Are you terrified now?

Way to Go is the first full-length album from Survival Guide. You’d probably call it an electronic pop album, but the connotations of both of those terms are misleading. Contrary to the typical “layers of buzzing sounds” aesthetic that the term “electronic” brings to mind, this is a very precise album. It’s not quite minimalist, there are actually a lot of neat effects, but each one makes a specific contribution to the tone of each song, the production is careful and balanced, and many of the songs make powerful use of empty space. As for being a pop album, while the songs are generally short, have simple structures, and borrow from a variety of styles, there’s a pervasive sense of seriousness and urgency that prevents any of it from feeling ephemeral. The overall tone is actually really dark, more in the subtle shadowy sense than the oppressive industrial sense, contrasted by vocals that are both crystal clear and bright as day.

The cohesiveness of the album is what takes it from “impressive” to “serious business.” While the songs use a lot of different styles and tones, it’s not just for fun (I mean, it’s also for fun); it creates a progression of ideas that allows the album to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time (the songs are mostly of standard pop length, but the overall directness and economy give the album a bit of a punk impact). The sequencing, including precise and occasionally surprising transitions, builds an emotional and thematic arc over the course of the album, culminating in a harrowing climax.

The pop angle is also partially subverted, in that the contrast between the inviting song structures and the sober tone makes the whole thing feel kind of unnerving. In fact, it’s more than that; many of the songs are not just ambiguous but outright two-faced. This is apparent right from the title, which, first of all, is kind of overly general and not really evocative, starting things off on unsteady footing. Furthermore, “way to go” is commonly a sarcastic expression, which immediately presents a central uncertainty: is this supposed to be encouraging or insulting?

The other thing the title refers to is death.


“Ugly Side” opens the album with a burst of noise. This is sort of the opposite of setting the tone: it’s a reminder to watch out. The title is, of course, another hint at the album’s two-faced nature, and the song itself carries it though. The combination a strong beat in the foreground and a nervous guitar line in the background gives it an inside-out feeling, with a sort of deranged piano melody completing the atmosphere of uncertainty. The lyrics start out soft and gradually dive into the depths. Each verse feels innocuous at the start, but before long there’s “garbage in tow” and “poison that spreads.”

The other thing about the title is that it means business; we’re not talking about something cute here. The song has a pretty standard “opening single” feel if you’re not paying too much attention, but in fact this only conceals how serious the song really is. The chorus is the exact opposite of uplifting. It’s a passionately delivered statement of hopeless desperation. In particular, it includes a very smart inversion in the line “I can’t shake-shake-shake.” By taking a standard pop song filler line and turning it on its head, the standard pop music theme of liberation through physicality is also inverted; here, not only is the problem something that can’t be shaken off, its physical nature is precisely what makes it intractable. This is emphasized by the aforementioned physical descriptors in the lyrics, as well as the fact that the singer doesn’t have a “shield” to protect herself.

As a whole, the song is neither fully hopeless nor particularly uplifting. The uncertainty builds to a tense, open-ended climax:

Closing my eyes makes me kind of nervous

You’re nearby; I can feel it

I will not succumb to whatever it is you’re trying to make of me

This declaration, though powerful, is ultimately a statement of mere resistance, and this sets the tone for the rest of the album. The alternate version of the chorus drives it home with a sharp, repeated “I can’t.” Victory is not an option.

“Prohibition” goes in for denial, or “how solve your problems using alcohol.” It’s a slow song, but a lopsided, double-time drum line gives it an insistent sense of momentum, pushing into a dense, reverberating haze through which the vocals “whisper how things should be.” Fittingly, it’s the most opaque song on the album, but the horror-movie atmosphere never lets it get comfortable. “The screams are in the distance, but their hearts are pounding loud.” Of course, as the title implies, this isn’t going to work out. Halfway though, the haze breaks, that voice in the background that’s been saying “run, run, run, run” is suddenly right behind you, and there’s nowhere to hide.

“So Super Slow” breaks things open with a direct assault on complacency and obliviousness. The lyrics are a series of direct accusations, carried forward by a hard, straight-ahead rhythm. The delivery is aggressive but also precise, making the underlying rage feel justified. The accusations are contrasted with the singer’s own situation: “I put it on the line and you don’t care.” While this seems like an admission of failure on her part, it actually ends up strengthening her argument. A line like “I made you breakfast, you never showed up” should come across as pathetic; the rational conclusion would be that she shouldn’t have wasted her time. But the framing turns this completely around: it’s precisely because breakfast is made that you’re obligated to show up. The song takes a radically naive approach to the problem of devotion by coming at it from the other side. Instead of waiting to find something that’s worth devoting herself to, the singer commits herself in advance, and then uses that commitment to impose a moral obligation on everyone else to catch up, to make themselves worthy of her efforts. This is a particularly provocative approach in an age of complete information, where we know all the options and they all seem like dead ends.

Yet, while the song uses rock aggressiveness to make its point, it’s not really that much of a rock song. Despite the insistent vocals and the driving beat, the guitar plays coy in the background, leaving the verses mostly empty. The contrast between the vocals and the emptiness, leading into the wrathful anti-siren-song of the chorus, perfectly conveys the feeling of shouting into a void, which is exactly the situation. If you’re talking to someone who has no idea what’s going on, how is exhorting them going to help? The situation in the song is necessarily futile; if you’re in the position of having to yell at someone like this, it’s because you’re out of real options. In this sense, the song’s aggressiveness actually starts to backfire. It’s hard to say things like “you’re doing a terrible job of sticking to my plan” without sounding a little unhinged. Even the one line in the song that would normally read as genuine encouragement, “don’t say you can’t because I know you can,” comes across as domineering.

“So Super Slow” transitions smoothly into its exact mirror image: the supremely chill, discoesque “Get Your Don’t.” The singer’s position is reversed; now she’s the one targeted by devotion, but here it’s an obsession that she calmly rebuffs. What’s enthralling about this song is, ironically, the way it creates distance. The title, of course, is deliberately obfuscatory; despite being a direct quote, the impression that it conveys is exactly backwards. The music pulls you in with a smooth synth line, but the cold tone and mangled chorus keep you at arm’s length, as well as just stating directly: “don’t get your hopes up.” Even the dance break is awkward enough to be off-putting. The vocals pick up but also recede into the background, like it’s a party and you’re not invited.

This song is a great example of how the album uses its electronic effects for good instead of for evil. The verses play it cool, supporting the lyrics and allowing them to clearly make their statement, while the chorus brings out the synthetic droning to push you back, a physical manifestation the theme of the song. The dance break kicks it up into a high, oscillating warble that sticks to the back of your head, gives you a second of calmness to refocus, and then carries it through to the end, leaving you with an ominous feeling that this isn’t over.

