At 100%

Today in bizarre internet documents: this Final Fantasy VIII guide. I . . . okay, look, I could give you the whole backstory here, but we’ve both got things to do today, right? How about you just trust me on this one?

I’ll try to keep this concise. In FFVIII, one of your party members has a dog, named Angelo, and the dog can learn an ability called Angelo Search, which allows it to sniff around and root up items while you’re busy fighting alien turtle monsters or whatever. The ability is entirely passive – you can’t trigger it yourself, it just occurs at random times while you’re in battle – and the items you’ll receive therefrom are almost uniformly generic garbage. So for well over 99% of playthroughs, it’s entirely worthless. The game would be substantively identical if it didn’t exist. The plot twist is the word “almost” a couple of sentences back. It turns out the ability has a very, very small chance of giving you some of the game’s rarest items, including some that cannot be acquired in any other way.

This doesn’t make it matter, yet. The chances of it actually happening are so low as to be beneath notice. But it makes it so it can be made to matter. Because the ability triggers on its own, the one thing that one can do about it is wait. You can set up a battle so that the enemies aren’t doing anything that’s going to kill you (the battles transpire in real time, so enemies will constantly attack you while you’re just sitting there), and then you just leave it. You leave the game running, on its own, for hours and hours on end, such that by the time you get back, the probability of your having obtained one or more super-rare items has been upgraded from “lol” to “noticeable.” Indeed, thanks to the magic of probability1, if you just keep doing this, the likelihood that you will eventually obtain the maximum possible number of every item available in this manner ascends to a near guarantee. So what presents itself at this point, with terrible clarity, is a goal: you can use this approach to get not merely something, but everything. The guide in question is a series of instructions as to how to accomplish this.

Meaning it’s a series of instructions as to how to avoid playing the game. Perhaps this strikes you as unproblematic. I mean, it’s at least kind of interesting. Actually going through with this would require commitment, in a sense. And it’s not really any different than anything else you can do in a video game, right? Well, yes and no. It certainly is the case that all actions in a game are fundamentally arbitrary, but that doesn’t make them all equivalent. That is, we can imagine Sisyphus happy, but that doesn’t mean we should just go ahead and assume it a priori. If we care about this type of thing for . . . whatever reason . . . then we should take a closer look at what’s actually going on.

What’s actually going on is nothing. You could achieve exactly the same result by hacking the memory file and inserting the right bit values wherever the item count is stored. You wouldn’t be missing out on the “experience” because there is no experience. The end state, including your own end state as a person, would be physically indistinguishable from if you had done it “for real,” which of course logically implies that there is no “for real.” And yet, the whole thing nonetheless involves expenditure of real time and consumption of real resources. The guide in fact indicates that someone damaged their PlayStation – an actual physically-existing object that costs hundreds of dollars and represents years of engineering labor and performs functions in the real world – in the service of running a continuous Angelo Search session – which, recall, means doing nothing – for as long as possible.

So we’re already in “what’s the point?” territory, but the rabbit hole goes deeper. What you get from doing this is also nothing. It is important to understand this claim substantively. That is, if you could use this method to get items that helped you out later in the game, then, well, it would still be really stupid, but it would also be justifiable. After all, having to do stupid things for a while so that you can do non-stupid things later is an important part of real life. But that’s not what’s going on here. One of the items you can get via this method is the Hungry Cookpot, an item so rare that only one of it can be obtained otherwise. This item allows your characters to learn an ability called Devour, which they can be use to permanently enhance their attributes by eating monsters.2 The thing about this is, you get one instance of the ability anyway, without even getting the one Hungry Cookpot you can get, and that instance is all you’ll ever need (you can swap it between characters at any time). The ability has no combat merit, and, um, only one character can eat a given monster at a time3, so even if you’re going to the extreme of maxing out all of everyone’s attributes, additional copies of the ability are entirely unhelpful. They literally do nothing, in an absolute sense. So why does anyone ever bother with this sort of thing? I believe, if you search deep within yourself, you will find that you already know the answer. It is not in pursuit of a goal, it is the goal. The point of collecting as many Hungry Cookpots as possible is to collect as many Hungry Cookpots as possible. You’ll note that the language used in the guide excitedly hypes the possibility of obtaining a bunch of stuff without any explanation as to what it is you would supposedly need these things for. What really clicks the gears into place is the fact that there is such a thing as “as many Hungry Cookpots as possible.” There’s a maximum number of each item that the game allows you to hold, which makes it possible to attain that maximum. When you open your inventory menu and see the number “100” displayed, you will at last know true inner peace.

This situation is not unique to this one game – FFVIII just provides an unusually direct example, on account of it’s weird as shit. What we are discussing here is, in fact, A Thing. The idea of a “perfect game” is something that many players explicitly pursue, in explicit terms. I could go on at some length about this, but I can much more easily illustrate the situation using a real example that someone actually wrote out and committed to the internet. The following block of text originates from a “perfect game” guide for Final Fantasy VII, and is among the most remarkable objects ever brought into existence through descent with modification. Don’t worry about trying to figure out what the hell any of this means, because it doesn’t. Just experience it as a raw mass of terrible aesthetic purity:

================================
3.0 – PERFECT GAME DEFINITIONS
================================

I’ve made up ten levels of perfect game saves, summarized below.  As I said in the intro these are open for debate.  These refer to Disc 3 saves.

SPECIAL NOTE: In general you can’t go through the whole game with a certain perfect game level in mind, and then switch to a higher level.  There are many points in the game which you can’t visit again, so you must have completed the requirements for that place before you leave.  See section 7 for details.

