownership of the games. We are now thrilled to be able to breathe new life into the original games and continue the stories that our fans (and us as well) have been waiting for.
What can we expect to see in terms of storylines going forward? Are you focusing only on Taylor at the moment, or are we going to see the comeback of Arika and other characters?
Dave: I don’t think it’ll surprise anyone when we say that our first new game is a Taylor game. That character has struck a loud and resounding chord with fans – and, frankly, with us too. So we know what this Taylor game is, and we have a good general idea of what the next one will be, too.
But we’re mindful that Arika and Alex and Wynn all have their own fan clubs, and we’d love to dive back into those stories too. Right now, 3 Minute is a tiny company, so we want to be cautious about overpromising – but we’re ambitious and optimistic, and we’d love for Lilah Sturges to write Alex out of that cliffhanger, and for Daryl Gregory to dig deeper into Wynn’s weird and horrific world, and for me to check in on Arika in the Quintessence… and about a million other ideas as well. So if things go the way we’re hoping, then yes, Taylor should have plenty of company in the future.
Mars: To add to that – we also know that plenty of fans would love to hear from Adams and Blue again. It’s a little bit trickier for us to update the original Whiteout and to bring Whiteout 2 back around, but it’s on our minds too!
Once the writing part is done, what needs to happen to transform a completed storyline into an app on our smartphones?
Colin: There are many different pieces that go into making the finished app. We try to create a unique art style for each game that can help to enhance the tone of the story.
For example, in the original Lifeline the background and borders help to evoke a feeling of desolation and alienness, whereas in Lifeline 2: Bloodline the font, scrollwork, and golden borders all help to make it feel magical. Similarly, the music is crafted to evoke different feelings and we fade between different music pieces as the story moves along.
On the coding side, we have created many different engines for each of the different platforms that the games run on. There was the original iOS version written in Objective C, and the original Android version written in Java. But more recently we have also created a Unity version, a web version, and a new iOS version that uses Swift and SwiftUI.
Probably the trickiest (and most interesting) part for coding the games is creating the seamless syncing between the phone and watch versions. Especially early on we had to dig very deep into the code for both devices to create an experience for the players that would ultimately feel very transparent and magical.
How long does the overall process take to bring an idea for a lifeline story to an app on our phones?
Dave: My part of it, the writing, in an ideal world, takes about four months – from a blank page to a pitch to an outline to a fully written game. There’ve been a few cobwebs to shake off this time around, but as we keep at this, my process should get smoother each time.
Mars: Most of the additional work that Colin mentioned can be done at the same time as the writing. The only major thing that can’t begin until the story is done is localizing to other languages.
We care a great deal about localizing the games, not just translating them – this means the whole story is localized for the target language and audience, and the jokes and references are updated so they make sense for the people who will be reading them.
To localize one game usually takes about six to eight weeks or more, depending on the length of the game. Sometimes the new languages are all done at once leading up to the initial release of the game, and sometimes they are done later, and the game is relaunched in the target region once the localization is complete.
Dave, I remember you spoke in the past about using the tool Twine to write the storyline. Is that still the case? Do you have any tips to share about writing a branching, multi-choice storyline like this?
Dave: I do still use Twine, and I’m quick to point out that my personal preference is for Version 1 over Version 2. That’s simply because V1 seems to be geared more for the layperson, with color codes and alerts and hover text all designed to make it user-friendly for dummies like me. V2 seems to cater more to those who already have some programming ability; it doesn’t hold my hand nearly as much as I need it to.
I think the best tip I can offer is: Don’t let your story get away from you. When writing a branching narrative, it is extremely easy to just keep branching; you’ll start from a single passage, and even if you only present two choices (as we do in the Lifeline games), two becomes four becomes eight and so on, and you can very quickly find yourself writing dozens of tangents that distract from your narrative.
So make sure that you periodically collapse everything back into a single passage again, one that definitively moves the story forward. It’ll make for a stronger, more propulsive narrative, and it’ll also help preserve your sanity behind the scenes.
What kind of research or preparation do you do before writing characters like Taylor, Arika, and Alex?
Dave: Taylor is the most research-intensive of my characters. The amount of stuff I don’t know about outer space, you could just about fit into outer space. So there’s a lot of Wiki wormhole time there, either checking to make sure I can do something in my outline, or discovering some interesting new factoid that then becomes part of the story.
I try to put some instructive science in each Taylor game as well, like the makeshift compass in the first game or the various fire extinguishers in Halfway To Infinity, so that if anyone gets caught playing the game during class, they can argue that they’re actually learning something.