The very fact that the song expresses itself so well is actually its own contradiction. It’s so much fun that it ultimately fails as a blowoff. After all, getting your hopes up is kind of the point of music. This is acknowledged by the sharpest line on the album: “You hope these words are the key to your own personal mystery.” Clearly ridiculous, but at the same time, who hasn’t been there? As with “So Super Slow,” this song implies its own futility; the fact that you’re telling someone not to get their hopes up means it’s already too late – and doing so with a song is only going to make things worse. In particular, “it’ll hurt worse on the way down” comes off less like a warning and more like a prophecy.

By this point things are tied in a bit of a knot. These are two contradictory songs addressing the same subject matter, and they each contradict themselves. But the songs aren’t exact opposites; by using negativity to close off the bad options on either side, but leaving space between them, they imply a correct path. For instance, one of the singer’s accusations in “So Super Slow” is that “you’ve got it easy, I’ve been studying,” while in “Get Your Don’t”, she warns not to “jump ahead and read the end before you start.” These lines are actually making the same point: you can’t be complacent, but you also can’t expect to get everything at once. You have to put in the effort to do things the right way, even without knowing how it’s all going to work out.

There’s another hint in the careful line that “Get Your Don’t” traces through its subject matter. The singer refuses to “bare her soul,” choosing instead to “keep [her] gold armor on.” But as the confidence of the delivery makes clear, this isn’t about giving up. It’s an argument that active artifice (it’s specifically gold armor) is not just healthier but better than basic emotional rawness. In terms of popular music, it isn’t just that perfect authenticity is impossible to ask of any performer, it’s also bad for the listener. It’s a con; it makes it seem like you’re getting something you’re not. There’s no such thing as an unmediated experience. Since everything has to go through the veil of subjectivity, pretending like you’re directly conveying your raw emotions is a lie, and it ends up making for worse communication. What’s required, for both the performer and the listener, is to work through the necessary complications rather than to pretend like they don’t exist.

So, despite the overall negative focus of everything so far, it feels like we’re getting somewhere, and “January Shock” picks up on that feeling. It begins with a jarring transition from fading synths to rising acoustic guitar, emphasizing the song’s anomalous position on the album. It’s right in the middle, and it’s the one song that actually feels bright and open; compared to the rest of the album, it’s like the break of day. It seems, at first, to be responding to the negativity of the first half of the album with a message of hope. We’ve all got problems, but “it’s not the end,” and you can always count on the fact that “the sun will rise again.” Unfortunately, this song also has an ugly side.

The first verse is a series of sarcastic statements mocking the sort of excuses that justify a fatalistic outlook. This is simple enough at first, but by the end of the verse it gets a little too real, particularly with the line “love is useless when I die.” It’s true that this isn’t an excuse, but it’s still kind of serious business. The second verse is more straightforwardly vicious, hammering home the point that fatalism ends up becoming its own justification. But it does this by compounding the problem: if “you blew it all in the last seven years” because you “thought you were safe,” then yeah, you’re kind of throwing yourself a pity party, but you’re also actually fucked. When the singer rejects this defeatist attitude with a blithe “not sorry now,” she’s washing her hands of the problem without actually resolving it.

The fact that the lyrics in the verses are actually fairly cruel is the first clue that something’s wrong, but cruelty isn’t really the problem. The arguments are still valid, and the kind of attitude they’re addressing deserves at least a little harshness. The problem is that the verses recontextualize the chorus. If the problem is that you’re stuck in a situation where it seems like nothing is going to work out, then the fact that the world is going to keep moving on without you doesn’t help; it makes things worse. With this in mind, the exultation of the chorus starts to feel a little disturbing. The thundering drums and soaring vocals rise up and tower over you, shining with an imposing brightness as terrible as daybreak itself. It’s not a promise, it’s a threat.

In particular, with the subject of death having been broached, the chorus acts as a reminder of what the actual endpoint of the sun rising over and over again is. Rather than offering reassurance, this brings the first side of the album to a unsettling conclusion. Identifying your problems and making plans doesn’t actually affect the implacability of reality. You can’t control your circumstances, especially not the circumstance of being a temporary physical object. Thus, rejecting fatalism seems to come at the cost of hope; the fact that you have to do something doesn’t imply any possibility of success. This new problem sets up the second half of the album, where the self-assured nature of the first half begins to fade, the pop sheen diminishes, and the negativity turns inward.

“Nowhere Anywhere” begins the process by creating a parallel structure between its two verses that brings two perspectives face to face. The song’s clanging guitar and insistent staccato rhythm create a claustrophobic atmosphere, making the confrontation feel tense and personal. Furthermore, the song anchors itself in specific locations and uses physical objects to provide evocative details, bringing the album down to a more mundane level.

The first verse builds an atmosphere of alienation, starting with the first use of third-person perspective on the album (“he” is literally the first word), and continuing through a series of oppressive physical details. The setting is, in fact, an office building, which is about as alienating as it gets. Furthermore, the lyrics never manage to reach inside to the actual perspective of the subject. “He looks in the mirror, nothing is clear, where’s he taking it from here?” We can tell what’s going on, but what “he” is actually thinking and feeling about the situation remains a mystery.

The second verse sets up the contrast immediately: “I have a hard time wanting to help.” Not only has the perspective shifted, but the focus is now on the singer’s feelings and desires. The setting shifts to the domestic, emphasizing the personal while staying grounded in reality. The physical details are now considered in relation to the singer’s viewpoint and actions, as things that people use rather than as mere objects. The most direct example of the difference is the way that doors are referred to in both verses. In the first, “the locks are turning, doors in the hall, there’s no way out.” A door here is merely a physical obstacle that closes off space, regardless of whether any actual humans are present (or care). In the second verse, the singer won’t “open the door, no matter who for.” Here, not only is the focus on the decision being made, but the importance of the door is in its social context: it’s a threshold that brings people together, or, as in this case, keeps them apart.

And that’s exactly what happens. The parallel construction highlights the failure of the two perspectives to connect, and it also implies the singer’s acceptance of her share of the responsibility. Her target may be hopeless, but regardless of the situation, she’s the one making the decision to disengage. There’s ultimately no point in blaming someone else for your inability to get through to them. No matter how frustrating other people’s failures are, all you can really control is yourself. There are hard limits on our ability to ever really get inside someone else’s head, and sometimes there’s not really anywhere to go from there. Thus, the conclusion is that “we’re two brick walls.” It’s not just that the singer has run into a wall, but the frustration has caused her to turn away herself. The song’s anticlimax is finalized with an abrupt ending, and this sense of resignation leads into the album’s darkest hour.