Level 0   – beat the game

Level 1   – Level 0 requirements
– purchase the Costa del Sol villa
– earn all limit breaks
– get Yuffie and Vincent

Level 2   – Level 1 requirements
– beat Ultimate/Emerald/Ruby weapons

Level 3   – Level 4 requirements
– Full set of chocobos (see notes)
– Chocobo Sage tells you everything
– Everyone’s Grudge does 9999 damage to each character

Level 4   – Level 2 requirements
– at least one of each materia mastered
– all characters at level 99

Level 5   – Level 3 requirements
– at least one of each item/weapon/armor/accessory
– complete all sidequests

Level 6   – Level 5 requirements
– at least eight of each armor/accessory, unless the max is less
than eight (thanks to nephalim for this suggestion)
– max stats for each character

Level 7   – Level 6 requirements
– maximum amount of items/weapons/armor/accessories

Level 8   – Level 7 requirements
– max gil
– max experience for each character

Level 9   – Level 8 requirements
– complete set of materia

Notes

Sidequests: This includes getting all four Huge Materia, Yuffie’s
sidequest, the Ancient Forest, and fight all Fort Condor battles.  Will is
testing the F.C. battles I’m missing.  As soon as he’s finished, I’ll flesh
out this requirement further, and probably move it to a higher level.

Items: See section 4 for details.

Materia: See section 5 for a list of materia and the AP amounts needed for
mastery.

Max stats: Use power/guard/mind/magic/speed/luck sources to get these stats up to 255.

Chocobos: Mate the gold chocobo you get from breeding and the one you get for defeating Ruby Weapon to get more gold chocobos (I haven’t verified this myself yet).  It should be possible to get 7.  Alternatively, get one black, blue, green, wonderful, and three golds.

Everyone’s Grudge: This refers to the Master Tonberry attack which inflicts
10 HP of damage for each enemy the character has killed.  This means each character has to kill 1000 enemies.

Max Gil: I don’t know what the max gil is, but it’s at least 400 million.
I’m guessing 999,999,999 because that’s all there’s room to display on
the menu screen.

Max Exp: 999,999,999 exp is the max.  Thanks to Drake for reporting this
one.  Note I haven’t tested this myself.

Complete Materia Set: See section 6 for details.

Once I have a better idea of whether level 8 or 9 is more difficult, I may
interchange them.  If anyone accomplishes this before me, let me know which one you were able to do first.

OPTIONAL: Chocobuckle
———————
Terence suggested this be made an optional goal because it’s got more than one use, and is largely based on opinion.  Possible goals include 0 escapes, 9999 escapes, and 2222 escapes.  I’d suggest 2222 escapes because it’s the easiest way to get Lucky 7’s.  Thanks to Arctic for pointing this out to me.

I mean, like, my god, it’s full of stars, right? If the aliens ever find this one it’s gonna blow their fuckin minds. I’ve got your monolith right here, assholes.

Uh, right, no, so I was talking about something. Okay, what we have here is a description of multiple different “levels” of perfection, with internal debate as to which metrics belong in which level. This is the actual definition of insanity. The entire thing about perfection is that it is an objective, binary condition. Something is either perfect or it is imperfect, and if perfection is your goal, then anything imperfect doesn’t count. If perfection isn’t self-evident, it isn’t perfection. So that entire block of text is fully disconnected from the thing that it thinks it’s talking about. It is pure howling gibberish, dressed up Vincent Adultman style in an ill-fitting trenchcoat of ersatz logic.

Okay, fine, so “perfection” is just the wrong word to use here. These are actually just different “achievements,” right? As if. These exactly are not achievements; they are fully arbitrary tasks that produce nothing and signify nothing. They aren’t interesting to do and there’s no reason to do them. There’s nothing behind them; they’re just numbers being displayed on a screen by a computer. Except of course there is a reason: the reason you would do them is to attain perfection. You can’t not use the concept of perfection here, because that concept is the only thing that makes any of this make sense. But it still doesn’t make sense! Having to argue about what “counts” as perfection completely defeats the purpose.

Okay, enough screwing around. What’s going on here is that these games are nothing but serieses of arbitrary tasks that don’t mean anything, and the appeal to perfection is the attempt to make them meaningful. The point of accumulating items is supposed to be that you need them for something. You might need to plan out how many healing potions you’re going to need in a particular fight, or something like that. But when that isn’t the case, when a game just has a bunch of random stuff crammed into it for no reason, these types of structural relationships evaporate. If you never need to use a healing potion, then it doesn’t matter when or how or in what capacity you can obtain one, and the number displayed next to it in your inventory means nothing. It could be 12 or it could be 10,000, and nothing would change either way. But if that number has a maximum value, then it suddenly gains a reason to exist: it exists for the purpose of reaching that maximum value.

Here’s the throughline. The games under discussion so far don’t have a workable definition of perfection because they’re too messily designed. Nowadays things are different; for the sake of filing off exactly these rough edges, games tend to be tightly constrained and heavily polished. You might think that this would fix the problem by making things non-pointless, by giving you an actual reason to do whatever it is you can do in the game, but that only works if you actually come up with a point for things to have. If not, then streamlining simply crystallizes the problem, because it makes the goal of perfection achievable. And this is exactly where we are right now: the idea of “100% completion” is no longer something that individual players have to make up, but is now most often built in to the structure of games themselves. The advent of achievementification has made the goal of perfection explicit. The game straight tells you what you need to do to reach “100% completion” and how close you are to getting there. But . . . wait for it . . . this still doesn’t make sense, because perfection is not a matter of design precision; it is logically impossible.

In a game where different decisions exclude each other, perfection is impossible in practice. Even if you can decide on a “best” set of decisions, it still doesn’t qualify as perfect4 as long as the other decisions have any merit whatsoever. But of course they always have merit: they provide the player with a different experience, which is the only thing that playing a game actually is. And in a game that is explicitly designed to be 100% completable, this remains the case – there are still multiple distinct mutually exclusive experiences that you can have with it. Quitting the game without ever reaching 100% completion is a different experience, and it has value for that reason, and that value is value that you don’t get if you go on to reach 100% completion, which means that 100% completion is by definition not 100% completion.

Sorry if I’m hamming this up. It’s actually just a basic means-for-ends confusion. As we saw in our Angelo Search example, doing nothing and getting nothing as a result is taken to be significant due to the existence of a counter which can be pointed to as an indication of significance. This is backwards. The only justifiable point of having a completion counter or achievements or any kind of explicit goal statements at all is to indicate good experiences. But the existence of the counter does not change the nature of the experience; it would still be a good experience without the counter. If you have the counter and not the experience, you have nothing.

