LISA: THE PAINFUL, an indie RPG, is loosely based on the novel Children of Men, so if you’re at all familiar with the book or the Clive Owen movie of the same name, you have a little taste of what you’re in for. It’s worth noting that Lisa has a predecessor, Lisa: The First, and a sequel, Lisa: The Joyful. I have not played The First, but didn’t find it at all necessary to enjoy The Painful. I got about 30% through The Joyful before calling it quits. It was a pale shadow in comparison to The Painful, which will be the subject of this review.
You explore this game as Brad, a rando everyday dude just trying to live out his life in the apocalypse. It’s not clear what happened or why, but all women on earth have died. Chaos has broken out and has been in full force for years, resources are scarce, and most of the remaining men have splintered off into gangs for survival. You have two roommates who are old childhood friends, live in a makeshift house/cave, and subsist off a steady diet of booze, pills and mystery meat jerky.
You’re pretty far down the road of life-sucks-and-then-you-die until you find a baby girl.
You call her “buddy” when you find her, and as she grows the name sticks. You decide to keep Buddy a secret, to keep her safe. But Buddy’s getting older and she’s getting harder to hide. As expected, she’s soon found out and kidnapped.
It’s never clear how old Buddy actually is in the game, but you can make an educated guess that she’s about 12 or 13. She’s small but well-spoken. She has motives and dreams. She’s not old enough to be called a woman, or to have experienced drinking, drugs or sex herself, but she’s old enough to know about them. And she’s certainly young enough for Brad to be terrified of her being alone in the adult world.
Brad’s mission is to find Buddy and bring her back to a safe space, and keep her hidden. But it’s no simple task when you have no food, no direction, drug withdrawals and roving gangs of desperate men looking to gank your stuff.
I was suspect of the game’s premise at first. A white dude’s daughter gets kidnapped and you have to find her? No women in the game? Trying to protect her from sex? I wasn’t totally thrilled about yet another story that uses a girl as a prop to glorify a man’s adventure.
But the game quickly establishes that there is no glory in your heroism, if glory ever existed at all. This is not a life that Brad is willingly living, or a journey he wanted to take. The fights are dirty, your companions are questionable at best, have confounding motivations for following you (to your amusement, not so much to Brad’s), and are lazy, drug-addicted and thieving at worst. There are also plenty of drug-induced (or withdrawal-induced?) flashbacks to fill you in on Brad and the life he led before shit hit the fan.
The gameplay unfolds in a series of choices in a world you can truly explore. Paths are winding and unclear, dangerous and unexpected. As you could guess in a post-apocalyptic future, most of the trade you do is either in bartering or impressing the pants off of whoever’s looking. If you look closely, choose carefully and listen to all the NPCs you pass, you’ll find more background on what’s happened and why, and find more possible companions to back you up on your quest. Even grinding is pretty fun, giving you options of working in a brothel or being a pro-wrestler if you feel so inclined.
What’s unique to this game is the way the element of choice is framed. There are multiple endings and multiple possibilities for outcomes, but it’s never a choice of good, neutral or evil. It’s usually a matter of pick your poison. Worse or worst. It’s never completely predictable which choice will enrage your pursuer, offer a chance to get you out alive, or completely fuck you over. Even choices such as sleeping for recovery can leave you vulnerable to ambush, abandonment, theft, or poisoning, and fights can sometimes render your companions dead. Not just knocked out to revive later in RPG fashion, or killed for the purpose of story, but gone forever without reason. This would seem frustrating, but ultimately it makes the gameplay more meaningful and keeps you from hoarding items and overthinking choices. It forces you to approach the story realistically, as you would if you were in Brad’s shoes, rather than try and game the system.
But just because it’s dark, that doesn’t mean this game doesn’t have a sense of humor. It heartily pokes fun at its nihilistic attitude. Without spoiling too much, characters are weird and silly, dialogue is goofy, and there are unexpected moments of childish dick-joke level humor that’s refreshingly grounding. This area from the game, named “The Meaning of Life”, sums it up best:
In spite of its lack of women, the game handles feminism and homosexuality respectfully and beautifully. Like South Park, it allows itself to be ridiculous, but not at the expense of anyone but bigots. The game’s currency may be nudie mags, but it appears to be yet another symbol of the pitiable desperation the entire world is living in. Other men have found that selling sex and intimacy is a worthwhile commodity in short supply, and prostitution is sprinkled throughout the game as a reasonable way to make a living. Homophobic instances are rare, but in one notable scene, it’s met with firm (and amusing) resistance.
Brad’s journey is predictably painful, but for unexpected reasons. Sure, survival is hard. But LISA teaches some powerful lessons about the nature of selfishness, the power of addiction, and the inherent folly of personal crusades.
Verdict: Must Play
LISA: THE PAINFUL is one of those rare RPG’s that has the whole package: a great story that unravels as you play, exploration that allows you to organically get to know the characters, the potential for multiple play-throughs, a fun and intuitive gameplay system that you can choose how to use, and a splash of humor to break up the drama. Released in December of 2014, Lisa is a pixel RPG from creator Austin Jorgensen of Dingaling Games. It’s currently available on Steam for download. This review is for the Steam version of the game.