The inward turn continues with the deeply introspective “One to One.” A dirge-like keyboard presides over a jittery rhythm and repetitive, brooding lyrics. The previously accusatory “you” turns in on itself in lines that start out as accusations but resolve into personal failures: “you put it all on me,” “turn on the light but I can’t see,” and especially, “what do you want from me?” The tone is entirely desperate. The negativity seems to be taking its toll; the singer has tried everything, and she’s at the end of her rope. The vocals are alternately rushed and plaintive, overlaid with a heavy sense of dread, suggesting nothing so much as an impending nervous breakdown.

Which doesn’t happen. Just as the desperation reaches its peak, the song drops off into nothingness. A few scattered notes and beats barely hold the line. And just as everything seems to fade, it all comes roaring back. The piano surges and the vocals build to a final cry of, despite everything, strength. There is, finally, a line that can’t be breached. Even under the weight of everything, it turns out there’s still one viable option – a forced draw. “Say whatever you want to say, it’s always one to one in this game.”

The title track carries this strength forward, though it might not seem that way at first. Its tone is mournful; the soft, choppy vocals are suffused with pain. Lines like “friendly fire, it never ends” are presented without any kind of resolution or even consolation; they’re just the way things are. The fact that people who care about you are going to hurt you isn’t something that can be changed or even really addressed. Even when the song says that the “only way to move is forward,” is doesn’t feel encouraging, it feels like a lament. It isn’t the “only way” in the moral sense, but in the physical sense: it’s literally the only possibility. This is underscored by the marching band-like drums that accompany the chorus. A march isn’t really “encouragement,” it’s forced forward movement. The chorus even drifts off before finishing the title, as though lacking the strength to continue. This isn’t a song providing motivation to move forward, it’s a grim acceptance of the fact that moving forward the only thing you can actually do.

But grim acceptance is actually the song’s positive conclusion. “Way to Go” pulls the same trick as “January Shock,” but in reverse, and harder. It’s here that the album actually retracts its commitment to ambiguity: the contradictory nature of this song doesn’t offer two competing interpretations; the contradictions resolve into one deeper interpretation, the only one that works. Despite how deeply sorrowful the song is, and despite everything the album’s been through up to this point, it can’t be interpreted as a funeral march. “A voice in my head says stand up and be brave.” This doesn’t really amount to encouragement, it’s just a fact, but it’s one place, at least, where you know you can stand, even when you’re on your own. The album has finally arrived at a reliable source of strength: the paradoxical strength of active, considered acceptance. The song insists on this interpretation, less because there’s any compelling reason to than because it’s the only way.

And that might have been a nice ending, but there’s still the issue of whether it’s actually possible to accept the unacceptable. “Shrouded in Steel” is where the terror that’s been lurking in the subtext the entire time finally breaks loose.

This song is actually kind of off-putting at first. It starts out painfully raw: dramatic vocals that barely establish a meter are accompanied only by storm noises and a few guitar twangs, and it stays this way long enough for it to get uncomfortable. It starts off seeming like kind of an overwrought torch song; the first appearance of the chorus – “I was unaware of the pain involved, and I’m a little scared of emotions so strong” – comes across as almost embarrassingly naive.

But by the second verse, the fear starts to seem justified. “There’s no telling fire what to do, and metal can go straight through.” It’s even punctuated with a gunshot to make sure you get the message. The real subject here is the intersection of love and death – the fact that the extent of your devotion is precisely the extent of the universe’s ability to destroy you. In which case, it turns out there really is something to be afraid of.

The title comes from the line “your heart’s not shrouded in steel,” meaning not protected. But that’s not what the word “shrouded” means – it means “concealed.” It means that you can’t hide from your own humanity, your own emotions. The fact that you’re “unshrouded” means that you’re constantly exposed to the fundamental brutality of existence, and that everything you think and feel is on the chopping block. The flipside is that a “shroud” is also what covers a corpse; the fact that you’re not shrouded also means that you’re not dead yet.

After the first half of the song establishes its raw emotional basis, the second half kicks things into gear. The guitar wakes up, and a low, driving beat propels the song forward. The helplessness of the first half transforms into a hard determination that pushes itself through mounting agony. But what’s most important isn’t the change, it’s the continuity. The chorus stays the same, becoming more haunting with each repetition. It stops feeling naive and starts feeling like a radical understatement. The maelstrom of emotions continues to build, reaching the limits of tolerability with the line “it scares me a bit too much to know that someday it’s all going to end.”

Am I being clear about the fact that this song is completely incredible? The power and emotion in the singing here is unbelievable. It would be otherworldly if it weren’t for the fact that it also feels deeply real. You can actually feel the “chill spread fast and deadly,” it actually feels like “cutting away.” The whole thing builds up this incomprehensible amount of emotion while staying sharp and focused and engaging. I think maybe I’m being a little too reserved here. You really need to listen to this thing.

So, okay: this song is about death, and this is what crystallizes the entire album. It’s what makes all of this matter: both the fact that we only have one shot at this and the fact that there’s only one conclusion. And through all of it, we really have nothing more to go on than our own dread. There’s nothing approaching an answer here; that country is going to stay undiscovered.

“Shrouded in Steel” is a pure cry of torment; it not only doesn’t but can’t provide any kind of resolution. It puts everything right on the surface, leaving nowhere to hide. It could be read as an expression of nihilism, if it weren’t for the fact that that’s impossible. Music is transient by nature; performing a song is a commitment to expressing meaning in the face of oblivion. More than that, it’s impossible to actually be a nihilist, because you have to make some kind of decision based on some kind of values (choosing to do nothing is just as much of a decision as anything else). The only way to go is forward. And it’s totally impossible to express nihilism in a song, that is, an intentionally constructed artistic object that conveys emotions. This is why the “nihilism” of punk resulted in an explosion of creativity: it wasn’t actually nihilism; it was actually a revolution of values.

So, if the existence of art is the ultimate argument against nihilism, then the subtext of this song is the fact that it exists at all. It proves that even this amount of pain can’t force a surrender. The point isn’t that the pain is “worth it,” it just exists, it’s part of a deal whose terms have already been decided. But what also exists is the other half of the deal: the fact that we have to keep moving forward in time and making decisions. And this is where finding strength in acceptance stops looking like quite such a raw deal, because one of the things that you have to accept is that nihilism, and consequently any other form of philosophical surrender, is physically impossible. The universe is actually on your side on this one. The final repetition of the chorus echoes out with a piercing intensity, not as a lament, but as a commitment: to accept what’s certain and what’s unknowable, to keep suffering and being afraid, and to keep moving forward.