There exist games that get this right. The Donkey Kong Country games were among the first to introduce the concept of 100% completion into the platformer genre. In Super Mario Bros. 3, there’s a bunch of different stuff you can get and different routes you can take, but none of it is “recorded,” so there is no sense in which you can try to do “all” of it. In Super Mario World, all of the alternate level goals you find are saved, so you can go for all of them, but this information isn’t displayed anywhere, so it’s fully at your own discretion. The only reason to do it is if finding the goals is actually an interesting project. Donkey Kong Country, by contrast, introduces the Big Counter. Your save file has a completion percentage on it based on the number of bonus rooms you’ve found; you see it every time you start up the game. Some of these secrets are interesting to try to find and some of them are stupid, but at least they’re all something. Going for 100%5 of them necessitates actually doing stuff. But the truly notable game in this regard is the sequel. Each level in Donkey Kong Country 2 contains a single “DK Coin,” and each one is hidden in a different interesting way. Getting all of them requires exploring around offscreen and making difficult jumps and other such behaviors that are actually engaging. And on the navigation map, each level shows whether you’ve found the coin or not, so a missing coin indicator sends not merely the message that there’s a button to be pushed for the sake of receiving a gold star, but that there is interesting gameplay in the level that you haven’t seen yet. So in a case like this, the completion counter points you to where the good experiences are. It has a substantive function that is justified in terms of its practical effect on the player.

There are probably some motherfuckers out there who’ll still want to go for the the imagining-Sisyphus-happy counterargument here. That is, so what if some achievements are “empty”? Nothing means anything anyway, right? People who do things like this are making their own goals and defining their own values, aren’t they? Well, sort of, but this line of argument applies the other way around. The fact that nothing means anything is why goals don’t real. So the only sensible thing to do is to completely ignore the concept of achievement and just look at the actual behavior that the humans in question are performing, and the experiences they are having as a result. In one case people are engaging in interesting gameplay and having things happen in their brains, and in the other people are turning on a computer and then doing nothing, and then looking at the results and experiencing nothing. This is not imagining Sisyphus happy. This is Sisyphus pretending to roll a boulder up a hill and then pretending that he actually accomplished something by pretending and then congratulating himself on a “perfect” boulder roll. I mean, really. Camus would be disgusted enough to lose his taste for fucking French actresses for maybe like five minutes.

Still, that’s just an assertion on my part. There actually is one more step that I have to take here. I have to argue that what I’m calling “interesting gameplay” is in fact, in some substantial way, better than simply leaving a game console powered on and watching numbers go up. Except . . . do I? Do I really? We already know that the only reason people engage in certain behaviors is because of the existence of a counter that gives them the appearance of significance. In other words, they’re doing them because the designers of the game, implicitly, told them to, and for no other reason. In other other words, if it were really up to the players themselves, they would choose not to engage in these behaviors. Actually, the vast majority of the time they really are choosing not to engage in these behaviors. People like to write up these guides to make themselves feel important, but the vast majority of hardcore gamers don’t even bother with this shit, and the vast majority of people who play games aren’t hardcore gamers for exactly this reason: because this shit is fucking boring.

The trick is not to get complacent. Remember, the developmental progress of games has been towards this problem, not away from it, such that “100% completion” is now the normal thing that games are assumed to be about, to the extent that it’s actually built in to their distribution platforms. So the fact that most people hate this shit does not tell us that things are fine; it tells us that we have a real problem. We have a highly-developed and ubiquitous form of “entertainment” that coerces people into doing things that aren’t interesting and that they don’t like doing (while in many cases extorting money out of them in the process). And games, while often notably blatant about these types of things, are in no way sui generis. We live in a society that, in general, is built around people doing things that they don’t want to do, that aren’t interesting, and that don’t produce anything worthwhile. This is how things really look at 100%. We are all Angelo Search now.

So that’s it. The people behind these things, consciously or otherwise, are: wasting human potential, stunting intellectual growth, promoting excessive consumption of resources, degrading aesthetics, and creating bad ideology. This is evil.


  1. Actually you kind of have to hack it, apparently, since the random number generator that the game uses is fake. I really hope you appreciate the effort I’m going to to streamline this argument for you. It’s quite taxing. 
  2. Look, I’m really sorry about the amount of exposition this requires. The game in question originates from a period during which design was generally clusterfuckish, and games were often intentionally obfuscated for the purpose of selling strategy guides. Also I guess I should clarify that I’m not making any of this up? 
  3. no seriously what am I doing send help 
  4. I will pay the dictionary people good money to eliminate the word “prefect” from the English language and also all spellcheckers, thank you. 
  5. Wacko trivia: the maximum completion percentage in Donkey Kong Country is 101%, because reasons. In DKC2 it’s 102%, and in DKC3 it’s 103%, also because reasons. 

Filled with determination

If you follow these things, you may be aware that Undertale has some kind of big spooky skeleton secret hidden in it that nobody’s figured out yet. There was a recent update which appeared to be a trivial bugfix but which apparently contained a new hint to the mystery, and now everybody’s trying to figure out what it means, blah blah blah. This isn’t actually interesting. Whatever “theories” people come up with about this don’t amount to anything, because they’re guesses concerning what is probably about a tenth of a plot point in an already shallow story. I’ve got a better theory: Undertale is a honeytrap for nerds.

undertale_screen

When I wrote about Undertale before, I mentioned that one of the great things about it is that, once you’re done with it, it encourages you to stop playing. This isn’t just cute, it’s important, because of circumstances. See, if you’re writing a book and you want to make it a page longer, you have to actually write another page. In a video game you don’t have to do that. You can make the game longer by just being like “go collect 5 platypus tails” and then the player has to go do that, even though you haven’t actually added anything to the gameplay (this is pretty much what’s going on whenever the words “procedurally generated” make an appearance). This possibility is a bad thing. The way books and also every other medium except games work is metaphysically superior: in order to occupy more of the audience’s time, you have to actually put something in that is at least potentially worth that time.

