I’m naturally drawn to dark narratives. Whether it’s movies, books, video games, or even music, the more depressing something is, the more likely I am to enjoy it. My friends and family even make fun of me for it, and my students accuse me of only teaching depressing books. Stories that examine what makes life difficult resonate with me because they often present important truths about how to live. These dark narratives often suggest that even in the greatest moments of despair, hope can be found.
LISA: The Painful is the darkest game I’ve ever played. I didn’t like it.
There are a number of reasons why that’s the case, but mainly LISA: The Painful fails to acknowledge any hope or humanity for its characters. It presents a vision that is so dark it makes the whole experience unpleasant for the sake of being unpleasant.
The narrative makes this hopelessness clear from the very start. You play as a character named Brad who is beaten by his classmates in the opening scene. After Brad struggles to get back to his dilapidated house, his father berates him for being so weak. Years later, all women on the earth have disappeared in a mysterious event referred to as “The Flash.” A grown, drug-addicted Brad is tortured by visions of his childhood, notably the abuse both he and his sister endured at the hands of their father. The rest of the men in the world are equally tortured, sex-crazed, and resort to everything from forming gangs to establishing brothels to make them forget about their troubles. Violence is not just common, it’s expected. Eventually, Brad happens upon an abandoned baby girl whom he names Buddy. Filled with memories of his father’s mistreatment, Brad decides that in a world so unsafe, especially for the only living woman, what’s best is to lock Buddy away in a secret underground basement. Inevitably, she wanders off, gets captured, and Brad goes on a journey to save her from all the unsavory things in their world.
LISA: The Painful has an important theme tied up in its story: abuse begets abuse. Even when we attempt to transcend our past, we will ultimately fail, and the cycle continues. I’m not sure I agree with that, but it’s worthy of discussion. The problem is that the narrative presents no options for escaping the pattern. The player is given agency throughout most of the game, but later on, that agency is largely stripped away, and Brad makes a number of decisions I don’t agree with. This feels forced and actively works against the game’s thematic concerns. So when the story ends the way it does, you are never given the option to break the cycle. Instead of feeling resonant, it feels like the nihilism of the story is shoved down your throat, and it doesn’t work.
An even larger problem is the way the story uses female objectification, and worse still, the way it objectifies a very young girl. The men in the world become obsessed with Buddy; many suggest that they want to have sex with her. Others make casually sexist comments about their wives who are now gone. The intent is to comment on female agency and how men remove it. That’s an admirable goal. But LISA: The Painful, like many other narratives, mistakenly pushes the envelope so far that it almost makes light of the issue, actively working against its own aspirations. I’m also pretty tired of stories that use young girls in danger to help develop a sad old white guy’s attempt at redemption.
It should be noted that there is a sequel to this game — LISA: The Joyful. This might clear up some of my issues with the story, but as its own narrative, LISA: The Painful didn’t work for me.
The gameplay in LISA: The Painful is unique, and it also contributes to the game’s thematic concerns, but none of it is particularly…fun. Exploration happens via side-scrolling platforming. Brad jumps up and down ledges, gets tools (like a bike) to make it easier along the way, and he can even fall to his death if he turns the wrong way. Using all the tools Brad has available is important for traversing the different areas and discovering the myriad secrets hidden within this world, including finding all the recruitable characters. The controls for platforming are a little clunky. Jumping up or down into different areas requires at least two different clicks. I found myself jumping when I wanted to drop or missing jumps with some regularity. Luckily, the platforming isn’t terribly difficult, but it isn’t well executed either.
The most notable feature of the gameplay is just how unfriendly it is. In this dangerous world, you’re likely to die, have things stolen from you, or permanently lose a party member at any given moment. There are almost no safe places to sleep, but you can rest at a campfire. However, you might wake up to a ransom note for a kidnapped party member, or even find that your party has been poisoned while you slept. At one point, you are even thrown into a game of Russian Roulette, and if you lose, that party member is dead forever. Game currency is hard to come by. The NPCs will cheat you with some regularity. This even extends to player choice. At various points in the game, Brad is presented with two options, and there will be real consequences regardless of the choice. Lose an arm or lose a party member, for example. The right choice is often unclear, or there simply isn’t one, and there typically aren’t significant story consequences either way, but you will lose something you value. I had a hard time playing for longer than an hour because it was so frustrating to lose what I built over and over again. Sure, this is all justifiable from a thematic perspective. The world is unfriendly, so the game is unfriendly to the player. But that doesn’t make it particularly enjoyable.
Combat is mostly the standard RPG Maker faire. It is turn-based, and characters have different buffs, debuffs, and status effects they can inflict. Brad is the most interesting to use, as he employs a combat style that is similar in many ways to Xenogears, where you can string a variety of different hits together to achieve different combos. Combat presents a solid challenge. The variety of characters available presents a lot of different ways to tackle bosses, and there is a solid challenge in almost every fight. You need to utilize your skills effectively to be successful, and I found myself looking forward to the battles more than any other part of the game.
Two things I can’t find fault with in LISA: The Painful are its looks and sound. The graphics aren’t impressive from a technical perspective, but there are so many little details that effectively communicate the game’s vision. There are a variety of locations, each with its own unique aesthetic. The monster designs are also grotesque. It’s not enjoyable to look at by any means, but it’s not supposed to be. Everything and everyone looks beaten down and broken, just like the world the game presents. The soundtrack is the real highlight here, though. It’s truly outstanding. With over two hours of original music, there is a ton of variety. Everything works, from the EDM-infused battle music to the more sedate songs underscoring particularly dark moments. If there’s one thing from this game I know I’ll keep coming back to, it’s the music.
The developer claims that LISA: The Painful is inspired by EarthBound. But like so many games before, it misses what makes EarthBound click — its humanity, humor, and hope. This game doesn’t seem to want the player to like it. The story, devoid of hope or identifiable characters, matches its nihilistic narrative with gameplay that is deeply unfriendly to both the player and characters. While these design choices are made with purpose, the themes the game drives at and the vehicles it uses to get there are at times in poor taste, other times offensive, and never pleasant. The singularity and uniqueness of the experience is to be commended, and some will no doubt buy what this game is selling. I am not one of those people.