If you were to step back and take stock of your life, questioning why you spend so much time playing videogames instead of curing cancer or serving in soup kitchens, you’d probably answer with some form of “because it’s fun”, and you wouldn’t be wrong. We play for that accomplishment, for that happy little release of endorphins we get when deft keystrokes save the digital world. It’s understandable that what keeps us coming back to our favorite games is the exciting rush of righting a wrong or besting adversity, and it basically functions as a rule of attraction. Yet for every rule there is the exception, and that is the only way I can truly describe my attraction to LISA. There was no joy, no grand accomplishment, and the entire experience was certainly anything but fun, yet despite coming away feeling soiled and wrong, I was left with a profound sense of introspection, something rarely delivered via 8 Bits.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world seemingly devoid of women (think Children of Men cohabitated with Mad Max), players occupy the life of the main character, Brad, who finds possibly the last female baby left on the planet. Understanding the severity of his discovery, Brad and his friends decide to raise the girl in secrecy, lest the degenerates of the world discover her feminine physicality. Though it’s as predictable as a twist in a Shyamalan movie, sure enough one day the girl goes missing and it’s up to Brad to rescue her.
Before I dig into the meat of what makes LISA so emotionally effective, I’d like to quickly go over the mechanics. The game itself can best be described as an 8-Bit, side-scrolling, turn-based RPG, and it’s use of gritty, dark truths and humor leads me to believe it draws strong influence from the Mother series. As you travel through dark caves, high cliffs, and decrepit shantytowns (via walking, cycling, or shopping carts), you accumulate an extremely diverse (the Poop Guy, the Chicken Man, etc.) set of members to join your party, thus increasing your odds in battle.
The turn-based combat system is fairly standard, if not a little too clunky, and the extensive set of moves for each class of character certainly offers a lot of variety (though I found myself sticking to a single stun-locking move). As is the standard, each player levels up with new perks and abilities, and class-based items are available through enemy drops and shops. Overall, there’s nothing even remotely exciting about the action, and I found myself grinding a fair amount to level up my party before moving on, slowing down the game’s already sedated pace.
But while the combat and travel may leave you numb with boredom, LISA begins to show its true soul-crushing colors in the form of forced choices. At various parts of the game, Brad finds himself in a situation where he must either suffer grievous bodily injury (such as losing an arm or all of his items) or sacrifice one of the members of his party to the cold clutches of permadeath. While I’ve decried moral choice systems in the past, this truly feels much more organic. I’m not gaining certain powers or perks by picking the good or evil side because the set of decisions isn’t split between right and wrong; they’re both horrible choices that lead to even worse consequences. You either save your buddy, who you’ve spent all this time leveling up, or you lose all your items, which become almost mandatory as the game’s difficulty increases. Since neither side bribes you with any type of benefit, the choice-to-be-made seems to reflect a truer moral reflection of the player (I found it hard to sacrifice my party members).
But what else is there that seemingly sucks all of the joy from LISA’s hectic world? Surely the more thick-skinned gamers would scoff at such a cheap attempt to induce internal dilemma, but what about the story’s grim progression and the underlying grit evident in every pixel? Violent gangs of raunchy men hunt for the girl, wishing to do the sordid unspeakable, and not once do you ever feel like you’re big enough to stop them. Rape, murder, torture, assault, these all became commonplace occurrences as I trudged through each screen, and at times I even found myself praying their latest victim was just a guy in a wig instead of my adopted daughter. And while there does appear to be an injection of comedy into the mix, all it really does is add to the miasma of dark realism, directing focus on, instead of away from, the treacherous inhabitants of Brad’s world.
What you’re left with is an experience rather than a game. LISA isn’t enjoyable, it isn’t rewarding, and it certainly isn’t uplifting, yet I would push it on everyone I know. I came back to it time and time again not because I was enjoying myself, but because it became something I had to do. I had to rescue the girl, if not for her sake than for my own, for something to make the in-game sacrifices worthwhile or justifiable. LISA isn’t about gameplay or mechanics, if anything the game is only there to serve as a medium. Instead it’s about the traumatizing shock of losing everything you love to the darkest deeds mankind can commit, and it leaves you feeling profoundly inept and morally degraded. If you take away anything from this, let it be that you don’t play LISA for the combat or adventuring, but rather for the raw emotion and self reflection elicited by the story.