With the earth having been thoroughly scorched, the closer, “Remembered in a Song,” is necessarily desolate. The suffering hasn’t gone anywhere; the slow, effortful delivery evidences the weight that’s still being carried. But in the context of everything that’s led here, the deep melancholy of the song doesn’t feel maudlin. It’s a clear-eyed, determined gaze into the future – a future that’s not dark.

Tense future

As a person who reads things on the internet, you may or may not be aware that David Foster Wallace wrote a thing about grammar one time. The linguistic aspects of the piece have gotten their share of attention, on account of the fact that people just freak the fuck out about language for whatever reason, but Wallace’s fundamental claim is that language is inherently political; as such, the linguistic argument he makes here is also a political argument. Note in particular that, as published in Consider the Lobster, the title of this essay is “Authority and American Usage.” The important word there is “Authority.”

Structurally, the essay, which is ostensibly a review of a usage guide written by Bryan Garner, begins with an overview of the relevant linguistic issues, transitions into a political analogy for those issues, and then moves back into linguistics to discuss what Wallace feels is the importance of Garner’s book. The political analogy here is important because it means that Wallace’s conclusion about Garner is simultaneously a political argument. The purpose of this post is to explain what this argument is and why it’s wrong.

To start with, there are a number of factual and argumentative errors in Wallace’s essay that need to be discussed insofar as they inform his political analogy. Wallace starts by dividing language-carers up into “Descriptivists” and “Prescriptivists” (he consistently capitalizes both terms to make them seem like real affiliations that he’s not making up, so I’m going to be just as much of a dick and consistently put them in scare quotes). The immediate problem with this is that neither of these groups actually exists. “Descriptivists” are actually “linguists,” that is, people who study language and try to figure out what’s going on with it. The fact that they take a “descriptive” approach is a matter of necessity, not ideology; it’s just kind of how you have to approach things if you want to learn about them.

“Prescriptivists,” meanwhile, don’t exist for the opposite reason: they’re just people who have opinions about language; there isn’t anything specific that unites them. Everyone has opinions on language; a “Prescriptivist” is just anyone with enough privilege to get their opinion in the paper.

Wallace frames “Descriptivism” as a “rejection of conventional usage rules in English,” but this can’t actually be the case, since language obviously had to exist in studiable form before people could start applying explicit rules to it. In fact, the situation is the opposite of what Wallace claims: it’s prescriptive rules that only make sense in the context of an already-existing language; if people weren’t already doing things “wrong,” there wouldn’t be anything to complain about.

And obviously no language is ever created out of “conventional usage rules” in the first place, despite Wallace actually claiming that “language was invented to serve certain very specific purposes.” I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt here and assume this is a convenient shorthand for “language arose in response to certain necessities” (so, uh, not that much of a shorthand, I guess), but it still indicates a fundamentally flawed way of looking at the issue.

Wallace’s claims here are ultimately based on the idea that the publication of Webster’s Third in 1961 was “the Fort Sumter of the contemporary usage wars,” due to the fact that its introduction set forth the “basic edicts” of “Descriptivism” for the first time. Nothing about this is correct. As this article explains, Wallace’s facts here are wrong in every important way. First, the text in question was not published in Webster’s Third. Second, it was not written by Philip Gove, the editor of Webster’s Third; it was quoted by him from the National Council of Teachers of English. Third, these were not new principles; they were endorsed by the Council precisely because they represented an existing consensus. Thus, it is not true that “Descriptivism” emerged as an “attack” on traditional grammar; to the extent that it qualifies as an ideology at all, it was merely an academic consensus that gradually spread out to influence society in general.

Wallace analogizes “Descriptivists” to political liberals and “Prescriptivists” to political conservatives, which is where the above errors start to become significant. His claim that “Descriptivism” “quickly and thoroughly took over US culture” is, by analogy, equivalent to the familiar conservative argument that liberalism is a recent phenomenon that emerged to attack traditional American values. In fact, Wallace makes this analogy explicit: he claims that “the ideological principles that informed the original Descriptivist revolution” were “the rejections of traditional authority (born of Vietnam) and of traditional inequality (born of the civil rights movement)” (bonus curmudgeon points: he says this in the middle of a complaint about “Political Correctness,” again, capitalized).

The political argument here is wrong in precisely the same way as the analogous linguistic argument. Power accumulation in human societies is a natural phenomenon; it’s only after a particular power structure has been established that it gets framed as “traditional” for the purpose of justification. Furthermore, as long as there’s been arbitrary authority, there’s been resistance. The concept of a “traditional” past that allows the struggle for justice to be framed as a recent aberration rather than a fundamental part of human history is a myth propagated by the ruling class, for obvious reasons.

Having established his framework, Wallace spends quite a lot of time debunking a phantom version of “Descriptivism” that allegedly claims that literally every utterance made by any speaker in any circumstances is 100% correct English, i.e. “there are no rules.” Nobody actually believes this, yet Wallace still feels the need to make arguments like “you can’t actually observe and record every last bit of every last native speaker’s ‘language behavior’.” No shit. Isn’t it pretty obvious that no one is actually trying to do this? General advice: if you feel the need to make an extremely obvious argument like this, you probably don’t understand the position you’re arguing against.

Again, this is analogous to the conservative talking point that anyone against any kind of existing authority is a radical who just wants to destroy society. I should probably clarify here that I’m not arguing that Wallace is himself a political conservative; he’s obviously not, and he implicitly allies himself with liberalism in this essay. The issue is precisely that it’s odd that his argument so closely mirrors the basic mythology of U.S. conservatives. As we’ll see, the problem is not Wallace’s explicit opinions, it’s his approach.

Wallace eventually gets around to the “Descriptivist” argument that’s actually relevant, which is that language consists of a set of actual rules which all fluent speakers instinctively follow (and therefore don’t require explicit elucidation from newspaper columnists), plus a set (actually several sets) of optional rules based on dialect, setting, etc., which may be followed or not without general loss of comprehensibility. Nobody is going to actually misunderstand you if you end a sentence with a preposition. The rest of the essay is a refutation of this argument; specifically, Wallace’s claim is that the “arbitrary” rules that “Prescriptivists” propound are not elitist window-dressing but are actually super important.

