LISA: The Painful Protagonist

After playing Undertale, and after awarding it my game of the year (very prestigious, I know), I quickly went on a hunt to see if there were any new games that could possibly come close to achieving the same amount of tone, charm, and emotion as Undertale.

What I kept finding was LISA: The Painful RPG.

The similarities between Undertale and LISA are pretty striking: both games feature quirky worlds, draw strongly from the Mother series, and deconstruct RPGs through mechanics and meta-humor. However, it cannot be understated that these are very different games. Where Undertale is mostly cheerful and charming (unless the player takes certain actions), LISA never departs from a theme of tragedy and despair.

LISA takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where all women have vanished off the face of the Earth. Well, nearly all women. The player controls Brad, a drug addict and martial artist who finds a baby that happens to be the last girl the world. Brad raises her as his own in secret until his friends – desperate to repopulate the world – give the child up to the warlord Rando. Brad departs on a painful quest, harming guilty and innocent alike to get his “daughter” Buddy back haunted all the while by hallucinations of his sister Lisa, who killed herself as a child. Needless to say, LISA is not a very cheerful game. What LISA is, is an emotional game.

What impressed me most about LISA was just how strong the tone of the game was throughout. The characters, the environments, even the odd humor helped create this oppressive atmosphere of chaos and despair. Nothing ever feels right in LISA, its always off-kilter. This is most obvious in the game’s surreal sequences, but even in quiet moments – where the player is just walking for example – there hangs a feeling of dread.

Part of what makes this work, I think, is the way the character of Brad is developed. Extra Credits recently did a video about anti-heroes in video games and the challenges of effectively using them. Anti-heroes are often written as a rebellious response to the norms of the day, subverting the power of traditional values through amoral or unassuming “heroes.” Unfortunately, many forms of anti-heroes have become the norm, forcing new mediums to force dark, angsty characters into narratives for no real reason. Furthermore, an antihero is not someone you want to be, so it can be difficult to play as one.

Brad, I think, is one of a new generation of anti-heroes. Brad is obviously not a nice person, but he justifies his goals enough for the player to sympathize with his cause. As the world of LISA is revealed to be ever more insane and unforgiving the player, like Brad, is capable of justifying increasingly unethical actions in their quest. We come to sympathize with Brad, only for the game to remind us that maybe we shouldn’t.

LISA isn’t a perfect game. Sometimes elements of the story seem a little too vague (though some of it may be better explained in the sequel DLC that I’m going to play). The combat can be a burden and I often wanted to skip fights to continue the story. I understand that the game is supposed to be difficult and unforgiving –  it makes sense to mechanically reflect the game world this way – but I can’t help feel like there are things in this game that are difficult or frustrating without the designers intending them to be that way. The navigation, especially at newly discovered crossroads, comes to mind.

Nonetheless, I think LISA is a very good game. Its a game that is willing to give the player painful experiences without breaking the immersion of the game. I wouldn’t go so far to say that its the masterpiece that Undertale is, but it definitely comes closer than any other game I can think of that tries as hard as Undertale to make the player think about the game they’re playing critically. I will definitely remember Brad’s journey, from its painful beginnings to its haunting conclusion, though perhaps I wish I didn’t.

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Arkham City: Building Design to Appreciate Design

Recently I started playing Arkham City (yes, I know, its been out for quite a while) and, while I enjoy the game, I’ve been having a hard time figuring out exactly what makes it good. The plot, though fitting for a Batman/Comic-book-inspired game, isn’t particularly amazing or original. Many of the characters are well-written, drawing simultaneously from the nostalgia of their original depictions with a very modern twist, but many of them are just continuations of characters from Arkham Asylum, they generally don’t get a lot of screen-time, and some of the female characters are downright cringeworthy. The writing is often entertaining, especially when you eavesdrop on NPCs, but I still found myself skipping past a lot of these snippets of dialogue to get back to the game.

I’ve often heard my friends – and other people online – lament that games focus too much on improving gameplay without improving the story, characters, and writing. There may be some truth to this, but to claim that a game should ignore mechanical improvements entirely in favor of writing highlights a fundamental misunderstanding of game design, and Arkham City is a perfect example of how improved design can make or break a game without changing much of the writing or characters.

Games are very difficult to write for because the story is implemented in many different ways at once. A game can have dialogue – some of which may be interactive, some of it not – the story can be conveyed through in-game documents, or in the environment itself through posters and billboards. Sometimes the story is conveyed mostly through the level design itself. The thing is, in games, the story is most effectively conveyed when its tied to the gameplay. In Mass Effect players know the story will primarily come from the dialogue choices they make, and the game is built around that – and is further supplemented by the tone of the levels and the party-based combat. Games like Call of Duty tell the story episodically through mission briefs, with surprises and twists being conveyed in-level, mirroring the erratic and ever-shifting nature of ground combat.  In fact, what makes most popular and acclaimed games popular and acclaimed is the way their gameplay is effectively integrated into their story.

