Endless talk

Given recent developments in Nazis, this is probably a good time for some real talk on the whole free speech thing. While this topic has been discussed to death, it’s attracted a truly staggering amount of dullardry in the process, so I feel the need for boring philosophical clarity.

First, there is no such position as free speech absolutism. You cannot begin understanding the issue until you understand this. We like to talk about “rights” as though they are unlimited, but that’s not how the concept works. In terms of moral philosophy, a right is something that you don’t violate for utilitarian purposes. There are times when killing someone might actually result in the best overall outcome, but you still don’t kill people in those cases, because you have the right not to be killed.1 But it’s for this same reason that you can and indeed have to violate rights in order to preserve other rights. In the real world, rights conflict, so you can’t always preserve all of them.2 This isn’t a novel interpretation, it’s just how rights work. Even Second Amendment zealots don’t argue that individuals ought to be able to own and operate intercontinental ballistic missiles.

When it comes to speech, there are already plenty of laws on the books restricting it on this basis. Ordering an assassination is not “protected speech,” because it violates the target’s right to life. And the restrictions aren’t only for extreme cases; lots of practical, everyday speech acts are prohibited in the same way. Credible death threats are illegal because they violate the target’s right to basic security. Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is illegal because it causes direct physical harm. Libel is illegal because you have the right not to suffer harmful consequences based on falsehoods (of course, you do not have the right to avoid the consequences of truths, which is why only falsehoods qualify as libel. In other words, this is a specific instance of the right to due process). There’s even a legal category that’s actually called “fighting words,” referring to speech that directly precipitates harm or illegal action. The decision referenced in that link clearly conveys the balance of interests required in making these determinations:

It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.

Furthermore, speech not only conflicts with other rights, it also conflicts with itself. One of the problems with libel is that preemptive damage to the target’s reputation prevents them from being able to correct the record – one person’s speech restricts another’s. Similarly, highly provocative speech can prevent a discussion from taking place, and certain types of intellectual climates make certain ideas inadmissible. You can’t respond to these types of situations simply by picking the side with “more speech.” There can be valid speech on both sides, and you have to decide which side you value more.

In a broader and more important sense, this is the real problem with hate speech. It’s not that it hurts people’s feelings or even that it’s “harmful” in general. It’s okay and frequently desirable for harmful things to happen. Racists get their feelings hurt when people call them racists, but this is a good thing, because it’s correct for your feelings to hurt when people call you out for doing bad things. The problem is that hate speech is detrimental to overall human expression.3 Arguing that black people are inferior to white people necessarily reduces their effective ability to speak. The argument itself does this, even before anyone accepts it, because refuting the argument becomes a prerequisite to listening to black people. If you spend all you time arguing about whether black people’s ideas deserve to be taken seriously, you spend none of your time actually taking black people’s ideas seriously. This is exactly why the affected groups often try to shut these discussions down: because they have to, or they will never be able to say anything else.

So if you call yourself a “free speech absolutist” and refuse to make any determinations on the issue, all you’re actually doing is allowing existing forces to make those determinations on their own. The real world has a variety of conditions and constraints that allow certain types of expression to happen and disallow others, and a “hands off” approach means tacit agreement with the results. So you are not in fact an “absolutist” at all, you’re just a naive censor.

This also means that “maximizing speech” (as in “the solution to bad speech is more speech”) is not a coherent goal, because some ideas crowd out others. The idea that black people are inferior to white people and the idea that black people should be equal participants in society cannot just float around abstractly without affecting each other. They conflict on the basis of their inherent content. To the extent that one of those ideas is expressed more, the other is expressed less.