I’ve seen some people claiming that Wallace’s argument in this article actually ends up supporting “Descriptivism,” so it’s worth being explicit about his position here. He refers to the first (fake) version of “Descriptivism” as “Methodological Descriptivism” and the second (real) version of “Descriptivism” as “Philosophical Descriptivism,” and then claims that “This argument [“Philosophical Descriptivism”] is not the barrel of drugged trout that Methodological Descriptivism was [ed: yeah, arguments that you make up for the purpose of discrediting your opponents tend to be pretty weak], but it’s still vulnerable to objections,” before moving into “a more serious rejoinder to Philosophical Descriptivism.” The point of all this is that Wallace sets up “Philosophical Descriptivism” as the good kind of “Descriptivism” in order to argue against it. His ultimate conclusion about Garner’s usage guide is that it’s great because it makes a good argument for “Prescriptivism.” For example, when Wallace claims that Garner is “cunning” because he “likes to take bits of Descriptivist rhetoric and use them for very different ends,” he’s making it pretty clear whose side he’s on. Wallace’s explicit purpose in this essay is to defend “Prescriptivism.”

Now, as part of arguing against the good kind of “Descriptivism,” Wallace introduces a very interesting/bizarre argument involving – wait for it – Wittgenstein (if you were hoping that this discussion of David Foster Wallace was not going to end up involving Wittgenstein, I sincerely apologize). This is a multi-stage argument that’s going to take a little bit of work to get through, but it’s important because, as mentioned, the problem with this essay is Wallace’s approach, and his path through this argument makes that problem particularly clear.

The argument actually starts off rather insultingly. Wallace buries it in a footnote, claiming that it’s “lengthy and involved and rather, umm, dense,” and suggesting that “you’d maybe be better off simply granting the truth of the proposition.” As fucking though. This sort of fake homeyness where Wallace tries to act all casual and friendly while also implying that he’s so much smarter than you that you couldn’t possibly follow his argument is by far his most annoying characteristic.

And in fact, the argument isn’t hard to follow at all. It begins with a discussion of the fact that each of us experiences only our own mental states, and that we have no access to anyone else’s. For example, I’m aware of the particular sensation I have upon seeing the color red, and you’re aware of the particular sensation you have in response to the same stimulus, but between us, we have no way to confirm that we’re actually having the same sensation. There is no evidence that can be collected for or against the proposition that the sensation I have upon seeing red is the same sensation that you have upon seeing green. Oddly, Wallace presents this argument as the ridiculous fantasy of a stoned teenager, when in fact it’s just obviously correct. And it’s not merely correct, it’s part of one of the major problems of philosophy: the hard problem of consciousness. Wallace claims that this is a “solipsistic conceit,” but it’s no such thing; it relies on the assumption that other people have mental states comparable to one’s own.

What makes all this sloppiness on Wallace’s part especially odd is that it has nothing to do with his actual argument, which is Wittgenstein’s argument against private language. He claims that the idea of “private colors” is the same as the idea of “private language,” but that’s clearly wrong. The problem of private experience is that we can’t verify each other’s experiences, but we obviously can verify each other’s language choices; that’s what the entire essay is about.

And it’s also what the argument against private language is about. Now, I’ll admit that I haven’t read Wittgenstein, and I’m not claiming to know all the issues and implications here, but I think I can get through the basic argument without butchering it too badly. Basically, the only way we have to verify that our language usage is correct is to test it against other people. For example, if you and I are listening to a piece of music and I start talking about “arpeggios”, and you respond by talking about the same part of the song that I was thinking about, then I know that we’re talking about the same thing. If I were just talking to myself, I could pick an arbitrary aspect of the music and call it an “arpeggio,” but I would have no basis to call this a correct definition. Specifically, if I came up with a set of criteria that defined an arpeggio, and then picked part of a song and tried to decide whether or not it contained arpeggios, it would be impossible for me to be wrong regardless of which way I decided.

The only thing that can “disprove” my definition is another person. For example, if I start talking about the arpeggios in a song with someone else, and they say “what the hell are you talking about, that’s not an arpeggio, it’s a trill,” then maybe I’m using the wrong word. Of course, it’s also possible for the other person to be wrong, which we could find out by verifying it with more people and eventually achieving a common consensus about what the word refers to. Thus, language, as they say, takes a village.

And this is precisely where Wallace goes with this argument: “if the rules can’t be subjective, and they’re not actually ‘out there’ floating around in some kind of metaphysical hyperreality . . . then community consensus is really the only plausible option left.”

Now, this is starting to seem pretty strange, right? Wallace claims that “community consensus” is the only way that correctness in language can be determined, but he presents this as a refutation of “Descriptivism,” despite the fact that the idea that consensus rather than authority is what determines correctness is precisely what “Descriptivism” is. This, presumably, is what has fooled some people into thinking that Wallace is making a “Descriptivist” argument here. But, as mentioned, Wallace is arguing in favor of “Prescriptivism” as embodied by the particular usage guide that he’s favorably reviewing. There’s only one way to reconcile this, and it’s fairly disturbing: Wallace thinks that authority is the best way to establish consensus.

This argument obviously has implications that go far beyond whether splitting infinitives is cool or not, which is where the political aspect of all this comes in. But before getting into that, I want to make it absolutely clear that this is in fact the argument that Wallace is making, since at first blush it seems kind of implausible, not to mention borderline fascist.

Wallace’s ultimate conclusion in this essay is that Garner’s usage guide is awesome because: “Garner structures his judgements very carefully to avoid . . . elitism and anality.” “His personality is oddly effaced, neutralized.” “Garner’s lexical persona kept me from ever asking where the guy was coming from or what particular agendas or ideologies were informing [his judgements].” “Garner, in other words, casts himself as an authority not in an autocratic sense but in a technocratic sense. And the technocrat is not only a thoroughly modern and palatable image of authority but also immune to the charges of elitism/classism that have hobbled traditional Prescriptivism.”

Question: why is any of this a good thing? Why is it good for Garner’s persona to be “effaced” and “palatable?” Why is Wallace happy that a person with an unknown agenda is trying to tell him what to do? Why is it a good thing that Garner is immune to charges of elitism? What if such charges would be correct; what if he actually is an elitist? What if traditional “Prescriptivism” was justly hobbled?

The reason these things are good for Wallace is that they prevent Garner from being undermined as an authority. The question of whether or not Garner deserves to be treated as an authority is, for Wallace, irrelevant. Wallace explicitly celebrates Garner’s book as “basically a rhetorical accomplishment,” meaning that its actual correctness is beside the point. This is the core of Wallace’s support of “Prescriptivism”: the conviction that there must be an authority, no matter what.

(Incidentally, Wallace recommends Garner as a “technocrat” on the basis that’s he’s a lawyer. Is there any dystopia more nightmarish than a technocracy run by lawyers?)