What makes Arkham City of particular note is that the game not only features fantastic design, but also implements that design in such a way that the player is almost forced to appreciate it. The fluidity of movement in the city by climbing, gliding, and and grappling makes the player acutely aware of the ludicrous amount of effort that has gone into making this complicated map traversable while also seeming like a real metropolis. The Riddler’s riddles make the player think critically about level design, and also encourage them to pay attention to the many little details sprinkled throughout the world. Even the combat is built to be multi-faceted, offering the player numerous tools and tactics, that simultaneously brings out the character of Batman and the villains while highlighting level design, animation, and the gadgets at the player’s disposal.

Arkham City is a game that manages fantastic design, but its real achievement is the way it integrates appreciation for design into the gameplay itself. I sincerely hope that, in the future, more developers will be able to see that improving mechanics and writing isn’t simply about integrating more of one-or-the-other into the game, but ensuring that these elements are intertwined in a way that the design illuminates the game’s world and plot in ways that the player can appreciate.

Tragic Fantasy – A Filmmaker’s Manifesto

In times of hardship, conflict, and change, people will gravitate to escapism. The fantastic is sought out and produced as a cultural painkiller, offering cathartic release, hope, and feelings of agency. However, as escapism is pursued as an alternative to hardship there enters a risk of separation from reality, rejecting the responsibilities of the real in favor for the pleasure of certain fantasies.

Film offers a greater element of fantasy than other mediums through its unique use of editing, lighting, close-up, and framing. When images are watched on a screen, moving in quick succession, we accept them as they are. The painting is seen as a still, unchanging, its reality contained within a frame, examined fro the outside. The written form is taken one word at a time, analyzed, compartmentalized from word, to sentence, paragraph, chapter and volume. Theater is seen in acts, conforming to the stage.

Film’s ability to manipulate space and time while maintaining continuity within the mind of the viewer presents it a unique opportunity in the realm of the fantastic. That is, when the viewer sees the unreal in a film – whether it be a monster, an impossible action sequence, or a remarkable location – it is accepted as reality. But when the film ends, the mind must reject the fantastic that was witnessed only moments before. This gives rise to what I call the tragedy of the dream, and, conversely, the tragedy of the nightmare.

THE TRAGEDY OF THE DREAM

In a dream we feel we are part of the fantastic. The unreal usurps the real through the use of familiar images that are mixed and matched in unusual and taboo ways. When we awake the true reality comes into conflict with the dream reality. We feel a sense of tragedy upon realizing that the fantasy we experienced is at odds with our reality.

THE TRAGEDY OF THE NIGHTMARE

In a nightmare a similar process is at work, but the tragedy is reversed. When we awake from a nightmare we feel relief that the reality of the dream is at odds with our own reality, but we then experience tragedy when we see that our reality contains vestiges of the nightmare. If I awake from a nightmare where I am chased down an endless, dark hallway, I shall reasonably experience fear when I encounter a dark hallway in real life.

THE ROLE OF TRAGEDY IN THE FANTASTIC

When we see a movie that we enjoy we are drawn into its reality. If we envy that reality we feel the tragedy of the dream when the movie ends. We attempt to rebuild and reenact the fantasy within our own world. If we fear the world of the film we experience the tragedy of the nightmare, and we seek to remove the elements of the fantasy that exist in our reality.

This is film’s greatest power, and its greatest danger. To utilize the tragedy of the dream and the tragedy of the nightmare allows us to rewrite our reality and work towards common goals. But it also has the chance to be abused, to create propaganda and turn us against our own world.

IMPLEMENTING THE TRAGEDY OF THE FANTASTIC

The advancement of film editing, effects, and post-production lies at the heart of fantastic tragedy. All of these elements help build the unreal in the film through manipulation of space and time, and the creation of unreal imagery and sound. Ultimately, the film should create a reality upon which fantasy imposes itself. The viewer must be drawn into the fantasy, only to find rejection. Either the viewer must reject the world of the fantasy, or the fantasy must reject the world of the viewer.

However:

The advancement of these technologies and techniques must never allow the elements of the unreal to overtake the real. A film must present a world that is real. The elements of the fantastic must encroach upon this world and be recognized for their unrealness in the tradition of surrealism, magical realism, and horror. To present the fantastic as a part of reality merely promotes an attitude of conformity where the hardships of reality are avoided and ignored in the search for a few moments of escape.

If this trend continues we risk erasing the tragedy, and embracing fantasy wholeheartedly as reality itself. We must embrace fantasy for what it is. We must embrace the tragedy it provides us. Films cannot move towards false reality in good conscience.

To embrace the tragic fantasy is to promote thought and the reexamination of our own reality – its wonders and its horrors. Tragic fantasy is the reclamation of the technology and aesthetic of the screen, the reclamation of the modern psyche and the reclamation of our world and our art.

-Patrick Higgins