For this and other reasons, video games are generally not designed with the understanding that the player should get something out of them; on the contrary, they are largely concerned with occupying time. Undertale is not like this: it wastes a little bit of time on wandering around and solving dumb puzzles, but for the most part the stuff you do in the game is actually relevant to what the game is trying to be about. Of course, it’s far from alone in this regard, but it’s still a significant countermeasure against a very pervasive and very bad trend. As I explained in the other post, I don’t really feel that Undertale has all that much to offer, but it is designed such a way that what it does have to offer is presented to the player in a straightforward and non-time-wasting manner. All well and good.

What I didn’t mention before was the contradiction embedded in the present topic: Undertale also contains a bunch of goofy hidden easter egg nonsense with vaguely-implied quasi-significance to the plot. The details aren’t super important here, but basically Undertale keeps track of pretty much everything you do and makes certain subtle changes throughout the game in response. The funniest example is that, early in the game, you have the opportunity to both hit on a character and to refer to her as “Mom,” and if you do both she’ll call you out on it later. So mostly it’s just jokes like this in the dialogue, but there’s also apparently some sort of secret counter that causes certain NPCs and messages to show up, or something, I don’t really care. The point is that finding this stuff requires a huge amount of behind-the-scenes-ery and determined investigation into things that don’t appear to matter at all, and the implicit message that this is worth your time directly contradicts the explicit message that, once you’re done with the game, you should be done with it. But this is only the case if the same people are receiving both messages.

I played through Undertale twice in order to get the good ending, which I had to do because I fucked up the first time by not realizing you can avoid killing the first boss. This was clearly intended; the beginning of the game is actually very well-designed in this sense. You’re given the tools you need to resolve the encounter peacefully, but you don’t necessarily know how to use them yet, and the dialogue surrounding the encounter strongly implies that there’s no good way to handle it. As such, the most likely player behavior is that you’ll kill the boss while feeling uneasy about it, and thusly be resolved to get it right the next time around once you know for sure that it’s possible.

The reason this is important is that playing through Undertale a second time is super fucking boring. As previously explained, the game’s mechanics are as shallow as possible, and this is where it really hurts: the game’s only draw is its novelty. This is in addition to the fact that there’s just a stupid amount of dialogue that you have to page through on every screen. Thus, a second playthrough ends up having two effects. First, you’ll notice that some dialogue is slightly different based on some seemingly trivial choices you can make. This demonstrates that there’s a lot of very subtly hidden stuff in the game, but the fact that the game is still completely linear makes it clear that none of it actually affects anything. The second is that, by the time you finish, you’ll be super fucking sick of the game, so when it tells you that you’re done and you can stop playing, you’ll be more than happy to take it at its word.

Unless, that is, you’re the type of person who imbues trivial differences and vague hints with an undeserved level of significance, who determinedly mines for “content” and “completion” regardless of whether you’re actually getting anything out of it, who goes on message boards to look up instructions on how to do everything to avoid the unsettling feeling of having your own experience. In other words, if you’re a nerd.

Related to the problem of being able to artificially extend the play time of video games is the problem that you can hide things in them. In a book, for example, you can hide meaning in various ways, but you can’t hide the actual text. You can’t “lock” a chapter such that it can only be read if you flip through pages 26-45 in 55 seconds and then read page 12 backwards. In video games, you can do exactly this, and again, this is a bad thing: it prevents players from accessing what’s actually in the game. This has always bothered me: after going to the effort to put something in your game that you think is worthwhile, why would you then go and conceal it such that 99% of your audience will never have any idea it exists?

The only possible answer is that you think the search itself is significant. This could potentially be the case, but consider the type of thing we’re actually talking about here: the way you find secrets in games is generally not by experimenting with the mechanics but by obsessively poking every last thing until you find something. This is not really behavior to be encouraged. Undertale takes this problem well over the top, as the secret in question here is completely invisible in normal gameplay. You apparently have to edit the game files or something, which is about as close to a true waste of time as it gets.

If, however, we assume that the aforementioned contradiction is intentional, then this becomes the point. By keeping its secret bullshit partitioned away from the meat of the game, Undertale only wastes the time of those who are determined to have their time wasted. It’s no coincidence that the “secret” plot involves time travel and super science, while the real plot is about relationships, becoming a better person, and accepting reality. This same dynamic applies to the game’s violent route. As I originally complained, the game provides exactly zero motivation to go down the path of violence, which defangs it as a choice. But again, this becomes the point: because it’s so obviously evil, there’s no reason to go through with it other than “just to do it,” to make sure you’ve “completed” everything, to be the kind of nerd who values making numbers go up over morality. The game also has a hidden “hard mode” which turns out to be fake; it ends abruptly with the suggestion that you should find something better to do with your time, making the point that you’re not supposed to be doing this. In summary, Undertale gives each player what they deserve. The judgment you bring to the game becomes the way it judges you; the measure you mete is measured to you again.

undertale_better

Given the current situation, this particular bifurcation takes aim a crucial point. You may have heard that games are undergoing a bit of a “culture war” at the moment, and by “a bit” I mean it’s basically the saddest possible thing. There’s actually a question as to whether games ought to be things that are meaningful to people or piles of numbers and equations for nerds to masturbate over. Undertale responds to this sordid dilemma with a double move: the people who go into it looking for a significant experience don’t have their time wasted, while the babies looking for pointless trivia to obsess over get their bottles. (Again, the problem with this is that the “good” part of the story is completely facile, making it only a weak affirmation. I stand by my original point that Undertale is more clever than it is smart.)

It’s apparent that Undertale hasn’t quite succeeded here, as its popularity has caused the usual suspects to barf out the tiresome “not a real game” accusation. This is because it’s too simple; specifically, it lacks the tediousness and fake complexity that define a “real game.” The reason behind this recurring uproar is that nerds need this kind of thing to feel safe: fake engagement that makes them feel like they’re figuring things out and solving problems when they’re actually just pounding levers in a Skinner box and waiting for a random number generator to come up with the correct value. A game that actually tries to engage them on a personal level without hiding behind “complexity” scares them.

