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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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