With Arika, it was more about the geography of the Pacific Northwest, and how long it would actually take to move between various locations. And for both characters, of course, I’m constantly confirming my pop culture references and cataloguing various shades of green, so there are plenty of tabs open on my browser while I’m writing.
SPECIAL GUEST ANSWER FROM LILAH STURGES: I actually did a ton of research on our Alex! I spent some time talking to an actual homicide detective to get an idea of what his job was like, and that gave me a lot of insight into the job.
This detective that I spoke to wasn’t tough or showy or flashy — he was very thoughtful and soft-spoken, and I liked that a lot for Alex. That’s a big part of where the character came from. The rest was just good old-fashioned book learnin’!
After the release of the first Taylor game, the app store filled with “lifeline-like” games, and I played some after I finished my other lifeline games. None of them felt like the real deal because the UX was lacking. Is that something you recognized? Do you plan to offer the engine you’re using as a separate tool people can use to publish their own stories?
Dave: I guess that depends on what “UX” encompasses for you. My main goal was to make the games feel like conversations with real people… like you were actually getting texts from a friend, rather than prompts from a video game.
Real people sometimes stumble over their words, or change directions mid-thought, or make dumb jokes when they’re nervous. After writing Taylor as such an emotionally open character, I knew that Arika had a very different voice; the player had to earn her trust and her confidence.
When I work on dialogue – for these games, or for anything else I’m writing – I’ll often try it out loud, changing a word or inflection until it sounds exactly right to my ear.
Colin: We are actually hard at work on developing a new web-based tool that we’re calling LineEdit that is designed to make it easier to create these specific types of games. The tool can be used to author the game, but it also makes it easier for multiple people to collaborate on editing the story, and probably most importantly, it makes it much easier to translate the story into multiple languages.
The Lifeline games have always been translated into at least 6 languages and many of the standard file formats like Twine and Ink are not very well designed for translating, so it’s always been a bit of a struggle.
For the future games we’re hoping to make the whole process much faster, reliable, and easier, and assuming that the tool works how we’re hoping then we’d be excited for other people to use it as well.
Dave, the fact that Taylor’s gender is ambiguous fascinates many people and resonated with many non-binary people who played the games. Was that something you considered while writing the character or something that came by as a result of “speaking directly” to the player? Did you have a specific gender in mind when you wrote Taylor?
Dave: The idea of Taylor not having a specified gender was already in place when I came on board, and I thought it was genius. And even though it was purposeful, I don’t think any of us anticipated just what a positive reaction we would see from the LGBTQ+ community.
Taylor could be whatever they most needed or wanted from the character. Players assigned Taylor a gender, or no gender, often unconsciously – and we worked hard to make sure not to break that reality for anyone. (Which got really tricky with the introduction of the T2 character… but we enjoy a challenge!)
Writing the first game, I thought of Taylor as male – and several of my friends have said they couldn’t help but picture my voice saying Taylor’s dialogue. But after we started taking in the reaction from the fans, when I came back to write Silent Night, I found myself thinking of the character more as non-binary.
It’s a question people asked a lot when we would do, say, the #TalkToTaylor Twitter events – “Is Taylor male or female?” – but honestly, the more I write the character, the more I don’t think there’s a definitive answer.
Did you ever believe such a vibrant, colorful community would be founded around these stories?
Dave: In a million years, I couldn’t have predicted the response to these games. I mean, the download numbers were staggering enough… but then we started seeing fan art, cosplay, fan fiction.
It was, frankly, completely overwhelming. As a creator, you always hope that your work is connecting with people… but I don’t know that I ever believed my words would be so meaningful to so many.
And let’s be honest: Without the community of fans keeping the lantern lit, even during the darkest times, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. The fact that the Lifeline Discord remained active, and hopeful, during the games’ absence was one of the top factors in our decision to pursue the rights to make more of these games.
We owe our continued (and future) success to the fans, and that’s top of mind for us as we polish up the old games and work very hard to make sure that the new material doesn’t disappoint.
When can we expect to see the next installment of the Green Series on the app store?
Dave: Like I said, we know we need our first new game to be a knockout, so we’re taking the time to make it as amazing as possible. So we don’t have a date set in stone, but let’s say definitely in 2021, hopefully in the fall, and with everyone here doing all we possibly can to make it worth the wait.
Author’s Note: I did my best to keep the original fan questions pristine – only fixing grammar mistakes that affected readability.
Angela: Is there a ‘you have led (protagonist) down the best path’ message for each game? I love the reassurance that I did the best I could have for my friend!!
