An urthodox episode of Second Opinion IS about a game you haven’t heard of.
All right, folks, I’m gonna level with you. This week has been an absolute nightmare. If you haven’t been keeping up, this is the fourth video I’ve recorded and released in the past four days, following the Yooka-Laylee review, the always-a-hassle-to-edit Welcome to Warcraft, and the two-hour “Hey, Poor Adventurers!” finale. Throw in the weekly Hey Poor Podcast, the written reviews for both Yooka and Mirage: Arcane Warfare, and huge changes in my personal life, and the result is that I didn’t have time to create a traditional Second Opinion video. I know it might not look like it because it’s produced on the cheap, but I usually put about a day and a half into doing research, writing the script, editing the script so that it’s funny and can be read in less than 20 minutes, recording the intro and outro, gathering footage, producing, editing, adding the stinger – it’s a lot of work, even though it’s work I love doing. The production quality might be cheap, but I’m proud of the professional quality of the arguments I present.
However, there’s something that I’m always getting requests to do on the show, and that’s to break the rule of “This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of” and cover some games people haven’t heard of – to talk about obscure classics that might have gotten ignored or weren’t really appreciated at the time or were otherwise swept under the rug. Now, that’s not what Second Opinion is traditionally about – we’re trying to challenge narratives, and you can’t challenge a narrative if a game is so unknown that it doesn’t have a narrative surrounding it. I mean, in keeping with the medical theme, that’s more of a diagnosis than a second opinion. But this week, why don’t we take a Friday off to sit back, relax, and talk about a great game you’ve probably never heard of. Welcome to the first Second Opinion Short, where we’ll be talking about LISA: The Painful RPG.
LISA is a one-man RPGmaker project currently available on Steam for ten dollars (it often drops to two or three dollars in sales.) Despite a lot of excited buzz surrounding its Kickstarter campaign, the game got almost no coverage after release. It was killed in large part by a twenty-minute unskippable intro, which made it absolutely toxic to YouTubers and, when combined with an incredibly buggy launch, meant that most outlets like ours just didn’t bother reviewing it at all. Now, I personally don’t think that intro’s quite as horrible as everyone says – it’s got enough interactivity that it’s not too miserable to sit through. Plus, I personally think that a game with this many big ideas and this ambitious of a story to tell can be forgiven for taking time to set those ideas up. At any rate, the bugs got patched, and those of us who stuck with the game found one of the most compelling and fascinating experiences the medium has to offer.
LISA is set in a post-apocalyptic world where an event called “The White Flash” toppled most of civilization and killed every single woman, leaving a male-dominated world to collapse into chaos Lord of the Flies style. That changes when Brad Armstrong, a lonely former martial arts instructor, finds a baby girl and raises her as his daughter, Buddy. Despite Brad’s desperate attempts to keep his daughter safe and hidden, she disappears one day, almost certainly kidnapped, and Brad has to track her down. The story, in case you couldn’t tell, is absolutely brilliant – the sort of slow-burning and nuanced portrait of humanity that we pretty much never see in games.
For example, take Brad himself. Videogame protagonists are typically all good or all bad. Even with the rise of the brooding mopey antihero that every triple-A game has to have now and that we’re all tired of seeing, generally he’s still a hero, just one who’s constantly moping about being heroic, because that’s what we all want in our escapism. (To be fair, a lot of other mediums still haven’t figured out how much we hate that shit either.) At the beginning of the game, Brad seems pretty unequivocally like the good guy – everyone he comes across clearly only has one thing on their mind now that they know there’s a girl around, and he really does want to protect her and keep her safe from this nightmare world. But as the game goes on, we learn that he’s motivated less by a genuine love for Buddy and more by a selfish need to atone for past mistakes, the nature of which are slowly and organically revealed throughout the course of the story. In fact (minor spoiler here) when you actually find Buddy, she doesn’t want to be rescued – she’s furious at you for keeping her trapped in a cave for most of her life. Again, though, it’s hard to say whether or not Brad actually made the right decision, considering that the first actions she takes with her hard-won newfound freedom are pretty horrific, and lead her straight into some situations any father wouldn’t want her to be in.
You’ve probably heard some of these plot points before, but that’s just because I’m being really careful to summarize them without any specifics, since I don’t want a spoil a game I’m trying to get all of you to buy and play. Again, what sets LISA apart is the nuance, the little details, the depth of storytelling and characterization, the use of dramatic irony. It’s like a playable novel. It was never going to do well on YouTube because it’s all about slow-burn storytelling and quiet, simple character moments and never quite knowing what’s going on until the very end, when all the pieces slide into place (if you’ve been paying attention.)