Wallace claims that authority must be earned, but he doesn’t back that shit up. While he does allow that “Prescriptivists” can be wrong, his only actual objection to “Prescriptivism” as an enterprise is that it has a bad public image, hence his celebration of Garner’s purely rhetorical accomplishment. The only thing that “Prescriptivism” ever needed was a image enhancement, and that’s what Garner has supposedly provided.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with giving advice on language use. In fact, I’ll give you some right now: when using a pronoun to refer to a person of unspecified gender, you should use “they” in all situations where it’s not completely confusing, and use “she” otherwise. The reason for using “they” is that it already has some traction as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and since it’s basically impossible to artificially introduce a new word as a basic part of speech like this, “they” is our only shot at a gender-neutral singular pronoun. The reason for defaulting to “she” is that literally everything else in society is male-default, so this is one easy thing you can do to help turn the tide, even if it’s a purely symbolic gesture. You can’t just always use “she,” though; if the gender of the referent is specified, then you need to use the appropriate pronouns. Even if you’re a gender abolitionist, denying the gender identity of actually existing people is actively harmful.

What you’ll notice about the above advice is that I have an agenda. If you disagree with my political goals (e.g. you don’t support absolute gender equality), or you agree with my goals but think my tactics are misguided (e.g. you don’t think gender-neutral language has any practical effect on equality, or you think you have a better way of going about it), then you have reason to disregard my advice. If, on the other hand, I had presented my advice as merely being a “rule” which you are obligated to follow in order to write “correctly,” then your only grounds to object would be “nuh-uh.”

Thus, by supporting this second type of advice, and by supporting Garner’s “invisible” persona, what Wallace is actually supporting is arbitrary authority: correctness without values.

Let’s back up a bit and look at how Wallace gets here. First, he establishes an oversimplified framework for the basic issue using commonplace ideas that everyone’s already comfortable with (“Descriptivists” = “liberals” = “rules are bad” vs. “Prescriptivists” = “conservatives” = “rules are good”). This makes us feel like we know where we’re standing and prevents any deeper aspects of the issues involved from rising to the surface. As one example, the post-war equality movements contained a radical approach to language criticism that went well beyond merely rejecting prescriptive rules. A number of feminist dictionaries were produced that explicitly challenged the patriarchal assumptions embedded in everyday language. This is the sort of real political challenge that demands to be addressed directly, but Wallace is having none of that. He’d much rather survey the general landscape from 10,000 feet in the air.

Furthermore, Wallace actually does recognize that his liberal/conservative split is an oversimplification, but he fails to address the implications of this. Specifically, he claims that “Political Correctness” (there aren’t scare quotes big enough) is an example of “liberal Prescriptivism,” which is entirely correct. As in my example above, “Political Correctness” is “Prescriptivism” with an agenda. But Wallace goes on to merely issue the standard complaints that “Political Correctness” represents “a whole new kind of Language Police” (this is getting to be painful to type), without realizing what this means for his argument. What it means is that “Prescriptivism,” like any other type of statement about what’s “right” and “wrong,” is always based on a value system. Thus, the kind of disinterested “Prescriptivist” that Wallace sees in Garner cannot exist. Everyone works from an ideology, and Garner is no exception. The fact that Garner seems not to have an agenda is precisely the danger: an invisible ideology is one that cannot be challenged.

An important aspect of Wallace’s oversimplification is the way it allows him to pay lip service to inconvenient arguments without actually following through on their implications. Significantly, Wallace admits that “traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males,” but note the cutesy way he phrases this, and they way he puts the admission that this claim “is in fact true” in a footnote, as though this were an extraneous point. In fact, it is the very heart of the issue at hand: since we know for a fact that existing authority is fundamentally oppressive, Wallace needs to do a damn sight better than recommending an authority on a merely rhetorical basis. This realization should have caused Wallace to rethink his entire argument, but presenting it as a side note allows him to glibly glide by.

Second, Wallace busts out his trademark intellectual fireworks by bringing up as many Big Ideas as he can, as fast as he can, which naturally results in all of them being underanalayzed and unconvincingly connected to the actual issue at hand. In the Wittgenstein example above, we saw Wallace segue between unconnected ideas without justification, fail to place those ideas in their proper philosophical context, and finally draw a conclusion entirely at odds with the arguments that were supposedly used to support it. Importantly, Wallace’s conclusion is the result of smuggling in an unstated ideological premise: that authority is required for establishing a consensus. This premise is precisely what Wallace needs to argue for here in order for his conclusion (that an “expert” usage guide is required to resolve the “usage crisis”) to hold, but his fancy footwork allows him to get away without even mentioning it.

Finally, having avoided the implications of the relevant arguments while sneaking in his own unconscious preferences, Wallace is free to drift down onto a comfortable conclusion. Sure, the issues of language may be “complexly political,” but all that’s really needed to resolve them is for a Reasonable Man to write a new usage guide that everyone can agree on. Isn’t it comforting to know that things really are that easy?

The political implications of all this should be pretty clear by now. Wallace’s proposed solution to the “authority crisis” created by the post-war equality movements is, by analogy, the same as his solution to the “usage crisis” created by “Descriptivism”: the reestablishment of a credible authority – any credible authority. This lends a rather dark irony to Wallace’s concluding statement that Garner’s approach is “about as Democratic as you’re going to get these days.”

Wallace is, of course, wrong. The solution to the “usage crisis” is for people like Wallace and Garner to get off their fucking high horses already. Which, recall, does not mean that they aren’t allowed to give advice. It means that they have to stop pretending that their preferences are rules and open themselves up to ideological challenges based on the values they hold that inform those preferences. Analogously, the solution to the “authority crisis” in politics is not to establish a kinder, gentler ruling class. The solution is to finish what’s been started.

(Part 2)

Not painful enough

LISA is the first game I’ve actually cared about in a while. This isn’t entirely a good thing.

lisa_outsideLISA is a traditional RPG set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where all the women are dead. Naturally, the men have been reduced to basically murdering each other and masturbating until humanity ends. One day, a middle-aged drug addict named Brad stumbles upon a baby girl in the middle of nowhere and decides to do something with his life by keeping her safe. Eventually the girl, whom Brad names “Buddy” out of a total lack of imagination, hits puberty and also gets kidnapped, at which point all hell obviously breaks loose.

The game blatantly apes Earthbound in terms of aesthetics, except that the tone is inverted: Earthbound is a goofy kids’ game with an undercurrent of horror, while LISA is an unrelenting hellscape with just enough levity to keep it from taking itself too seriously. This works pretty well most of the time, but you get the annoying sense that the game was designed by two people: one thoughtful person sincerely trying to create an atmosphere of realistic-yet-absurd bleakness, and one obnoxious 14-year-old trying to cram in as much edginess as possible. There are a bunch of pathetically immature bits like a guy’s hair being shaped into a middle finger or a bunch of orphans getting set on fire for no reason. In the worst bit, which goes beyond embarrassing into actively immoral, a male rape victim is treated as a punchline.

