Perhaps it was coincidence that I had just read an article on David Benatar and antinatalism the day before I played Lydia, but I had been pondering the question of human suffering and trying to digest the notion that having children could always be seen as an act of moral failure from a certain philosophical perspective.
It is pointless to discuss Lydia without spoilers, so before going any farther I’ll simply say that if you believe $5 is too much money to spend on an experience that is not really a game, contains the barest minimum of actual interaction, finishes in less than an hour and will almost certainly leave you depressed, well, skip this one. If you believe that pondering the questions of human misery caused by substance abuse (and yes, by having a child) might be worth exploring even if it asks hard questions, maybe check this out. But if you play video games to enjoy yourself, skip this.
Lydia is, ostensibly, a point and click style adventure game. You click on places to go there, you click on things to interact with them, you click to advance dialogue. But that is really where the similarities to this type of game end. There are no “puzzles” to solve, no branching paths to explore. Your options are limited, and even the appearance of options is often merely an illusion.
This works because Lydia, the titular character, is a child of a broken home. She is not wanted. Her parents both have substance abuse issues. Her father leaves early in the experience. Her mother blames her for this and for the way her life has turned out. Her limited circle of friends barely knows her, and in many ways Lydia’s march down the road of depression and human misery is paved for her by her circumstances and upbringing. There aren’t any actual options because, in the end, she cannot change where she comes from.
Lydia conveys its narrative in large part through art, and this is where the experience is best. Everything appears very beautifully and hauntingly drawn, and there are parallels across the experience as we see pieces of Lydia’s life from when she is a small child to when she is a grown adult. An example is a terrifyingly drawn woodland area where a very small Lydia walks with her teddy bear. The trees all have eerie glowing yellow eyes, and it is hard at times to see where Lydia is in these woods. Similarly, when Lydia leaves her room to try to find her parents while they are having a party, the adults now all look like these trees as she walks through: eyes yellow, haunting. Everything is in a muted black, white and gray with just a few exceptions, and any spots of color do not have the effect of brightening the mood. Colors in this experience are signifiers of something scary, something monstrous. The world of gray may be depressing, but at least it is not terrifying when you are Lydia.
The experience assaults you with hopelessness. Even Lydia’s friends die in a car crash when she hands the driver a bottle of alcohol he asked for. Lydia doesn’t exert any actual influence, she simply is pulled along by the current of this hopelessness. In one moment a pair of seemingly happy strangers, looking with pride at their own child, ask her if anything is wrong. There are several dialogue options, all cries for help. But regardless of what you choose, the answer is “Everything’s fine.”
Again, perhaps because I had been pondering Benatar, I couldn’t help but think of what the experience was trying to convey through the antinatalist lens. If misery is all Lydia will ever experience, would it have been better had she not been born?
The experience doesn’t answer for you. But it does throw a final wrench into the thought process in the ending credits, where we see pictures of Lydia growing up. The pictures include her mother and father holding her with — is it pride? — as a baby. Perhaps there was hope once. There may have even been happiness. But we don’t know for sure, because even the emotions we want to assign to the pictures could be wrong. What is Lydia’s mother thinking in the picture where she is breastfeeding Lydia during the credits? Can we assume with certainty that it is hope and love? I’m not sure we can.
Because we also experience only misery in Lydia’s life, we don’t know what fills in the gaps. Is there ever happiness there? If there is, is it enough to offset the misery? Enough to justify the curse of being born?
The music is, like the art, muted. The controls are simple enough but just a bit frustrating in that Lydia moves so slowly at times. This too is likely intentional. You may want to get where you are going faster, to make the sadness stop, to see what terrible thing is next and get it over with, but the reality of someone experiencing something like this is they can’t. You have to wait it out, and often you can’t stop it.
So in the end, are the antinatalists right? If the absence of pain is good and absence of pleasure not necessarily bad (unless it results in a deprivation for somebody else), can an existence like Lydia’s ever be truly justified? I applaud the creators for not shying away from the implications of what they’ve done here. The experience does not leave you with any false hope, only questions. The ramifications of substance abuse, of growing up in a broken home, of growing up with emotional and/or physical abuse are real, and no sunrise or end credits can reverse the damage. There is no Hollywood ending here, only muted grays.
We are drawn, I think, to art that conveys hope. We love movies where the underdog triumphs in the face of impossible odds. We want, very badly, to believe that there is always a chance for a happy ending, always a reason to keep getting up and keep trying to move forward. We love these stories because so often they aren’t real, and what’s real can be very scary indeed.
In the end, when Lydia walks away from her dying mother without forgiving her, regardless of what dialogue choice you choose — is this what hope looks like? I don’t know. But I also know that I can’t stop thinking about it.
Perhaps the real hope here is a meta hope. The developers mention on the game’s Steam page that the story is drawn from experience. If this is true, and this art was able to come from it, surely that is worth something. Surely the process of turning these sad things into an act of creation that can be shared with the world is worth something. It certainly seems worth more than the five bucks they are charging.