This is compounded by the fact that there is a limit on how much speech can actually exist. We are finite beings living in a finite world, so we can never inhabit a situation in which we are expressing and considering “all” ideas. (When someone says “all options are on the table,” they really just mean that an option that would make them look bad if they directly argued for it is in fact being argued for.) The space of potential ideas is infinite, and choosing which are worthy of consideration is a large portion of what it means to be an intelligent lifeform. Not all expression is of equal quality. Putting forth an argument that has been widely rebutted is inferior to a new version of the same argument that takes the rebuttals into account, or to an entirely new argument. Substituting one of the latter options for the former increases overall quality of expression. The way that the 24-hour news cycle effectively forces some new thing to become the Most Important Thing every day is anti-free-speech behavior, because it restricts the ability to distinguish between levels of real importance. Furthermore, context matters. It matters that the New York Times has completely godawful op-ed columnists because lots and lots of people read the New York Times and take it seriously just because it’s the New York Times. The fact that better ideas are free to exist elsewhere doesn’t cancel this out. Ideas being expressed in more prominent venues matter more.

I’m being pedantic; this is really all just the basic stuff we do when we communicate: we try to understand things and make useful contributions to the discussion and say things that are right instead of wrong. We try to get useful ideas expressed in the places where people can actually hear them. We criticize the elevation of trash, not because we think people don’t know better, but because there are better uses of our limited resources.

Obviously, we do not want to respond to this situation by censoring any idea that someone deems “not good enough.” But that’s exactly the point: the only question here is how we’re going to manage speech. In terms of what we want to accomplish, increasing the overall quality of ideas expressed is the only thing that makes sense. We don’t want a “robust discussion” about fascism, we want a discussion where nobody is arguing for fascism.

There is, of course, a specific meaning to the term “free speech,” which is that the government should not be able to restrict expression on the basis of its content. But this is still not an absolute condition. Here’s Ludwig von Mises being completely wrong about this:

But whoever is ready to grant to the government this power would be inconsistent if he objected to the demand to submit the statements of churches and sects to the same examination. Freedom is indivisible. As soon as one starts to restrict it, one enters upon a decline on which it is difficult to stop. If one assigns to the government the task of making truth prevail in the advertising of perfumes and tooth paste, one cannot contest it the right to look after truth in the more important matters of religion, philosophy, and social ideology.

Of course you can. I think it’s pretty obvious that the slope between banning poisonous toothpaste and banning political opinions is not particularly slippery. There are specific reasons why the government is (potentially) competent at the former but not the latter. First, the government has an obvious bias regarding which political ideas get expressed, which makes it an incompetent judge of which ideas deserve suppression. As the entity that manages power distribution, the government has the strongest possible vested interest in regulating ideas. But the government is just as capable as any other entity of running tests to determine what’s poisonous, and it has no vested interest in the results4. So the problem here has nothing to do with “big government,” it’s simply a matter of competent discrimination.

Second, because the government is the entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, ideas prohibited by the government are absolutely prohibited. It’s okay to ban one brand of toothpaste, because that’s not a significant restriction on anyone’s choices (if the toothpaste really is significantly harmful, it’s actually an enhancement of people choices, because it prevents them from accidentally making a decision they never would have made based on real information). But ideas are more complicated. Even an obviously bad idea might have positive effects through clarifying arguments or inspiring counterpoints. So, unlike being poisoned, which is something you never want, bad ideas are not absolute negatives. You might want to restrict them in particular times and at particular places, but you don’t want them absolutely restricted. Since people obviously disagree about ideas, discrimination is properly applied on the level of voluntary groups – that is, organizations can decide individually which ideas are worthwhile for them and which are not.5 And while there are in fact ideas that deserve complete eradication (again, fascism), this has to be done organically. Ideas are not magic; they have physical causes. If you try to banish an idea without addressing why it came about in the first place, it’s inevitably going to regenerate at some point. That’s exactly what’s happening right now: everyone thought we had gotten over fascism, when in reality all we had done was to shove it into the category of “Bad Things” without doing anything about its real causes. But once you’ve processed an idea and moved into a new situation where it no longer applies, artificially preserving it restricts speech. It prevents you from moving on to the next stage of discussion.