Colin: I don’t believe that we ever gave a “best path” message at the end of any of the games. We sort of felt like the story that was created jointly between the player and the character was special on its own and we didn’t need to try and force people to have a different “optimal” experience. To be honest, I feel like a lot of Dave’s best writing happens on the sub-optimal paths.
Nina Kovari: When you made the first Lifeline game, did you already plan out all the other characters from the other games from the start?
Dave: Not at all. We knew we wanted to try a different genre for the second game (Bloodline) – hence urban fantasy, rather than science fiction – but it was only while outlining that game that we realized the Greens should be the antagonists for Arika as well.
If memory serves, it was after Bloodline that we had a face-to-face-to-dry-erase-board meeting where the whole mythology began to take shape. That was such an exciting time, because we realized the versatility of the world(s) we were creating, and how exciting it would be when players started making connections between the games.
GreenFieldzBeats: What other media inspired you to make the lifeline games?
Dave: A lifetime of comic books, science fiction and horror movies and TV and novels, and a childhood spent with a shelf full of Choose Your Own Adventure books and Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy game on the ol’ Apple IIe. I think the Taylor games, specifically, owe debts to Alien, Event Horizon, Sunshine, Robotech, Red Dwarf… I learned from the best.
TBD: Are the characters based on anyone in particular?Are there any noteworthy unused mechanics/story moments?How did you get the idea for the “texting” game genre?How has your day been so far?
Dave: The characters aren’t based on anyone, really; they’re more amalgamations of friends and fictional characters, remixed to tell new stories. Again, I’ve had several friends tell me that Taylor is “obviously” me, and while I see where they’re coming from, that wasn’t my intent.
Arika is every cute-but-troubled girl in high school that I was too intimidated to ask out. Carter Miles and Leila Grace (from Bloodline) are shout-outs to friends’ kids who loved the first game – but in name only, not in character traits.
As for the second question, I can think of a couple things. There was originally going to be a fourth artifact for Arika to quest after before returning to New Tenacity, but that game’s word count ran way too high, so we decided against it before it ever got written. More heartbreaking, though, was a big chunk of Crisis Line that led to a different killer, and that was excised at the last minute. Maybe we’ll see it resurface at some point in the future?
Colin: The original idea for Lifeline came during WWDC (Apple’s annual developer conference) when they announced that notifications (the little alert messages that can pop up on your phone) could now have “actions” attached to them.
I realized that with these actions it would be possible to let the player make choices directly from the notification and that they could actually play the game entirely via these notifications. That then led to a bunch of brainstorming with Mars and we realized that we could create a story where you were communicating in real-time with someone who desperately needed your help, and it would feel identical to texting with a close friend.
This was also right around the time that Apple Watch was announced, and the watch was an absolutely perfect platform to launch the game on, so we scrambled to create the game/story on a rushed schedule and just barely managed to get it out in time for the launch. And then the rest was (very happy) history.
Dave: My day started way too early, feeding cats and bunnies in the 5 a.m. hour, reading a few comic books from this week’s stack, doing a grocery store run, and answering a lot of questions about Lifeline, which has been pretty pleasant. And you?
Meiyou-Ren: It’s been quite a while since the last Lifeline game came out. Are there any other projects you’ve been working on or wanting to work on during this time?
Dave: For my part, there was more “wanting to work on” than actual working. I started a couple of games that, for one reason or another, wound up not happening.
I pitched a few comic books with no luck. There was some real momentum for a while on turning the comic that Lilah and I did, Public Relations, into a TV show – I went out to Hollywood a couple times, even! – but the pandemic seems to have smothered those flames.
Casher56: Do you think that writing stories in this format is easier or harder than in a book format?
Dave: Harder, in my experience. In a book, a character turns left. In interactive fiction, he turns left AND right AND ALSO goes straight NOT TO MENTION he turns around OH AND PLUS he just stands still. And I have to write all of those stories, at least to some degree.
In a novel, the author is the ultimate authority on the plot. In these games, the player shares that responsibility; even if the writer knows that the character must turn left for the story to continue, the other options have to seem equally plausible.
This, of course, means that there will always be parts of the games that the player never sees. If I write you a 90,000-word novel, you’ll read every one of those words. But Bloodline is also 90,000 words, and you’re only seeing about half of them in any given playthrough. And I have to make sure that the half you see is good enough to make you interested in the half that you didn’t.
Jay Zolanski: Will there ever be a (short) movie of some sort about the adventures of Taylor? I would literally LOVE that
Dave: We would too! Nothing’s in the works at the moment, but I’ve learned to never say never when it comes to Taylor.
