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Lisa the Painful: Or, Live in Meta

->Thought One:

I think that Lisa: The Painful may be my favorite game, or at least top five (ALTTP, Yume Nikki, and Animal Crossing all have warm spots in my heart). Why? Great mechanics. One of the reason Lisa: The Painful is A LOT better than its finale, Lisa: The Joyful, is that L:TP has a really robust party system. Party systems are things I think about a lot in terms of RPGs. I'm going to definitely write about the use of party mechanics in Final Fantasy VII sometime soon (and maybe become the first person to gender the mechanics of party systems). Parties are warm. Parties solve interesting problems within RPGs: they allow for a rich set of characters to follow you on your quest, which is necessary to tell the rich stories in JRPGs, while limiting you to a subset thereof for active gameplay, which solves the fact that if you had to input 20 different commands each round you would put down the game immediately. This limitation from a larger set, this commitment to subsets, introduces an interest combinatoric complexity to the JRPG. A great example of this is the party system in Chrono Trigger. A good party system is the reason I love Deltarune (or what little pieces that are available of it in 2018) but don't care for Undertale. This preamble doesn't do terribly much, I'm seeing, for the body of this text. I suppose that I begin with it because I am interested in a video game criticism that is grounded in mechanics, but I understand that mechanics are not the only thing that a game is

->Thought One cont'd: An example from non-video games: Risk is a bad game from a mechanics perspective. It is game theoretically inscrutable. It is not enjoyable. The game lasts too long, and the advantage afforded the defending player makes the pace of the game sluggish, and no one can agree on a good strategy for it. The beginning of the game has the problem that bad JRPGs have, in that everyone is too powerless for anything fun or flavorful to happen. BUT it is a game where you get to take over the world. The visual design of Risk is its major selling point; it is what makes the game a classic. Were you to design a game that was mechanically identical, but which was overlayed atop a map with no relation to the real world (or a well known fictional universe; Star Wars Risk is a thing) or which was played on a series of hexagons rather than a Mercator projection, the game would not be a classic. The aesthetic component of the game is no merely mechanics, and in some cases, the non-mechanical components of the game are the main means by which it generates aesthetic meaning.

->Thought Two: To return to L:TP, this is not going to be a discussion of its mechanics, which are rich, and which I must mention at the outset because I believe that there can be no good game criticism that does not look at mechanics. But, the thing that I am going to argue today is almost entirely based in the story of the game. It has never to nothing to do with its mechanics. At the outset, I will say that I don't know if there is any mechanical component of the game that I could use to make that would be pertinent to the themes examined here. Well, maybe there is one mechanic. Let's start there:

->Thought Three: At the end of L:TP, Brad finally finds his adopted daughter Buddy, and he is about to die (or, really, mutate into a horrific Joy Mutant: the body horror components of the game should be left for another time), and he asks her to hold him. The player is given a choice, but the point of view of the work shifts: you are now Buddy, and you are given the choice of whether or not to hold Brad. If the player decides to hold Brad, before he mutates, he says his final words: "Did I do the right thing?". If the player does not have Buddy hold Brad, then he says, "But, I loved you." It doesn't matter what you pick though: in the final moments, Buddy is given agency--a played character in a work has more agency than an non-player charater, and Buddy is now played--and is asked to judge Brad, and to determine if what he did was right. Even if Buddy--through the player, we will get to that--determines if Brad is worthy of being held in his final moments.

->Thought Two cont'd: Ah! There is a piece of mechanics that applies here! The entire game is filled with ethical decisions for the player to make, such that Brad's "Did I do the right thing?" means more than just whether or not he did the right thing with respect to Buddy. It is whether Brad--through the player, we will get to that--has made the right choices with respect to the entirety of Olathe. These choices include: whether or not to spare the lives of your party members or keep your right arm, whether or not to pay off a marauding post-apocalypse gang in order to prevent them from killing everyone in a village, whether or not you sell dynamite to two rogues for major bank (two rogues who will, then, use the TNT to kill everyone in another settlement; many villages die based on your whims), and whether or not you wish to sell your only friend Terrie Hintz into slavery with the gang known as The Gents. Olathe is going to fall apart regardless of your actions; like any ethical actor is tragically aware, you can only cause and heal so much pain. But the entire game writes in at a mechanical level the idea of doing the right thing; notably, it leverages its robust and frankly wonderful party system in a lot of these decisions. The right thing is the only thing in Olathe.