So these are the two actual criteria that matter for assessing speech restrictions. The first is accurate judgment: whether the idea is being restricted on its own merits or out of other motivations such as prejudice or political interest. The second is breadth: whether the restriction is being applied at the correct level. It’s fine for one explicitly capitalist magazine to disallow socialist opinions, because that’s not what anyone reading it is there for. It’s not okay for a larger entity to disallow the creation of any other types of magazines. But banning death threats throughout all of society is the correct level of applicability for that case, because death threats affect all humans.

Understanding the issue in terms of these criteria shifts the terrain of the debate considerably. The main point here is that speech restrictions have to be considered in context and not as absolutes, so I’m not going to try to formulate any kind of rules about what’s good and what’s bad. But since this issue has attracted such an unfortunate amount of misdirected chatter, I will work through a few examples to show how this works.

An extremely important story that has not received nearly enough attention is a recent change Google made to its search algorithm to promote more “authoritative” results. Naturally, this resulted in traffic drops for a variety of “alternative” news sources. This isn’t the kind of thing that normally gets discussed as a free speech violation. After all, none of the affected websites have actually been “censored,” and there are other search engines available. But the result is the same, because it fails both criteria. It’s improper discrimination because it’s intended to improve the “quality” of results, but all it actually does is impose a particular political viewpoint on them, based on Google’s collective internal assumption as to what counts as “fake news.” And it’s also overly broad, because it affects everyone who goes looking for information on any topic, regardless of what their individual desires are. If you’re trying to find alternative news sources, this change will prevent you from doing so, and there’s no way to opt out of it. And of course Google doesn’t tell you how it’s filtering its results, and it’s constantly changing things without telling anyone, so you don’t know whether there really is something else out there or not. Furthermore, Google is entrenched enough that it’s more accurate than not to say that this affects “everybody,” even though there are technically alternatives available. In other words, Google users constitute an involuntary group that has not consented to this restriction. If this were just one explicit, publicly understood option among many – if, say, it were one search engine marketing itself as an “authoritative news source” or something – then there wouldn’t be a breadth problem. The people who chose to use it would know what they were getting.

This applies just as much to the general movement to get social media companies to “do something” about “fake news.” Again, this isn’t an absolute condition; there’s no such thing as a “neutral” platform. But the criteria still apply. Scams and death threats are examples of things that social media companies can (potentially) accurately identify and which merit prohibition. Banning Twitter users who make “jokes” about putting people into ovens is more free-speech-friendly than not doing so. People who pull that shit are specifically trying to intimidate others out of speaking. And this does actually bleed into politics somewhat: if your ideas cannot be expressed without direct dehumanization and death threats, then it is correct for them to be suppressed. When it comes to actually discriminating based on ideology, though, giving Facebook the ability to decide which ideas are worthy of expression means conducting public discourse from inside Mark Zuckerberg’s head, which is clearly the worst possible outcome.

As mentioned, the big issue is Nazis, and unfortunately there isn’t a trivial solution here. If we’re talking specifically about literal Nazis, then censorship is probably fine. We can be as certain as we are of anything that Nazism is not a viable political option, and removing it from the public discourse doesn’t prevent people from cosplaying as Nazis on their own time. But of course there is no actual Nazi Party anymore; the entire issue is identifying which ideologies are really dangerous. Trump was widely condemned as a white supremacist for equivocating after Charlottesville, but all the mainstream Republicans who denounced him are also white supremacists. In fact, they’re more effective white supremacists, because, unlike Trump, they’re actually capable of closing deals. Declaring only overt Nazism beyond the pale sets the paling far too far to the right.

The thing that’s being called the “alt-right” is not one thing. It’s an umbrella term that covers a lot of different ideas and reactions. We can assume they’re all wrong, but even then, they’ve come up for real reasons, in response to real problems. Trying to sweep this stuff under the rug is exactly how you get surprised by someone like Trump. Dealing with these problems for real requires creating a society that fixes them, and developing that blueprint requires engaging with the underlying ideas. Expecting the government to take care of the bad guys is not going to accomplish this. In fact, it’s the opposite: the government is on the side of the fascists more than it is on yours.