Amy Houck: Will Taylor ever return to Earth?
Dave: You don’t really want me to answer that here, do you?
Lady_Noremon: I have always wanted to know what happened to/with Bos!
Dave: I’m pretty sure he died? I haven’t played Silent Night in years. Anyone want to help out an old man with a bad memory?
Jorge Pamanes: What’s the hardest part of making a decision-based game?
Dave: I think for the most part I’d refer you to my answer to Casher56 above. I have to try to make all the decision options equally compelling or intriguing enough to get players to try all the branches, and then I have to make those branches compelling enough to get them to the next decision.
Boop_doop_whoop: What was it like leaving us on such a cliffhanger with Alex only to be unable to continue his story? It was heartbreaking to see as a fan, I can only imagine how hard it was as a creator. <3(also, I have my fingers crossed for more Alex soon!)
SPECIAL GUEST ANSWER FROM LILAH STURGES: It was horrible! It haunts me to this day because there are so many things in Crisis Line that were created as setup for the sequel! They were always meant to be played as one large game in two parts, so it was extra frustrating when we didn’t get to do the second game as planned.
Robloxlover122: What has been your favorite part of working on the Lifeline games?
Dave: The fans, full stop. Lifeline can claim among its fan base some of the most dedicated, passionate, creative, warm, and wonderful people I’ve ever met. So many people have told me how Taylor got them through a rough time, or how Arika was the friend they needed for a few days.
The people who love these games – beyond simply having incredible taste in fiction, obviously – have humbled me time and time again over the last few years with their kindness and their enthusiasm. Lifeline lives because its fans refuse to let it die, and I think that’s pretty phenomenal.
Justabeanie102: How many hours of research goes into making the games, in terms of researching things like space?Also, after creating a series of games involving aliens, would the team ever want to go to space if given the opportunity?
Dave: I’d estimate that my process is about 35% reading/researching/outlining, 65% writing the game. Some of that research is done beforehand; some is done in the middle of the writing, when I need clarification or I’m struck by an idea that’s more interesting to me than what I originally outlined.
Halfway To Infinity was by far the most heavily researched game I’ve written – all the stuff about Tipler cylinders and “plausible” time travel. I love science fiction but I don’t really have a head for science, so I’m lucky that my friend Jeff Ross knew a lot of answers and also knew where to send me for more.
I would never pass the physical to get on a shuttle in the first place; my bones are mostly dust and metal shards. Plus, I’m not the kind of guy who skydives or bungee jumps, so I don’t see myself blasting off for adventure beyond the stars. I doubt I would rise above the rank of “red shirt” in any alien encounter.
Ricepaperperon: Do you have any events like Talk to Taylor in the future?
Dave: I always had a good time doing those, so I imagine we’ll resurrect the idea – or something very like it – when the time is right.
AJ70350547: Will Taylor ever ask our name or will he just call us his Lifeline?
Dave: Neither! We finally have a solution for this in the upcoming game.
SkyeVicari: Will any of the old main characters meet each other? Arika did say some special stuff if you put Taylor as your name, so I was curious if that ever was or ever will go anywhere.
Dave: What I’ve discovered, while working on the new game, is that it is increasingly tricky to write multiple characters in a single game. (Ooh, a hint!) Which is not to say that we haven’t thought about it quite a bit. This may be one of those “down the road” things that we don’t attempt until we’re sure we can pull it off with aplomb.
All the fun Easter egg business with the names was meant to be just that: fun, but not necessarily canon. Still, I’ll revisit those eggs and see if any of them are worth trying to hatch.
MariMariMorris: What’s the writing process like for a game where you have to write to account for time gaps?
Dave: I just try to make them feel natural and fair. Sleeping, obviously, is the easiest way to kill a big block of time. But if it’s another activity – like walking around a crater, or walking along an Oregon highway, or pretending to walk along an Oregon highway while actually warping to your destination and grabbing some lunch – I try to make the time gap reasonable. I want the player to feel like they’re getting the attention they deserve from the characters.
And last but not least a combination of many specific questions about characters not coming back: Is there any character we WON’T see coming back at some point?
Dave: I mean… this is horror/SF, so already players should be wary. And we know that the Greens can animate corpses. So is anyone truly gone, even after they’re dead? Hard to say. Personally, I hope we don’t see Leila Grace again anytime soon. She freaked me right the hell out.
Thanks for all the questions – and thanks for being Lifeline fans! Honestly, this community means the world to us, and we’re hard at work to bring you the very best stories we can. May luck, ever-present, turn her back on your foes!