LISA and the Many Available Flavors of JRPG Nihilism

LISA looks and feels like a miserablist Earthbound, taking that game’s bright, flat, abstract pixel art and contorting it into something outwardly grotesque. Likewise, it takes Earthbound’s fractured Americana and playful JRPG battles and bends them into full-on cartoon nihilism. It’s generally uncompromising, sometimes harrowing, frequently oppressive, and absolutely worth your time if the preceding description didn’t send you running in the opposite direction.

There’s been some apocalypse or other, and as far as anyone knows, there are no women left, so this is the end of the line for humanity. Civilization has swiftly regressed and scattered into bands of endlessly warring, semi-nomadic, hyperviolent man-children, who have no higher aspirations than fighting, amassing power, and hoarding petty possessions. (LISA runs in RPG Maker, with some of the seams left visible, as if to nastily suggest that fighting and collecting until the end of time isn’t that far removed from most videogame scenarios).

Then our protagonist, Brad, finds a baby girl in the middle of the road, with no idea of where she came from. He raises her in secret, forming his small circle of trusted neighbors into a functional, even idyllic makeshift family—but he returns home one day to find her gone, and so he sets out to rescue her. (Again, this is a nihilistic mutation of the two most commonly stated goals in videogames: rescue the princess, and save the world. Here the kidnapped princess trope is whittled down to its queasy subtext, and the world is very probably not worth saving).

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LISA is at its best when it’s earnestly and unremittingly bleak, forcing the player to make awful decisions with far-reaching implications. (See above image).

When the game attempts gleeful, smirking gallows humor, playing the horrors for laughs, it doesn’t always land quite so well. I think I’m supposed to find it hilarious, for example, that the tutorial had me beating up on a cute dog, and that I got railroaded into setting a bunch of children on fire.

I’m not offended or affronted by that kind of grimdark slapstick, but it does cheapen the tone a bit. The emotional core of LISA is Brad trying (and maybe inevitably failing) to do a modicum of good in this awful, awful world. So when Brad himself gets casually implicated in some manner of awfulness, it doesn’t feel horrifying so much as deadening and sophomoric.

It’s actually quite possible that deadening and sophomoric is how the world is supposed to feel, at least in places—but I’m playing in order to get invested in extreme situations, not to be a tourist in an environment of gore-strewn extremity-for-extremity’s-sake.

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Thankfully (I guess), the game has no shortage of legitimately wrenching features, my favorite being that just about every enemy you fight is a distinct individual with a unique appearance and a full name. Your foes are never a mass of infinitely regenerating, haphazardly recolored skeletons. They’re people. But they’re no more sacred, and no less fragile, for being people.

On the other side of that coin, your party members are numerous and (if you can stomach it) disposable. And resting at a campfire always carries a certain risk that a member of your gang will abandon you, or get kidnapped or injured. The game sells the theme of life being cheap by refusing to generalize its characters—that’s not just some bard who died in a game of Russian roulette, it’s Nern Guan—but being entirely willing to sport a sky-high body count nonetheless.

It’s a counter-intuitively delicate thing, crafting a world this blunt and scorched and making it ring true, and LISA mostly pulls it off. My ideal version of this idea would focus more on terrible choices, less on punishing JRPG combat—I think I was hoping for Space Funeral: A Telltale Games Series, and LISA only occasionally resembles that particular pitch—but still, this is not an experience that I expect to shake or forget anytime soon.

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