Importantly, though, “engaging” here does not mean restricting yourself to the realm of cable-friendly “rational debate.” It means having a real fight. Making group efforts to deny fascists the use of social resources meets both free speech criteria. Such efforts can only come to fruition when there is widespread, non-idiosyncratic agreement as to what’s going on, and shutting down individual gatherings is not equivalent to censorship. People making the collective decision to disallow certain types of speech from the platforms over which they have influence is pro-free-speech activity, because it allows better ideas (by the standards of the involved parties) to be expressed. So shutting down fascists is indeed the right thing to do, but it only works if you do it yourself. Anyone who claims to be doing it for you is actually just fattening you up so they can eat you.

Also, violence is not a unique problem. The problem with violence is simply that it violates the criteria: it discriminates on the basis of who’s better at fighting rather than which ideas are better, and it completely prohibits expression rather than singling out particular ideas. But in situations where this isn’t the case, or where violence is already being applied, there’s no case for rejecting violence as such. Like, it’s pretty ridiculous to get all huffy about individual acts of defensive violence when they only stand out because you’re living in a cocoon created by the greatest purveyor of offensive violence in world history. Violence is generally a bad thing, but, given the current situation, a lot of the time it’s less bad than doing nothing.

(By the way, antifa has nothing to do with any of this, because they don’t start shit. As Cornel West and others have testified, their whole thing is defending people against fascist violence. From what I understand, they will actually escort neo-Nazis out of danger in order to defuse violent situations. Fretting about “violence” here, especially in the face of fascists who come armed to what they intend to be public confrontations, is nothing but typical anti-leftist bogeymanning.)

On a lighter note, the whole thing about university speakers being protested is a perfect example of something that is not a real problem. First, such protests can only happen through mass mobilization on the part of the affected constituency, which is proper discrimination. Second, being denied a speaking slot at a university has basically no other repercussions. Your ideas are still out there for people to engage with. Even the specific students at that university can look them up if they want to. In fact, the direction of suppression here is exactly the opposite of how it’s normally portrayed. It is the granting of the speaking slot in the first place that is suppressive behavior. If a group of college students wants to create a discursive climate in which trans people are not bullied, giving Milo Yanniopolis a speaking slot censors that political opinion.

To be honest, none of this is particularly relevant. Invoking “free speech” is almost always a dodge away from discussing actual political issues. It’s a way for people who don’t have the guts to take a meaningful stand to pretend like they’re principled when they really just want to avoid the discomfort of genuine values conflicts. The real problem is the fact that it works. As long as “free speech” is thought to be at issue, everyone has to spend all their time preemptively defending themselves instead of making real arguments. In other words, talking about free speech is a means of suppressing speech.

 


  1. You might want to keep in mind that this is all highly theoretical, because of course the government kills people and commits other rights violations for utilitarian reasons all the time, so talking about any kind of “pure” standard here is fantasyland from the getgo. 
  2. This applies broadly. If you try to take just one right and treat it as absolute, you run into internal contradictions. For example, treating the right to life as absolute and sacrificing everything else to it leads to the Repugnant Conclusion: valuing only life destroys the things that make life valuable in the first place. 
  3. So, if you hadn’t noticed, “hate speech” is a complete misnomer. Hatefulness has nothing to do with anything. The problem is with dehumanizing speech. This is actually why a lot of people get confused: they think they’re looking for “hate,” so when they don’t see it, they assume there’s no problem. Having a level of conceptual organization beyond “bad things are bad” matters. 
  4. There can, of course, be other interests at work: the relevant agency might be in the pocket of Big Toothpaste (this is called “regulatory capture”), or the government might want to direct poisoning at a specific undesirable community (this is called “environmental racism”). But these aren’t arguments against regulation, they’re arguments for good regulation. 
  5. This doesn’t work for involuntary groups. You can’t argue both that people need to work to eat and that their employers should be able to restrict their political opinions, unless you’re willing to accept that people with the wrong kind of ideas ought to be murdered. Either work is involuntary and employment is protected, or working is not a prerequisite for staying alive and associations can be fully voluntary. 