There’s an opportunity, then, for a full manifestation of this approach to deliver a long-awaited coup. By using the dark arts of game design to quarantine nerds within their own desired illusion, forward-looking games can drag this dire medium into the light without having to endure the bile of reactionaries. It’s not everything, but it might just be enough to finally fulfill the command of destiny: kill all gamers.

You got a new weapon

Leveling up is the worst mechanic in video games. Naturally, it’s also one of the most popular. From a design perspective, it’s useless at best and counterproductive at worst. From an aesthetic perspective, it’s actively evil.

Let’s start by clarifying what it is we’re talking about. Leveling up is about advancement through your in-game capabilities increasing, as opposed to your abilities as a player. There’s no such concept in a game like Super Mario Bros., where Mario’s abilities are the same throughout the entire game. While there are power-ups that can temporarily increase your abilities, these are situational upgrades rather than a persistent part of Mario’s character.

In Mega Man, on the other hand, the abilities that Mega Man gains by defeating each boss become part of his permanent arsenal. By the end of the game, Mega Man is much more capable than he was at the beginning. Indeed, if you’re having a hard time against one of the bosses in a Mega Man game, one way to proceed is to defeat a different boss in order to get their weapon, and then use it against the boss you’re having trouble on. In this way, the player can advance without actually getting better at the game. Not that this is necessarily a problem; having a variety of challenges available is a good way to keep the player from getting stuck, and they’ll presumably get better at the game naturally as long as they have the opportunity to keep trying.

This still isn’t really what we’re talking about, though, because Mega Man’s weapons are new abilities: they make him more capable, but not necessarily more powerful. There may be situations in which a new weapon isn’t actually useful. Not only that, but the player has to learn what each weapon is good for and decide when to use it, so in that sense these upgrades actually make the game more complicated to play. What we really mean by “level ups” is a general increase in power rather than a specific increase in capabilities. In Super Metroid, for example, Samus can collect energy tanks to increase her endurance, new suits to reduce the amount of damage she takes, or new beams that are strictly superior versions of her existing beam (as opposed to separate weapons in the way that Mega Man’s are). All of these are what you might think of as “background” upgrades; they make the game easier without providing the player with any new options. Of course, Super Metroid also has plenty of upgrades that do actually give Samus new abilities; there’s a clear distinction between upgrades that allow you to do new things and upgrades which are mere improvements.

Thus, we can draw a distinction between two concepts which are often conflated: skill growth and power growth. The first allows the player to do new things, resulting in increased gameplay options and possibly even increased difficulty, while the second makes the things that the player can already do more effective, resulting in a mere decrease in difficulty.

You may have noticed that I’ve deliberately avoided using any examples for the genre that is actually about level ups: RPGs. The problem with RPGs is that the concept of leveling up is so baked-in to the basic formula that it’s very difficult to separate out the relevant concepts. It’s typical for a “level” in an RPG to refer to everything at once: all of your character’s parameters increase, and you also learn new abilities, and your abilities also get stronger without actually doing anything different. Plus there’s things like new equipment, which sometimes gives you a mere power increase, or sometimes gives you what looks like an ability but is actually just a power increase (such as “increased critical hit rate” or “extra damage against dragons”), and sometimes actually gives you new options (such as a staff that regenerates your MP but can’t be used to attack). The point is that RPG design is generally a mess and what I’m taking aim at here is not everything that gets called a “level up” but the specific concept of general power growth.

Skill growth isn’t a problem; indeed, it’s easy to see why it’s an effective mechanic. In games like Mega Man and Super Metroid, skill growth is used to ease the player into the game. The player starts with only the basic abilities, allowing them to get a handle on the fundamentals, and then, with a foundation established, learn to use the new abilities one at a time. Giving the player all the abilities at the outset would be overwhelming; it would actually make the game harder to play. Furthermore, since each skill has a specific function, the process of gaining skills itself can be strategic. In Mega Man, as mentioned, you might try to gain a specific weapon for the purpose of defeating a specific boss. In this way, the player can chart their own path through the game based on an understanding of what capabilities they need to have in order to perform certain tasks (and Mega Man is really the simplest possible example here; a game that utilized this sort of progression in a meaningful way would really be something).

Power growth offers none of these advantages and also contains several drawbacks. The basic problem is that power growth adds nothing to the gameplay. Attacking a monster and dealing 50 damage is exactly the same operation as attacking it and dealing 500 damage. Furthermore, since the game’s challenges have to get harder to compensate for the player’s increased power, there’s not even any practical effect from leveling up. If a monster has 500 HP and you deal 50 damage per hit, you need to hit it 10 times to win. If, after leveling up and moving to a harder area, a new monster has 5000 HP and you’re dealing 500 damage, the situation is exactly the same. It looks different, but the actual actions you’re taking are identical to what they were before. In this way, RPGs often confuse the issue by offering a lot of flash that makes it look like something is going on when you’re actually just using the exact same tactics in every encounter. Thus, level ups often conceal a lack of actual gameplay.

It’s worse than that, though, because power growth can actually cannibalize real gameplay. For example, say you’re up against a boss that counters any physical attacks you hit it with, so instead you need to beat it with magic attacks. But suppose you’ve leveled up enough that the counterattacks aren’t strong enough to stop you. You can just blithely bash away with physical attacks and win anyway; you don’t actually have to learn the boss’s characteristics or how to deal with them. You don’t actually have to play the game.

The reason for this problem is that challenge relies on balance. To illustrate this, consider a boss battle from any Mega Man game. If you’re not familiar, they look like this:

mega_man_vs_guts_man

See those two bars? One of them is Mega Man’s health meter, and one of them is Guts Man’s. When Mega Man hits Guts Man, Guts Man’s health goes down by a certain amount, and vice versa. The fact that both bars are visibly the same size makes the situation admirably clear: the difficulty of the battle is based on the ratio of the amount of damage Mega Man deals to Guts Man to the damage he takes from Guts Man’s attacks. If Mega Man has a weapon that is highly effective against Guts Man (that’d be Bomb Man’s weapon), he might be able to win by just shooting repeatedly and not bothering to avoid any of Guts Man’s attacks. The player doesn’t have to learn anything at all; the battle becomes trivially easy. On the other hand, if Mega Man does very little damage compared to how much he takes from each hit, he may have to avoid almost all of Guts Man’s attacks in order to have a chance. The player may have a hard time even after learning how to effectively dodge most of the boss’s attacks; the battle becomes excruciatingly hard. A well-designed boss battle will have a damage ratio that puts it between these two extremes: with the correct weapon, the battle should be easy but not trivial; without it, the battle should be challenging but doable for a moderately skilled player.