What’s really annoying about all of this is that the game does much better most of the time. Overall, the setting and characters are deftly sketched using a minimal amount of dialogue. For example, the currency of the all-male world is porno mags, which is a joke that only works because the game never draws attention to it; everyone just talks about it like it’s the way things are. There’s a particularly good scene where you encounter a brothel run by a gang of drag queens, which is exactly what would happen in a wasteland with no women, and they’re presented realistically. The basic absurdity of the situation is there, but it’s not treated like a joke. They have a community, they don’t take shit from people trying to screw with them, and one of them can even join your party.


The one thing the game does really well, and the thing that ultimately makes it worth playing, is the way it portrays the cycle of abuse. Brad isn’t just a drug addict; he uses painkillers to repress the memories of his abusive childhood. The game opens with a vignette of Brad’s childhood that instantly creates sympathy for him, even though we barely learn anything else about him. This makes his decision to protect Buddy come across as especially heroic: he’s giving her the support that he never had.

As the game goes on, though, we start to get a clearer picture of what kind of person Brad really is. The first time Brad re-encounters Buddy after her kidnapping, she blows him off. It’s surprising that she would reject the one person trying to help her, until you think about things from her perspective. Brad basically kept her imprisoned in a basement for her entire life, and his only goal is to drag her back down there. Brad’s total unresponsiveness to anything Buddy has to say for herself makes it clear that his real motive isn’t to help her, but to absolve his own guilt over his sister’s death from their father’s abuse. Furthermore, the only thing Brad actually does in the game is kill people. At first this just seems like typical RPG laziness, but it comes to a head at the end, when Brad murders an entire group of people who are trying to protect Buddy. Brad’s self-absorption in his own pain prevents him from cooperating with anyone; he cares less about Buddy’s safety than about making sure that he himself is the one who saves her.


What’s really great about this is that it isn’t portrayed as the sort of lazy plot twist where it turns out you were the villain all along! Brad’s actions are entirely consistent throughout the game; the player gradually comes to a greater understanding of the kind of person Brad is though the situations he encounters rather than through a Shocking Revelation. For example, at the beginning of the game, Brad’s friends suggest turning Buddy over to one of the local gang lords. At first, it seems like they’re being selfish and trying to cash in, and Brad’s rejection of the plan comes off as principled. But we eventually encounter that gang lord, and it turns out he both has a ton of resources at his disposal and is basically the last honest man. Going to him with Buddy would have been exactly the correct move. But Brad can’t see that, because he’s completely obsessed with “redeeming” himself from his own trauma.

Thus, we not only see that Brad is ultimately a bad person despite his good intentions, but we understand why he’s like that. First, because his trauma is such an overwhelming presence in his life, everything he does is a response to it. Brad’s father beat and neglected him, so in order for Brad to be better than his father, he has to keep Buddy perfectly safe. Second, the only thing Brad ever learned as a child was violence, so that’s how he responds to all of his problems. He keeps Buddy locked up by force, and anyone who gets between him and keeping Buddy locked up gets murdered. Because Brad is obsessed with “overcoming” his abuse rather than doing the right thing, and because he doesn’t have the tools to act morally, he ends up becoming exactly what he hated.


This theme is deepened by the concluding chapter, where Buddy becomes the player character. We start out even more sympathetic to her than we were to Brad, because of everything she’s been though and because she’s actually innocent. But Brad’s controlling upbringing was just another form of abuse, and it left Buddy with the same problem: her only motivation is “overcoming” her abuse. In this case, that means rejecting safety and living independently. She’s so obsessed with this goal that she rejects anyone who tries to help her stay safe (well, the one person; it’s not an upbeat game), and she ends up alone. She also shares Brad’s other problem: the only thing she knows is violence. The one thing Brad actually taught her was how to kill in self-defense, so that’s what she does. She has to be independent, and the only way she knows how to do that is to kill anyone who could possibly be a threat to her.

Unfortunately, all this only occupies a small fraction of the game. A lot of the playing time is taken up by typical video game filler scenes where you just go into some random area and fight a bunch of generic enemies. By the last chapter, this devolves into a completely generic “go kill these four bosses in order to open up the next area” situation.

There’s also a Mysterious Backstory about the mad science project that created the super-drug that Brad and most of the post-apocalyptic population are addicted to, and probably caused the apocalypse itself, somehow. To its credit, LISA doesn’t offer any explanation as to how the apocalypse happened, which is exactly the correct way to handle this type of story element. Unfortunately, there is a whole plotline involving one of the scientists on the project and his plan to take over the world!, which has nothing to do with the important parts of the story and is really just not that interesting.


And then there’s the gameplay, which, unfortunately, is the other way that LISA mimics Earthbound: all of its creative atmosphere is stapled on to a Dragon Quest clone. There’s a wide variety of party members available with distinctive abilities, but all you really need is damage output and occasionally stunning capability; even healing isn’t that important. So while there are a few things to play around with, it ultimately doesn’t matter much who you’re using. Furthermore, there are basically no interesting enemies in the game. Everything just throws damage at you, so the same tactics work in basically every battle. The result is a game that is superficially unconventional but plays like a standard RPG slog.

There are, however, a number of interesting mechanics on top of the bare-bones structure, the most interesting of which is Brad’s drug addiction. Brad will occasionally go into withdrawal, which severely weakens him in combat. Since he’s generally your strongest guy, this is a big deal. Withdrawal can be overcome by toughing it out . . . or by taking some drugs.

Interestingly, this is almost exactly the same as Earthbound‘s homesickness mechanic, which would randomly weaken Ness, who was also your strongest character. But the effect of the mechanic in each game is completely different. In Earthbound, homesickness is a reminder that, despite Ness’s extreme power, he’s still just a kid, his family is important to him, and he has to rely on his friends sometimes. In LISA, Brad’s drug addiction is a reminder that he’s a huge loser.

The drug in question, Joy, is, as mentioned, a sci-fi super-drug which turns Brad into a total killing machine when used. So the good thing about this is that refraining from taking the drug has a real cost: it makes the game a lot harder. Joy is also a limited resource, so even if you’re willing to use it, you have to be careful with it. Unfortunately, the choice doesn’t really amount to anything. If you stay off the drug, a few lines of dialogue throughout the game are different, and you get a bonus Mysterious Plot Revelation scene at the end. The fact that the choice isn’t integrated with anything else in the game makes it ultimately nothing more than a motivation to play the game twice.

Speaking of limited resources, the game has a general lack of grinding which is very effective at keeping your overall resources limited, as well as being less boring. Not only is this good for gameplay, but it fits the setting: it’s the apocalypse, so it’s only natural that you’re making hard choices about which mundane items will be the most helpful. Unfortunately, there are actually a few spots where you can grind, which totally kills the effect. This is why it’s important to figure out what your game is intended to do and commit to it rather than throwing in genre conventions just because they’re genre conventions.