Just drifting

So there’s this concept in game design called “verbs,” which are basically all the actions that the player can take in a game. Like, in Mario you can run, jump, duck, fireball, grab turtle shell; in old adventure games you can USE <inventory item> ON <thingy>. That second part, the <thingy>, is the “noun,” which is the object within the game that you’re “verb”-ing. This framework doesn’t work for everything – it’s difficult to apply meaningfully to abstract games, and it’s an awkward fit for sim games, where you’re basically just selecting options off a menu – but, imaginatively speaking, there should be a large variety of potential “sentences” you can form like this, giving games a rich expressive language that can address a wide variety of human concerns. Realistically speaking, not so much. Video games have been and are overwhelmingly concerned with the noun “enemy” and the verb “kill.”

hld_bodies1

Hyper Light Drifter is a typical video game that presents itself as a typical video game. You run around fighting enemies and picking up items, working your way towards the big, imposing bosses, and dying over and over again while you try to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to be doing. It’s not particularly friendly, because it assumes that you’re already familiar with the things that it expects you to do. But it’s made with considerably more care and effort than your typical pointless nostalgic throwback. It uses pixel art, but it isn’t really “retro” – it’s an aesthetic, but it’s not intentionally low-quality. In fact, the graphics are really good. The environments are big and messy, making it feel like the world has some actual weight behind it. The copy/paste effect is largely avoided; different instances of the same structures will have slight differences or be broken in different ways. Most impressively, there are many huge, unique setpieces that add a real presence to otherwise generic areas.

So you’ve you’ve got this rich, mysterious, expansive world to explore, and your only means of interacting with it is to kill things. Aside from a generic “interact” button used to open doors and pick up items and soforth, everything you can actually do in the game is focused on finding groups of enemies and killing them. Verb-wise, it’s basically “move,” “dodge,” “kill.”

Again, there’s enough effort put into this to make it better than it sounds. Attacking and dodging both have subtle, smart mechanics that give the game’s action unusual contours. Your weapons are the typical sword and gun, and the typical distinction here is for them to be useful in different situations: the sword is powerful but dangerous, while the gun is convenient but weak. Hyper Light Drifter makes the obvious but uncommon choice to make the gun strictly better than the sword. It does the same or more damage, and it’s faster in addition to being ranged, so it’s always the preferred weapon. The catch is that you have to charge the gun by attacking enemies with the sword. This makes combat extremely focused: instead of switching between your available actions, you have one line of attack that you have to balance based on your gun’s charge. You have to be competent enough to fight with the sword regularly, and you have to have the judgment to know when to go for quick kills with the gun, and the fact that these are two aspects of the same line of action allows for fast and smooth gameplay.

The defensive side of combat is similarly focused: all you’ve really got is a quick-dash that lets you dodge out of the way of enemy attacks. Standard practice here is for the dodge move to just make you invincible while it’s happening, so it can act as a defensive catch-all. This way, whatever kind of attack you’re facing, you can get by it by just dodging at the right time. In fact, the invincibility means you can often dodge into attacks to both avoid damage and wind up in a great position to attack immediately afterwards. But again, Hyper Light Drifter does not make things this easy. The dodge move here is just a movement ability that offers no explicit protection. Not only will dodging into an attack result in getting hit, but even an imprecise dodge away from an attack might not be enough to avoid it, or it might put you in a bad position for the enemies’ next attack. On top of this, the dash itself kind of weak. It doesn’t have much range, and because of how fast the gameplay is you might find yourself under fire again immediately after dodging out of danger. What this means is that you have to actually figure out how to dodge each attack effectively, and be precise enough about it to both avoid damage and put yourself in a position to counterattack. For example, there’s a samurai-like enemy that slowly approaches you and then quickly attacks once it’s at the right distance. You’ll probably get hit if you try to dodge toward or away from the attack, since it’s fast and it has long range. And you can’t just keep your distance, or you’ll never get a chance to attack. What you have to do is dodge precisely so that you wind up to the side of the enemy after it attacks, which will put you out of danger but close enough to follow up with your own attack.