But if the player can increase Mega Man’s overall power by “leveling up,” then they’re in control of the damage ratio (intentionally or otherwise), which means the actual design of the battle goes out the window. If you’re having a hard time against a boss, you have no idea whether it’s because there’s something about the gameplay you have yet to learn or whether you just haven’t leveled enough. If you’ve leveled too much, you’ll just blaze through and miss the opportunity to learn anything. In this situation, the developer has in effect abdicated their responsibility to design a meaningful encounter, instead obligating the player to “guess” what level they need to be at in order to have a good experience (the extent to which game designers often seem to be looking for any possible excuse to avoid actually designing their games is rather disheartening; see also “procedurally generated levels” as a selling point).

But it’s not just that power growth sucks, it’s also that it’s totally clowned by its cooler, more attractive cousin: skill growth. Skill growth does everything power growth can do and more, and it looks good doing it. This is easy to understand if we look at a game that uses both mechanics, but cleanly separates them so that they can be analyzed individually. That game is Final Fantasy Tactics. Whenever one of your characters takes an action, they grow in two ways: they gain Experience, which eventually levels them up in the power growth sense, and they gain Job Points, which can be used to purchase new abilities. If you play the game with this in mind, it will quickly become apparent that Experience is completely boring. It gradually accumulates and makes you stronger and you never actually think or worry about it in any way. Trying to pay attention to it is like watching someone else run on a treadmill.

Conversely, Job Points are not only interesting, they’re also awesome and basically the entire point of the game. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious is that getting new abilities is fun and interesting. A new ability allows you to do something new in battle, and since Final Fantasy Tactics is pretty well designed, new abilities are generally distinctive: they allow you to do a new type of thing rather than just being a different version of something you can already do. Another reason is that you get to choose which abilities to get, so you can make a plan about how your team is going to work and design the kind of characters that you think will be effective, or creative, or challenging, or even just fun. Thus, we get the same sense of character advancement that power growth offers, but in a way that’s both interesting and conducive to actual gameplay.

Finally, the act of gaining Job Points itself also involves a choice, because each character only gains Job Points for the class they are currently using (pedantic caveat: not actually true, but close enough). So if you want to, for example, make a White Mage that can also use Time Magic, you have to decide when you can allow the character to train in the Time Mage class and when you’re going to need them as a White Mage. And this isn’t an isolated decision, because you have other team members with the same dynamic; if one of them is training as a White Mage, the others are free to do something else. Thus, there’s an interesting tension between growing your characters for the long term and winning each battle in the short term; unlike with Experience, you don’t just get everything for free.

What all this adds up to is that you could completely excise the concept of Experience from Final Fantasy Tactics and you would lose absolutely none of what makes the game good. So from a design perspective the solution to power growth is pretty simple: just say no. Pick a power level and design your game around that. If you want to provide a couple of options for the player to make things easier or harder for themselves, that’s fine, but these ought to be explicit choices rather than just something that happens as you play the game. Furthermore, the limits of these options need to be designed appropriately in order to provide an experience that’s still meaningful even when it’s a little easier or harder.

Gameplay isn’t everything, though. The actual purpose of levels is, of course, aesthetic. They represent a character’s growth over the course of the story. If you’re making a game with a Hero’s Journey type of story, where the main character starts off as some nobody and goes through some trials and stuff and becomes powerful enough to save the day, using level ups to gradually increase the character’s attributes is a great way to represent that, even if it doesn’t actually change the gameplay.

The problem with this is that the Hero’s Journey is a bunch of fucking horseshit. Real things don’t actually happen because of some guy who’s just so strong and smart and powerful that he can defeat all the bad evil forces and make things nice and peaceful for everybody. That’s not how the real world works. It is, rather, how the rulers of an oppressive, hierarchical society want you to think the world works, because it justifies existing power structures.

For example, the jobs of a CEO and a janitor are so different that they can’t be meaningfully compared in terms of value. But we accept that a CEO should have higher pay than a janitor because we consider it to be a “higher level” job. If we instead view these two jobs are merely two different sets of skills, both of which are required for a company to operate, then the justification for not merely “outsized” CEO pay but for any pay discrepancy at all vanishes.

The truth is that the world works the way it does as a result of specific abilities that people have. The members of the ruling class are not better than you. The reason rich fucks are rich is that they’re good at the specific things that our society rewards. Warren Buffett, who is certainly one of our more self-aware rich fucks, has made precisely this point with regard to himself:

“I happen to have a talent for allocating capital. But my ability to use that talent is completely dependent on the society I was born into. If I’d been born into a tribe of hunters, this talent of mine would be pretty worthless. I can’t run very fast. I’m not particularly strong. I’d probably end up as some wild animal’s dinner.
But I was lucky enough to be born in a time and place where society values my talent, and gave me a good education to develop that talent, and set up the laws and the financial system to let me do what I love doing — and make a lot of money doing it. The least I can do is help pay for all that.”

In other words, there’s no actual justification for someone like Buffett being rich. It’s just how things happen to be set up at the moment. Those who are invested in maintaining our current level of injustice want you to believe that the people on top of our society are there because they deserve it, because they’re just better. But they aren’t, and they don’t.

This isn’t just about rich fucks, either. The same analysis applies to the rest of us. The big paradox of justice in the internet years has been that, while the internet has been an incredible boon to the spread of anti-oppression ideologies, it has resulted in very little structural change. Marginalized people have more opportunity than ever to have their voices heard, and inconvenient ideas no longer require official channels for dissemination. At the same time, economic inequality has been steadily worsening and social progress has largely stalled out. The unfortunate truth is that “power” in the form of large numbers of people agreeing on the internet does not actually accomplish anything. What internet activists often fail to realize is that we are not dealing with some sort of cosmic scale, where we just have to put all of our weight on one side to move it. We are dealing with a specific socio-historical situation and specific sorts of actions are required to affect it. Of course, if I had any idea what these actions were, I’d be doing something a little more productive than blogging about game mechanics. But the least we can do is let go of the false hope that says that everything will work out as long as we care hard enough.