->Thought Three cont'd: But, again, this essay steps away from mechanics and tries to answer the question as to whether or not Brad was doing the right thing with regards to Buddy, which is really the question that is on Brad's mind if Buddy should choose to hold him. The actions that Brad takes concerning Buddy are not up to the player to make. They are written fixedly into the narrative. Buddy runs away from home. You fight your way across Olathe to try and find her. You kill your best friends--this is not a decision ceded to the players--in order to find her. And then, you find her, and the player cedes control over Brad and instead plays as Buddy. This final point concretizes in mechanics the fact that Brad's decisions with respect to Buddy are his own, and are not, like so many of the things that he does in order to find her, up to the player. It cedes meaning making in this regard from the domain of mechanics and into the domain of narrative, the deterministic element of the game. And the question is: has Brad done the right thing?

->Argument One: Well, as with most things ethical, especially in terms of art, the entire thing is couched in the meta. The question as to whether or not Brad has done the right thing is less interesting than the question of whether or not Brad could do the right thing given the circumstances. And I would argue that he did.

->Argument Two: A piece of this argument concerning the meta ethics of L:TP is something that I have had trouble getting across to people I have discussed the game with, and that is this: the entire "repopulate the earth" genre of post-apocalyptic fiction is based on a rape fantasy, and the game has no pretenses concerning this, indicating MULTIPLE times that every character in this game, except Brad, wants to rape Buddy, a child, something that Brad is deeply aware of and which most game players play asininely coy about when discussing this game with me! Major words. I know. But let's follow on this.

->Thought Four, or How L:TP makes it Abundantly Clear at a Narrative Element that Every Character in it is this Close to Being A Rapist, and How it Ties this Back to the Meta Concerning this Genre of Fiction, a Meta we must Explore should we want to Judge Brad's actions: The apocalypse that ends Olathe as we know it is one that clearly sets up the work for a re-population tale, with a directness maybe only seen in Cuaron's Children of Men. One day, a flash of white light appears, and suddenly all women on earth vanish. This is, by the way, a great premise! The world is only men, and quickly we see the particular breakdown of society that a Western masculinity would end up producing in this situation. The character designs often play of the ludicrous masculinity of the situation: two-bit karate instructors become warlords, there is a gang of heroes who model themselves off of Super Sentai, the entirety of the game plays like a fever dream of what boys growing up in the 90s saw on their SNES. It is gleeful in this! It is also a premise that makes the discovery of Buddy, as a child, by Brad, a momentous occasion: she is the only girl in all of Olathe. The apocalypse is about men, and masculinity, and is tailor made to envision the particular rape fantasy of the repopulate the earth genre.

->Thought Five: Even the way that we are treated to the history of the apocalypse--the game begins in media res, and we know nothing about The Flash that wiped away all women--makes it abundantly clear that this apocalypse is about masculinity, and moreover, misogyny, and that the game is well aware of this. It is not accidentally making these points.

Allow me to introduce you to my favorite, Nern Guan.

->Thought Six: So, the meta of the apocalypse clearly sets this tale up to be an interrogation of misogyny. The Nern Guan story shows that creator Dingaling is at least aware of how this story will play out in gendered terms. But this alone does not highlight the story's inextricable relationship with rape, and how the re-populate the earth genre plays into rape fantasy.

->Thought Six cont'd: The first thing to note is that characters do couch their intentions in the ideal of repopulating the earth. At the end of the game, your party members gang up on your, telling you that you are putting the future of the world at risk by trying to rescue Buddy. Sticky, the bastard who kidnaps Buddy from Brad and takes her to the warlord Rando, likewise has this intention. But, these intentions and these words are camoflouge, are displacement for what is actually understood and known about the only girl in the world: that this is all about getting sweet action. The amount of times that a character who seems to be aiding Brad for charitable reasons openly admits to wanting to have sex with a child is frequent: when one of the Hernandez brothers takes you by boat to where Buddy was last seen, he says outright that he wants to have sex with her. Discussion of re-population is always in the abstract, and were it merely a desire to see the human race continue, the enthymeme ever-present, that the speaker may be the one who gets to do the re-populating, would not keep on leaping from the subtext into the text. Everyone in Olathe knows this: Rooster Coleman, a recruitable party member, tells Brad upon their first meeting: "Leave. Take your pervert war elsewhere. I want no part in it." When Rando's army finally finds Buddy, and sees that her face has been slashed, they all gasp. This, of course, has nothing to do with the viability of repopulation, and everything to do with the desire to fuck a child. Rando's army, the alleged bad guys, want their meat fresh. When Brad's gang first finds Buddy, as a baby, they put two-and-two together and note that there then must be a girl in existence, and that humanity is saved. And then, they arrive at their true feelings: immediately they say "I bet she's super hot." This is a pervert war that will end pervert society as we know it.