Everything else about the game is equally focused. Each enemy has one simple attack pattern, so you always know what you have to deal with. Damage amounts are small and clearly displayed, so you always know what the situation is. If an enemy has 3 HP, you know you can kill it with one combo; if it has 4, you need to be prepared to retreat after hitting it. If you’ve got an enemy down to 1 HP, you know you have the option of finishing it off with a gun attack and not having to worry about it anymore. Similarly, enemy attacks deal either one or two damage to you, so you always know what you can survive.

The problem with focus, though, is the question of what you’re focusing on, and this is where things start to get a little dispiriting, because all of this violence happens for no reason. The story is intentionally abstract; there’s no text, just the occasional pretty picture to suggest what’s going on (and also the occasional ridiculously overwrought cutscene, which is awfully incongruous in a game with an otherwise minimalist story). But the problem isn’t the technique, it’s the substance, which is to say the lack thereof. There’s no actual reason the enemies in each area are enemies, you just go there and start killing them. Games with lots of text in them get a bad rap for being slow and boring, but it’s this kind of stuff that writing is actually good for: establishing a relationship between characters and the world they live in, creating a context in which the actions you take mean something.

Abdicating one’s responsibility to provide this sort of context can have unfortunate consequences. The “story” in one area is that the native inhabitants have been genocided by, um, some kind of frog ninja clan, or something. There’s a lot of very explicit imagery showcasing the horror of the situation: piles of corpses, heads on pikes, flayed bodies, the whole deal. It’s all quite brutish and upsetting. And so, arriving in the middle of this situation, your response as the player is to murder every living thing you encounter, leave a trail of corpses strewn across the floor, and then strike a coolguy victory pose. “Dissonant” does not begin to describe the effect.

hld_bodies2

The issue is not that violence should never be portrayed in games, or even that violence is always wrong. In reality, violence is a complicated subject. Violence can be used defensively or coercively. One application of violence is torture, the living destruction of a human being, and another is mercy killing, using violence to end suffering. The presence of violence makes related choices such as intimidation or pacifism meaningful. But video game violence does not admit any of these complications. The term “senseless violence” exists for a reason, and this is it. The problem with violent video games is actually not the fact that they’re violent, it’s that video game violence is nothing at all like real life violence. It’s thoughtless in a way that nothing real ever is, and that is both the problem and the appeal. When you see an “enemy,” the only thing you have to worry about is killing it. Once you’ve gained proficiency with the controls and learned the enemy’s patterns, you’re done; there’s nothing more you have to think about. You don’t have to consider what the right way to use your abilities is.

Instead of thought, games typically provide what is commonly understood as “challenge.” As a typical video game, Hyper Light Drifter is typical in this regard. Which is to say it’s hard, but not in any way that’s interesting. Actually, the better descriptor is “merciless.” There’s no grace period after getting hit, and many attacks will stun you or knock you down, which will often lead right into getting hit again immediately. One enemy type is actually intentionally designed this way: a bunch of them swarm you at once, and their attack stuns you, leaving you open to an arbitrary number of follow-up hits. There’s really no way to respect a decision like this.

Enemy projectile spam combined with multiple dudes rushing you is a common situation. Healing takes time, so you’ll frequently either get hit immediately after healing or just die before the animation finishes. This is all compounded by the fact that the gameplay is extremely fast. Everything I just wrote and more can happen in the space of about 3 seconds. Bosses in particular rush you like motherfuckers, so your first few attempts at each one will basically be instant losses. This has the annoying effect of requiring a learning curve of figuring out how to not die right away before you get to the actual learning curve of figuring out how to win. And once this happens, it turns out to be less of a learning curve and more of a learning cliff. There aren’t really any complications beyond the basics of avoiding attacks and attacking when you have an opening. Once you’ve figured out what you need to do, you’re done.