And this is where things get really interesting, because not only is there actually a game mechanic that can convey this in a way that’s applicable to the real world, but it’s precisely the good aspect of leveling up that we were just talking about: it’s skill growth. Pretty crazy coincidence, right? The alternative to power growth that’s better for gameplay just so happens to also be the alternative that’s compatible with justice. Except no shit, because it’s obviously not a coincidence, because good design is the same thing as meaningful existence.

Against cleverness

Undertale is an extremely clever game.

undertale_friendly

Aesthetically, Undertale appears to inhabit the sort of campy retro territory that’s so popular these days, but in this case it isn’t just a pointless exercise in nostalgia – it’s actually a feint. The game is full of effects that go beyond its apparent technological level, and that contrast makes them all the more striking. Boss battles in particular are totally unconstrained by what appear to be the parameters of the battle system, making each one its own unique experience.

Similarly, while the game is extremely cartoonish, the writing is really good. There’s too much dialogue overall, but the characters are grounded in relatable traits that make them feel like real (albeit exaggerated) people. The downside is that the plot falls into the common video game trap of just throwing details around as opposed to actually telling a story. Most of the backstory is just posted on signs throughout the game (seriously, think about how little sense this makes), and by the end there are literally just monsters showing up out of nowhere just to exposit the remaining information at you.

A story isn’t just a collection of plot details; the way in which the information is presented to the player matters. For example, there’s a log entry (motherfuckers love log entries for some reason) late in the game that just reads “no no no no NO,” which is obviously supposed to convey that something has gone horribly wrong. But this doesn’t make any sense: under what circumstances would somebody actually write something like that down? Things like this are just a cheap way of establishing a generic, recognizable situation. While they succeed at conveying the basic details of the plot, they lack the verisimilitude required to make the player feel something about it.

Relatedly, Undertale is a comedy that has a serious ending, which is something you can do, but in this case the pacing is completely backwards. It starts off relatively serious and then suddenly becomes completely zany, and it keeps piling on the zaniness as you progress. This has the unfortunate consequence that, as the boss battles become more complex and interesting, they also become less relevant to the story, making the clever mechanics feel like pointless flash. In the end, the game suddenly swerves back into seriousness just in time for the final conflict, making the drama of the ending feel largely unearned.

undertale_pet

The reason Undertale matters is that it’s an RPG where you never have to kill anything. It’s deeply sad that this sort of thing is still notable, but it’s really important: the set of stories that you can tell by wandering around and killing things is very limited, and few of them are stories that are going to matter to anyone.

The game pretends to have normal random battles, but there’s a set of nonviolent actions you can perform related to each enemy, and finding the correct combination of actions will allow you to resolve the conflict peacefully. For example, if you’re being attacked by a dog monster, you can play fetch with it and then pet it to calm it down. Also, there’s one battle you can resolve by getting two bros to admit that they’re gay for each other, so that’s pretty great. Resolving battles peacefully earns you money but no levels, which means you can buy the healing items you’ll need but you’ll remain a Level 1 weakling for the entire game.

The problem with the battle mechanics is that they’re completely shallow. Instead of clicking “attack,” you click “hug,” and the battle’s over just as easily. In fact, while Undertale looks like an RPG, that’s really just the framework; you don’t have any abilities or anything, so there’s no actual RPG gameplay. Instead, enemy attacks are represented as shoot-em-up-like bullet patterns that you have to avoid by moving around. Not that there’s anything wrong with this; the fact that you have to sit there and weather the enemy’s attacks while trying to convince them not to fight is a pretty decent representation of what doing pacifism is like. Boss battles in particular force you to endure wave after wave of complex attacks, making them feel like real ordeals.

The part that’s a problem is the fact that you’re never making any real choices. While you do technically have the choice to kill each enemy you meet, there’s no reason to ever consider doing so. Because winning nonviolently is so easy, and because committing to nonviolence never prevents you from doing anything, the choice has no weight. There are a lot of things that could have been done about this. There could be paths you can’t take or items that you can’t get without fighting. There could be battles where you have to sacrifice something to avoid violence. There could be enemies that are too strong for you to handle – even nonviolently – if you haven’t already leveled up by fighting.

Thus, while Undertale finds a number of clever ways to portray nonviolent conflict resolution, it doesn’t find any that are actually interesting. This is where old-fashioned RPG mechanics could really have helped. If Undertale had the sort of complex array of interlocking abilities that a normal RPG about killing things has, it could have made nonviolent gameplay interesting. Instead, all it offers is a mere choice: select either Use Violence or Don’t Use Violence from the menu.

undertale_mercy

This isn’t just a point about game mechanics, because Undertale‘s story is ultimately just as shallow as its gameplay. This is not a coincidence. Putting the required effort into making the mechanics of nonviolence deep rather than cute would have required thinking about how nonviolence actually works (or doesn’t), which would have allowed for a story that was similarly deep. Instead, we get a completely generic happy ending where the villain-with-a-tragic-backstory is defeated/redeemed by Magical Friendship Power, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end.

As a matter of fact, the final battle is ripped more-or-less directly from Earthbound, and the result is that the ending is just as hokey as Earthbound‘s. The problem is that, in Earthbound, that was the point; Earthbound was a weird sort of kids’ game. Undertale, however, has a dramatic backstory that it expects you to take seriously, and the development of this story seems to be leading up to a cynical conclusion about the limits of nonviolence. Indeed, the final conflict begins out of sheer necessity: the way things are set up, either you or the last boss has to die, even though neither of you wants to fight.

Undertale even ups the ante with some pretty extreme fourth-wall breaking, implying not only that an easy resolution is impossible, but that you, the player, are a fool for expecting that everything will work out just because you meant well and tried your best. Immediately after this, the final battle happens on autopilot and you win. Thus, it’s specifically the game’s cleverness that makes it feel fake; the game self-awarely taunts you for expecting a “happy ending,” and then gives you one that has no complications.