See, what I really admire about LISA is its maturity. This is gonna be a bit of a tangent, but hey, like I said, this is gonna be a more low-key, tangent-y, rambly kind of article. “Mature” usually has a very specific meaning in entertainment media, and that meaning is “jokes about sex and weed.” To use a recent example, take the film Sausage Party. This is a movie that sold itself proudly as the first rated-R animated feature film (even though it wasn’t), and what did it do with that R rating? Did it try to tell a more interesting story, delve into the kind of themes you can’t tell in childrens’ animation? Nope – pretty much just vagina jokes. Penises! Poop! The F word! Oh, and same paper-thin “commentary on religion” that doesn’t have anything more to say than “religion is bad and sometimes causes racism.” Not exactly a philosophical hot take, and one that’s not helped by how many jokes in the movie are made at the expense of ethnic stereotypes.
I mean, yeah, not everything has to be a deep story about the human condition, but if you’re gonna brag about being more “adult,” you probably aim for more than a twelve-year-old’s idea of what that word means. LISA addresses some pretty taboo stuff. Just to name a few: depression, pedophilia, incest, rape, extremely graphic violence and murder, domestic abuse, bodily mutilation…you get the idea. But these things aren’t in the game because the developer’s saying “Look what I can get away with, I’m so edgy.” They’re part of the story, and the sense of despair that the story is attempting to instill. They’re treated with actual maturity. Rape, for example, is never actually shown, even if the choices you make in the game bring you to a point where it happens or is implied to happen. It’s not something that’s meant to titillate the audience. Instead, it ties into the game’s themes of masculinity and what it means to be a man, the most extreme result of the hyper-sexualized hyper-masculine culture that has sprung up in LISA’s no-girls-alive post-apocalyptic vision of the future.
And that said, LISA is still really, really funny. That’s because it’s smartly written, and smart writers know that in order for sad moments to pack any sort of punch, they have to be balanced out by happy stuff. If something’s just sad all the time, you never have anything to compare it to or any reason to actually care about the characters. LISA is actually really well-structured so that the biggest emotional gutpunches are followed by more humorous come-downs, which means that those punches are still effective but not so depressing that you just can’t go on.
Often, the humor is even tied into some of those darker, more depressing themes. Let me show you what I mean. Whenever I start gushing to friends about LISA and I want to explain it to them succinctly, I show them this scene. The context is that you’re at the end of a combat-oriented section in a construction zone, and this guy is the final boss. When that happened, I think it might have been the hardest I’ve ever laughed at a videogame. It was so completely unexpected, so out of nowhere, and I just love the way the game absolutely commits to the bit of this guy’s entire life being focused around driving a bulldozer. But at the same time, it’s really pretty depressing, feeding into the “everything is pointless” nature of the story. Even when it’s making you laugh, LISA is making you think.
Okay, enough about the story. Even though its narrative is LISA’s greatest strength, it’s also got really great gameplay. It’s the game that taught me that I liked turn-based RPGs. Mostly, the game is about using and understanding status effects, which sounds kind of boring until you realize that these effects include “Cool,” “Super Cool”, “Extorted”, “Depressed”, and more. There’s 41 different status effects in LISA, and learning how they interact, stack, and can be used to help other party members is a big part of the strategy of the game.
The other part of that strategy are the party members themselves. There’s more than 30 party members to find, some of whom you have to be really creative in order to get on your team, and they all have really interesting backstories and really interesting utility. For example, there’s Terry Hintz, the first party member you get, who even at the beginning is completely useless in combat. However, if you keep him in your party long enough for him to get to level 25, he gets the single most powerful move in the game, an ability which if paired with Birdie’s Gasoline Spit move can one-shot all but the absolute toughest of bosses. Learning how to use the weird and wonderful abilities of the weird porn-drawing fanartist and the baseball-bat-wielding self-proclaimed “King of the Queers” and the trigger-happy fish lawyer is fun strategically and from a lore perspective, and makes it all the more tragic when those characters DIE.
Ha! I tricked you! We were totally still talking about narrative construction this whole time! Because like all the best games, LISA’s story and its gameplay aren’t two separate entities – they’re one and the same. Sure, at the base level, LISA is a very difficult game, and that difficulty can make you feel helpless just like Brad does. But it’s more than just difficulty. Part of the reason there’s so many party members is because some of them are going to die, or get kidnapped, or just get disgusted and leave the party. The more you treat these interesting, likable characters as disposable and interchangeable weapons in your quest, the better you’ll do, by design. So when characters confront Brad and tell him that his quest is selfish, that no ends could possibly justify his means, well, you feel the truth of it.
And that’s LISA for you, in the end. I understand that it’s not a game for everyone, but it’s a game that I feel is important. It quietly came in and set a new bar for mature, emotional storytelling in videogames. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it gives you the thrill of victory and the tearful, shoulder-shaking sobs of utter defeat. Since I got the game a couple years ago, I’ve sunk more than 60 hours into its 8-to-10-hour campaign, and I plan to play it a lot more, because there’s nothing on this Earth quite like it. If you have any interest at all in interactive storytelling, and the stomach for some real sad times, I highly recommend it.