->Let's tie this up. Let's make it simple: the game knows that it is about re-population fantasies, and it has characters spout off the rehearsed lines from this genre, the reasons why the world must be peopled, all while knowing in heart-of-hearts that these are just words, and that Olathe's true desire is to fuck a child. The entire world wants to rape Buddy, which is true of all re-population fantasies. Because, let us think about where these fantasies come from: they are fantasies in which a woman, often young, suddenly has the weight of the survival of a species placed upon them, such that it may make sense, may be necessary, to diminish the rights of this sole woman for the sake of humanity. In the meta: it is about inventing a situation in which the rights of women can be suspended for just cause. It is the equivalent of edgy kids who say "well what if he was a kid, and he was dying, and this was his last wish: shouldn't he be able to say the n-word?". It is about finding the most elaborate situation in which regressive ideals would be desired, would be necessary. L:TP understands this, and the game paints all of the would-be statutory rapists as the awful edgelords that they are (something not often done in this genre).

->Thought Seven: But what the hell does this have to do with Buddy and Brad, this meta? Well, it means that some of Brad's actions are justified. Hiding Buddy away is necessary, despite what Buddy may think. This brings up an important point: is not Brad limiting Buddy's freedoms in the same way that those who wish her to be a sex slave want to limit her freedoms? The answer to this is, of course, a resounding no. It mistakes the reasons that Brad limits Buddy's freedoms. In regular moral society, it is not at all controversial that parents can and must limit the freedoms of children in order to protect them: Brad is only doing the more elaborate version of telling a child they can't take a bus alone. Buddy, like most children, of course resents this. The meta also complicates the matter: the trappings of the genre make it okay for Buddy to hide Brad away forever, and we should ask ourselves why we are playing a game where the best option for a young woman's freedom is to have her freedom taken away from her. But there are more layers to the meta: playability and knowability.

->Argument Three: A major issue with video games and their meaning making is how to deal with the moral identification of the player with the played character, and how to deal with the information set that makes its way to a player.

->Thought Eight: Players are not the characters they play--obviously. I would say that a game is a two-part crucible of agency: the things that a player is allowed to do, and the things that a character is allowed to do, fuse into a thing entity with shared responsibility of the course of the work. This is why I argue firmly that a played character is afforded more agency in than an NPC: though the character itself does not have full agency, and is subservient, in part, to the player's needs, the player imbues the character with some of their agency. Or, maybe I should say this: because the option set of the character then limits the option set of the player, the character ends up having more agency than the player by pinioning their options. What is that about a Condorcet cycle? At once, the character has more agency than the player and the player has more agency than the character? Of course. And here's the thing:
->Thought Eight Cont'd or The Thing: L:TP knows this, and knows this well. The game is filled to brimming with moments where Brad loses control, loses agency, and thereby the player loses agency likewise. You cannot spare Marty Armstrong, though it seems that you should be able to--it is a battle, after all, you should be able to escape the conflict. You cannot spare Rick--you must beat him mercilessly. The screen will, on many occasions, flash red with Joy-induced rage and Brad will come to having done something horrendous. Playability, and the lack of power that players has is everywhere. That the player must chose between Brad's arm and Brad's party members so often shows this critically.
->Thought Nine: But, what does that mean? It means that the game understands the player is in control of Brad, and that Brad is out of control, and it knows that it forces the player to identify with Brad's lack of control by limiting the player's control when Brad's control is likewise inhibited. Furthermore: the game knows history. What Marty did to Brad is not show. Buzzo has a clear blood feud with Brad, but this is never shown. What it means to be Brad is at once highlighted in order to promote an identification with the player, and completely obscured in order to promote the unknowability of it all: we are allowed to be Brad when he loses control, but we are not allowed to know Brad. When there are hallucinations, we experience them without context. We are only fellow travelers with Brad for some fixed period of time and never receive all of his qualia.
->Though Nine cont'd: You may say "what the hell's a qualium in video games"? But it is key. The way that games make us feel, or makes us feel as if we can feel, some subset of a character's qualia is the key aesthetic factor of the genre. Only psychological novels purport to give the recipient of the text a more rich understanding and identification with the qualium and pure sense of being a character than a video game tries to do. But it can't get that far. It can't give you all of the sensation and anxieties of memory; games are the Madeleine in perpetuity, but not even Proust was ever able to give you the complete sensation of the Madeleine. Lisa understands this. It understands it better than most other games. Yume Nikki may be its only rival and superior in this. Lisa gets that you become Brad while also stating in King's English that you can only have a quotation of Brad's experience, never the real thing. You cannot know.