The reason this matters is that it’s not how things work in real life. The idea that you can follow a simple set of rules and then just sit around hoping for a happy ending is the exact opposite of how reality works. It is actually possible to overcome things that are stronger than you, but doing so isn’t a matter of purity, it’s a matter of complexity. You have to figure out complicated situations and take specific actions in order to make things happen; whether you’re a “good person” isn’t relevant to the operation of the universe. This is exactly the sort of thing that games should be able to express through mechanics, and yet all we ever get are these fake final battles where you keep selecting “hope” from the menu until you automatically win.

Despite this, there is one place where Undertale‘s self-awareness gets interesting. If you want to play again after getting the real ending, the game will actually discourage you from doing so, on the grounds that you’d be “resetting” the happy ending for your own enjoyment, which was the specific motivation of the game’s villain. This is significant because it’s an implication that basically no other video game has: rather than encouraging you to obsessively waste your time playing the game over and over again, courting every minor secret and making every possible choice just to see what happens, Undertale suggests that it’s better to do the right thing once and then leave well enough alone.

The downside to this is that, y’know, games aren’t real. It doesn’t actually matter whether a bunch of fictional characters get a happy ending or not. What makes a game (or anything else) matter is whether you, the person who experienced it, got anything out of it; whether you’re a different person after experiencing it. And if the only thing the game has to say is that nonviolence is nice and the only thing it ultimately has to offer is a facile happy ending, then the unavoidable implication is that you didn’t, and you’re not.

undertale_smart

The problem with cleverness is that it makes you feel like you’ve hit on something important, regardless of whether you actually have. The jolt of insight it gives you is easily mistaken for significance, when it might be nothing more than noticing a reference. Undertale offers a very clear example of this problem that pervades the entire game. In the intro area, the game appears to be parodying the standard video game progression mechanic of walking in a straight line and occasionally solving an arbitrary puzzle. There’s one part where merely walking down a long hallway is comically presented as a challenge, and another where a character literally holds your hand through a trivially easy puzzle. After the intro area, having established all of this, you then progress through the rest of the game by . . . walking in a straight line and occasionally solving an arbitrary puzzle. The only difference is that you, as the player, now feel like you’re in on the joke. The game is clever enough to make fun of this, but not smart enough to come up with anything better.

This is the same problem that the mechanics have. The problem with standard violent game mechanics isn’t just that they make light of killing (though that is obviously a serious problem), it’s that they’re banal. RPGs in particular rarely require much more than just selecting the “Attack” command over and over and occasionally healing. The fact that you have a bunch of different fancy attacks – as well as the mere fact that you have to select the commands yourself – makes you feel like you’re making decisions and doing something, when you’re really just acting out a very simple script. And in this regard, Undertale is no better than what it’s reacting to. The fact that the commands you’re selecting have different names that amount to cute little jokes doesn’t change the fact that playing the game requires very little thought. The cleverness of the presentation masks the hollowness of the actual mechanics.

Finally, this is also the problem that the story’s theme of nonviolence has. With all of its jokes and twists and fourth-wall breaking, as well as the fact that it’s presenting an obvious alternative to standard RPG gameplay that has somehow not been seriously pursued in 30 years, Undertale seems like it has something of significance to say. But when it comes down to it, when it’s the final battle and everything’s on the line, the game has nothing to offer but the same trite conclusion we’ve seen countless times before. During the epilogue, someone does point out that “not everything can be resolved by just being nice.” That seems like it would have some pretty big implications for the choice of whether or not to use violence, right? And yet, other than this one line of dialogue, nothing that acknowledges this very basic point is actually in the game. For all of its cleverness, Undertale has nothing to say about violence.

As just one idea, imagine if the final boss were implacably violent and you had to kill it no matter what (and that Magical Friendship Power was not an option). Imagine you went though the entire game at Level 1, feeling proud of yourself for being such a good person and not hurting anything, only to discover that being such a weak loser makes it impossible for you to win. Imagine you then had to go through the game again, making hard decisions about where to earn the minimum amount of experience needed to beat the last boss, agonizing over every decision about who to spare and who to kill. And, of course, the more you leveled, the easier the last boss would become, giving you an actual motive to use violence that you would actually have to resist. A framework like this (again, just one example) would have allowed the game to require real thought on the part of the player, and to have a point.

There’s one instance where Undertale goes beyond being simplistic and becomes offensively bad. Towards the end of the game, a character appears out of nowhere to give you a big didactic speech about how the standard RPG concepts of “experience” and “levels” actually represent your capacity for violence. This explained in pretty much the stupidest way possible: by making the terms acronyms that stand for bad things. In addition to the obvious fact that making up an acronym does not amount to making an argument, this sort of thing is exactly why the “show, don’t tell” rule exists. The entire game was available to show you how the ability to use violence can tempt you into making bad choices, but no such thing ever happens. There’s nothing that even mildly dissuades you from just picking the nonviolent option from the menu in every encounter. Really, the problem is that the entire game is ultimately just a better-presented version of this speech. In that sense, it’s actually kind of nice that this bit is included, because it’s a crystal clear example of how you can be clever while also being spectacularly dumb.

The reason this is all so disappointing is because Undertale, for just a moment, made me genuinely nervous. When the game got to the point where it appeared to be subverting its own banal message, I was actually worried that I might end up having to make a hard choice, and that I might fuck something up. But I had nothing to worry about. The game wasn’t challenging me or putting anything on the line. It was just being clever.

undertale_home

The thing about all of this is that Undertale is a really good game. The problem is not that it “could be better”; the problem is precisely that it seems to have done the best it could. And given the way that its limitations are a direct result of its idolization of its predecessors, it would seem that the whole enhanced-retro aesthetic isn’t so harmless after all.

The good news is that there are other options besides making clever updates to 20-year-old games. There is, in fact, a well-established alternative with a pretty good track record. Kill yr idols.

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.

lisa_shirt

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.

lisa_chance

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.