Obviously, these things all make the game “difficult” in a general sense, but the fact that there are many different types of difficulty is why it’s important not to lump distinct concepts together under the same word. Difficulty of conceptualization is different from difficulty of execution. Moral complexity is different from optimization. Planning is different from exhaustive investigation. Hyper Light Drifter is game where there is no thinking about what to do or how to do it or why you’re doing it, and there is only mastery of execution.

This compounds the aforementioned problem of senselessness. If the game had some kind of motivation to it, if it made you want to learn how to perform well, there might be some kind of value in it. This is why combining a story with gameplay is such a good idea: it makes action meaningful. As it is, though, you’re just going into each area and scouring the life from it, for no reason. It’s difficult to think of anything less meaningful than that.

Again, the violence is not the problem. Violent stories can be meaningful, and senseless gameplay doesn’t suddenly become interesting when you take the gore out of it. In fact, Hyper Light Drifter itself makes this point quite clearly, because the non-violent aspects of the game are equally senseless. Besides killing everything, the other main activity in the game in searching for secrets, and this shares the same lack of logic that the violence does. What will happen is you’ll notice a platform off to the side or a break in the trees or something, and you’ll go over there, not for any real reason (there is, again, no motivation for any of your actions in this game) but just because you’re playing a video game and video games have things hidden in places like this.

I’ve prepared some examples to show just how little sense this makes. Take a moment to inspect the following screenshot:

hld_passage1

See the gray scraps in the lower left? Those indicate that there’s actually a passage there rather than a wall. Now try this one:

hld_passage2

See the same scraps in the center right? Same deal, right? Nope. That one’s just a wall. One more:

hld_passage3

See how the path along the floor branches off to the right? Pretty clearly indicates that someone built a path there, and you just can’t see it because of the camera angle, right? Again, no. Just a path leading into a wall for no reason. Pretty much everything hidden in the game is like this: there’s no rhyme or reason to any of it, so you just have to obsessively check everything. Sometimes enemies coming out of a wall means there’s actually a passage back there, and sometimes it’s just randos comin’ outta nowhere. There are even a number of cases where just standing in a nondescript location will cause a little symbol to appear over your head, indicating that you can press the “interact” button to make some floating platforms appear out of nowhere. It’s all senseless.

And there is such a thing as sensible exploration. In fact, it isn’t particularly hard to get this right, you just have to treat exploration like it’s actually a part of the game. In Civilization, exploration matters because it has a cost. You have to spend resources you could be using on other things, and there’s no guarantee you’ll find anything good, so you have to make do with whatever comes up. In Metroid, exploration has mechanics. You have a variety of tools available that allow you to interact with the environment in specific ways, which makes exploration a matter of figuring out how to get places rather than merely poking at every wall just in case there’s something there.

And the other half of exploration is, again, the context in which it makes sense. And, again, Hyper Light Drifter has none. It is not the case that, for example, you’re in a library looking for a particular book, and you see a passageway behind some shelves, so you explore it looking for a hidden area. In fact, there is a library in the game, but your only business there is to pass through it on your way to continuing to kill everyone. In fact, there are even some library books on the floor that are in your way, so what you have to do, just as when you encounter any other type of obstacle, is to attack and destroy them so that you can proceed. I found this to be a particularly provocative aesthetic choice, as I am of the school of thought that considers book burning to be one of the great crimes against humanity. Perhaps this is a less universal viewpoint than I had assumed.

hld_bodies3

The goal of the game is to find enough magic triangles in each area to open up the magic elevator that takes you to the last boss, which you then kill, and then everything’s over. But the only reason the last boss is the last boss is that it’s a big spooky shadow monster, so of course you’re supposed to kill it. And the only reason collecting the magic triangles is your primary goal is that, you know, it’s a video game, so obviously you’re supposed to run around and collect everything that’s not nailed down. Some of the magic triangles appear to act as power sources for the areas they’re in – the lights go out after you take them – which only serves to make the actions that the game requires of the player even more bizarre. Like, the person destroying the power grid for no apparent reason is pretty obviously the bad guy, right?