One particularly interesting resource is firebombs. These are strictly limited, and they’re very powerful. They deal major damage to all enemies in a battle, which is especially significant because there are very few other all-enemy attacks in the game. Theoretically, using firebombs allows you to win otherwise impossible battles. In practice, this only happens once: there’s a part early in the game where a gang tries to extort you, and you have the option of fighting them. Since there’s a lot of them and they can stun you, it’s very difficult to win, unless you use firebombs to take them all out quickly. This encounter has no real consequences, though, and it’s the only time firebombs really make a difference. Providing more opportunities like this and tying them into other decisions could have made for some really interesting choices.

Finally, there a few places where you have to make moral choices, and by moral choices I mean Video Game Moral Choices, i.e. some guy makes you select either Moral Option A or Immoral Option B from a menu. Actually, only the first choice even reaches this standard: you can either get one of your arms cut off or get one of your party members permanently killed. The second choice is basically just an opportunity for you to be a moron, and the third is a choice between two things which both hurt you and no one else, making it a tactical choice rather than a moral choice. Also, while losing your arms does affect the gameplay, it’s ultimately irrelevant. The game has the typical ass-backwards difficulty curve where only the beginning is hard because you have no resources, and once you get going you can just steamroller everything. This is the opposite of how difficulty is supposed to work. Of course, the vast majority of games work the same way, but the fact that it’s a ubiquitous problem is no excuse. In this case, it makes losing your arms pretty much meaningless, when it should obviously be kind of a big deal.


Buddy’s section of the game has its own set of mechanics and, correspondingly, its own problems. Incidentally, the fact that Buddy’s and Brad’s chapters play so differently when they’re both the same standard RPG just goes to show how much design space is actually available within conventional mechanics.

First of all, the fact that Buddy can fight at all is really a copout. You’d think that playing as a helpless child in a post-apocalyptic wasteland would be a great opportunity for some gameplay that’s not about killing people for once, but no. There was no indication that Buddy could fight during Brad’s section of the game, but once she’s a playable character, well, obviously she has to be able to kill people, because what else can you do in a video game?

There actually is almost an appropriate evasion-focused mechanic: Buddy can disguise herself with a mask in order to avoid some battles. Unfortunately, this goes nowhere. Keeping your mask on allows you to avoid about three optional battles, and that’s it. Furthermore, since you can easily kill everyone you encounter (that is, you have to), there’s no reason to care about avoiding battles at all. If your resources were limited enough that you actually couldn’t fight everyone (which would be entirely appropriate for the setting), or if you could disguise yourself in different ways to get different reactions, then you might have some actual decisions to make.

The fact that there’s only one other party member in this chapter is another missed opportunity. Buddy’s not too strong at first, so for a short while you’re reliant on someone else for extra muscle. This theme could have been extended: if Buddy couldn’t fight well in general, she might have to rely on other people to help her – people who, given the situation, probably wouldn’t be trustworthy. Having to manage a party that you can’t rely on and thinking about how to get rid of them once they’ve outlived their usefulness could have been a really interesting experience. This wouldn’t even have disrupted the theme of Buddy being alone in the world; she could still have ended up on her own by the end, but with the added significance of having betrayed and been betrayed.


As for the combat itself, Buddy knows how to do one thing: stab people in the throat. She does have a couple of other moves, but they don’t really matter, so pretty much the entire game is using your one attack over and over and healing when necessary. While this is obviously super boring, it actually works really well from a thematic perspective. It does a great job of portraying Buddy’s state of mind: she’s single-mindedly focused on killing anyone in her way. Furthermore, the fact that your one attack has a timed hit component and the fact that you have to constantly heal yourself makes the whole thing feel appropriately arduous. Even the fact that it’s boring highlights the fact that violence is superficially exciting but ultimately banal. So while there’s nothing really interesting going on from a mechanical perspective, it’s a great example of how “bad” mechanics can be used to achieve particular effects.

Finally, there’s the issue that none of the decisions you can make actually matter. The main example is that Buddy can use Joy, and it’s just as overpowered as before, but this time there are no downsides – not even aesthetic ones. You have way more Joy than you need, so there’s really no decision-making involved, and Buddy will never go into withdrawal, so there’s no reason not to use it, despite the entire game up to this point having established that Joy is literally the apocalypse in pill form. In terms of the story, having Buddy use Joy should be a much more significant decision than it is for Brad, because Buddy isn’t already hooked on it. It would be both interesting and thematically appropriate if using Joy allowed you to make the game way easier by actually turning Buddy into a drug addict.

In fact, there are multiple epilogues to this chapter, but the actual game mechanics have nothing to do with them. You get the both of the alternate epilogues by walking to some random place at some random time, which invisibly sets some random flag that determines which epilogue you get. While this is typical video game bullshit, it’s particularly annoying here, since the game actually sets up mechanics that could be used for making significant decisions, and then totally fails to do anything with them.


All of these flaws are ultimately the same problem: the mechanics are inessential. You can use Joy or not, you can use firebombs or not, you can make whichever choices you want, and you’ll be fine. You can still finish the game and have access to everything it has to offer. In order for these choices like these to matter, they need to be integrated into the rest of the game in such a way that the choices you make have mechanical rather than merely aesthetic consequences.

For example, when the guy who makes you make those moral choices comes along, you have the option to try to fight him. It’s one of those fake battles where you’re guaranteed to lose. But what if you could win using an extreme expenditure of resources, as in most of your Joy and firebombs? You could avoid having to deal with either consequence of the choice, but then you’d be out of resources. If there were more encounters like the one where that gang tries to extort you, you might not have enough firepower to fight them; you might be forced to give in. That would make the choice of where to spend your resources actually significant.

Furthermore, the fact that the choices themselves are ultimately not that big of a deal largely blunts their impact. Having to choose whether or not you lose your arms or become addicted to a super-drug should make a huge difference, but in practice the game ends up playing pretty much the same no matter what you do. More than anything else, the fact that losing both of your arms ends up being only a minor inconvenience shows that LISA‘s theme is writing checks that its mechanics can’t cash.


It’s deeply ironic that a game that specifically bills itself as “painful” is unwilling to make the kind of commitments that would actually make things hard on the player. The game has a variety of ways to fuck you over, but it ultimately adheres to the standard game design principle that things can never get “too hard” such that the game actually becomes difficult to complete. LISA‘s unwillingness to step outside the boundaries of a conventional genre experience means that what could have been a great game has to settle for merely being interesting.