->Thought Ten: Okay, and Buddy. Here's the real issue: we do not know if Brad was a good father or not. We know one truth, and it is a truth worth knowing, that he was the only one on Olathe who did not wish to rape her. We also know another truth, and it is a truth worth knowing, that he almost certainly felt this way for dumb reasons, because he wanted to be the salvation to Buddy that he could never be to Lisa. He saw these two girls as utterly interchangable. But we do not know which of these feelings, the love or the bad faith which underpinned his love, prevailed: we see only a few moments in Buddy's childhood, and they seem to be loving, mostly. But we have no knowledge.
->Thought Eleven: Let's look at a more dramatic case of not knowing in this game. We have no idea what happened to Marty Armstrong in those many years of apocalypse. What Marty did to Lisa is indefensible, but he has changed in some way, at least enough so that when he sees Buddy, the girl that Brad mistakes in his heart-of-hearts for Lisa, he does not treat her at all like Lisa. But, that's the game. The same is true of Rando: he is revealed, in a secret ending, to have been one of Brad's students in karate. But, he was meek. How did he become a warlord of Olath? How did Chris Columbo, a snot-nosed shit, become the leader of The Gents? How the hell did Buzzo, a kid who just so happened to know Lisa in his youth, become akin to God? But, that's the game! We don't know.

->Thought Twelve: Which is the actual point. When Buddy says that Brad was no father to her, that Marty, a horrendous human being, still a drunk after all these years, was a better father to her than Brad ever was, we have no way to disprove her. We also have little reason to trust her--and before you critcize me for undervaluing the opinion of the most important girl in existence, hear me--because we haven't seen the evidence either. We do not know if this is a bout of teenage angst and wanderlust that makes her hate her adopted father. We do not know if Brad, a lifelong addict, beat her and treated her the exact same way that Marty treated Lisa--it is not just within the realm of possibility, it is its capital. We do not know what Sticky or Rick told her. It is more than possible, in a game where not knowing is half the fun, that Sticky has been grooming her in a deeply abusive and manipulative way for her entire life.

->Argument Four: The entire game has built up to the moment when the player, and Buddy, can judge Brad, despite the fact that only one can pass true judgement upon him.

->Thought Thirteen: A player cannot judge Brad, because the player, though their agency has been transferred suddenly to Buddy, still has the shadow of Brad upon him. Brad looks moral to Brad, and because we only see this limited view, we feel compelled to have Buddy hold him. I can promise you, most people choose to honor Brad's wishes, and only select the alternative for a completionist's desire to know what happened. The game makes the player judge the player.
->Thought Fourteen: Which, of course, is stupid and impossible. This is the reason that people instantly side with Brad, but furthermore, I think it's one of the reasons that players instantly identify with Olathe and miss outon the fact that Buddy lives her life in a world of sexual violence.

->Argument Five: There is no good theoretical analysis of what it means to play a party of characters. We know what it is to be Cloud, but we do not know what it is to be AVALANCHE, which, in ways we are.

->Thought Fifteen: We play Brad's party. While we mostly play Brad, we play his party as well, and thereby identify with the members of his party. That the game ends with Brad killing the other party members leverages this pathos of identification in order affect the player deeply. But, since you play as Nern, even if not in the context of story-telling, and even if only within battle, you are not capable of judging him. When the player--through Brad--asks if he is doing the right thing, the player then judges whether or not what they have done over the course of the game as bad, and as such, they of course feel morally justified. But, the player plays two people: Brad, who is a moral person, and the Party, who is not. These characters comingle in the thoughts of the player. Obviously.

->Thought Sixteen: So, wherefore? Here's the summary.