And where the game isn’t incongruous, it’s sterile. In one area, you find a lab full of monsters and robots and robot monsters, and it’s all just sort of there. It’s all spectacle and no interaction; you can’t disable the machines or figure out what’s going on or anything, it’s just a bunch of scenery, imposing and flat. Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t take place in a world, it takes place in a diorama.

One thing that seems like it should be interesting is the fact that the protagonist suffers from a terminal disease, such that you occasionally have to stop moving and cough up blood for a little while. This raises a number of questions about how you’re going to interact with the game world. Perhaps there will be times when you’re too weak to fight, forcing you to surrender? Maybe there’s some sort of medicine or resource you need to find in order to manage your symptoms? Or maybe the protagonist goes through the game acutely aware of the fragility of life, compelling her to avoid killing and show mercy whenever possible? The answer to all of these questions is “no.” Once you’re done coughing, you can get right back to slaughtering everything. And then you die at the end, which I guess is sad, or something.

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I get that this is all beside the point. The developers didn’t think about any of this, and the vast majority of players aren’t going to either. Considering how niche this game is, maybe I’m the only one who cares. But remember: Hyper Light Drifter thinks it’s a typical video game, and the problem is that it’s right. It’s the kind of obsessively inaccessible work that ought to be understood as niche, but given the current situation of video games, it actually is the kind of thing that its audience thinks of as “normal.” It wouldn’t be playable otherwise; there’s no explanation for any of your actions and no way to know what to do, except that the stuff you have to do is the same stuff you always do in video games. There are complicated mechanics for killing, and one generic “interact” button for everything else. There are big fancy graphics that don’t matter, because they’re just backdrops and not actual objects in the world. Conversing with another living being receives only the bare minimum representation, while chopping the heads off of goblin monsters is illustrated with lavish animations. A typical video game is one that’s complicated without being thoughtful, evocative without being meaningful, bloody without being human.

The mindset that this game requires you to inhabit is genuinely disturbing. You have to view the world as an adversary, something to be hacked through as you lust after pickups like a starving dog. You have to act like an animal, and not even the good kind of animal that gets to just eat and fuck all day long. The kind that stares with dull eyes at whatever happens to enter its field of vision, that inhabits the world as a creature of mere sustenance, that can’t think.

I mean, I’ve been here before, okay? I understand why this game exists. When I got to the first boss I died instantly, and then I died slightly less instantly a few more times. I experimented with the mechanics to make sure I had a handle on how they were supposed to work. I memorized the progression of its attacks and came up with a strategy for avoiding each one. I tried attacking it at every possible opportunity to see when I could do so without getting hit. And a few dozen tries later I barely killed it by using my last two bullets after noticing it was almost out of health. A lot of people can’t deal with things like this, especially with the audience for games having radically expanded, but I can. I just don’t care anymore. It’s typical. My ability to “overcome” “challenges” like this is not a virtue, it’s a vice. Difficulty needs to be for something; bashing your head against a wall is not a recipe for revelation, and putting up with it is not a recipe for being a decent person.

I’m honestly not even upset about any of this. I’m just sad. A lot of effort was put into this game. It’s precise and intelligent and beautiful. Playing it takes real effort; you have to pay constant attention, explore without guidance, and persevere in the face of seemingly impossible challenges. You can’t finish it without coming to a real understanding of the mechanics and genuinely improving in skill. And in the end, all you have to show for it is a pile of dead bodies.

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Against cleverness

Undertale is an extremely clever game.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.