Tag Archives: moral choices

LISA sadistically plays with your emotions and expectations

I’ve only seen Mad Max: Fury Road in terms of the dystopian action series, but it’s possibly one of my favorite post-apocalyptic worlds, even if it is ultimately the most deranged and harshest on its people. LISA reminds me a lot of that movie, though there is much more humor to its telling and characters, and some of that humor works well with the ultra high amount of violence and disturbing imagery…and sometimes it doesn’t gel at all. That’s okay though. In this wasteland, where pain is living, nothing can be perfect.

Right, on with it. LISA is a quirky-as-quriky-gets side-scrolling RPG in the same vein as EarthBound–which I still need to get to ugh–set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Beneath this charming and funny exterior is a world full of disgust, moral destruction, and a general theme of “that’s messed up”; in fact, the game’s full name is LISA: The Painful RPG, which is a little on the nose. Players will learn what kind of person they are by being forced to make some serious choices, which do ultimately permanently affect how the game goes. For instance, if you want to save a party member from death, you will have to sacrifice the strength of your own character, the protagonist called Brad. This might entail taking a beating for them or even chopping off a limb or two. It’s pretty rough out there in this world of no women or children and only power-thirsty men. The story follows Brad as he stumbles upon an abandoned infant, a baby girl, who is later kidnapped.

Naturally, you’ve got all the standard RPG basics to manage, such as weapons, skills, limited energy for special attacks, and numerous stats that can be improved with items, leveling up, or purchasing new equipment. The combat in LISA is turn-based, though Brad’s general attack can be changed with manual inputs to do extra damage per hit, so long as you know the right string of keys to hit to perform the combo. Over the course of the game, Brad will come in contact with a diverse cast–and I do mean diverse–of potential party members that he can recruit by doing a range of odd and random tasks, and each brings their own special personality to combat. Currently, my party consists of Terry Hintz, who is not all that useful honestly, and someone else whose name I can’t remember, but I got them to join after listening to a lot of his sad stories. It looks like there are many characters that can join your party, just like in Chrono Cross.

Items in LISA range from mundane necessities to oddities like horse jerky, sweatbands with fire damage, greasy ponchos, and kung-fu scrolls. No phoenix downs so far. Stats are tied to a character’s level and equipment found or purchased from vendors in one of the game’s many towns. Settlements and towns sometimes offer respite from the outside world with places to sleep, which recovers the entire party’s health and skill points, but also includes randomized, potentially damaging events, such as getting robbed or having a party member kidnapped. You can also save your progress in specific spots.

Generally speaking, whenever games allow me to make moral choices, such as Mass Effect or Fallout: New Vegas, I always play the good guy. Sure, being a rude dude or scoundrel can be fun when it is make believe, but there’s a serious part of me that feels sorry for causing others pain or just being a complete dick for no reason other than to get a reaction. Yes, I care about polygon or sprite-based figures that are essentially just bits of code, and I care even more about how I interact with them. LISA makes being a good guy tough, constantly driving home the notion that being selfish and heartless is the only way to survive in a world like this.

Unfortunately, I think I might be stuck, unsure of where to go next. The problem is that it isn’t often clear where next should be, but also tied to the fact that there are hidden doorways and passages everywhere, and they are exceptionally well hidden. There’s some light platforming to do in LISA, with you being able to hop up small ledges, but falling from a great height will actually damage Brad and his companions’ health. Naturally, sometimes you have to do this to progress, but I can’t seem to figure out where to go. Of course, I could always look up a walkthrough, but I feel like I’m still too early in the game to be seeking outside help. Truly, this is the greatest suffering that LISA can throw at me.

Samantha Browne’s everyday adventures are all too familiar

gd samantha browne game final thoughts

Social anxiety is one of my better and constant companions these days, but something I only really noticed hanging around my unshapely body in college, when I struggled with simply walking across a crowded campus or through the halls of the art building, especially after I decided that art, at least in terms of study, wasn’t the path for me. Still, I continued to work a few hours a week in the art gallery, which is naturally located in the college’s one and only art building, forcing me to interact frequently with former students and professors that, in my mind, viewed me as a failure. Every now and then, I’d be tasked with having to deliver something to a professor’s office, and the getting up and going was actually the hardest part, hindered by panic and uncertainty and an increased heart rate and a feeling that everything is madly spinning away from me. So, I completely understand Samantha Browne’s struggle to go make oatmeal.

I’ve had my eye on The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne for a few days now. I don’t recall exactly what brought Lemonsucker Games’ choice-driven adventure game to my attention, but I immediately added it to my wishlist on Steam. The game released just the other day and for free. It won’t take you long to get through it, and there are multiple ways it can all unfold, but I’m content with just having played it once and living with the choices that forced the game’s main protagonist, one highly introverted and nervous Samantha Browne, out of her comfort zone and into the unknown.

This is basically a lightly interactive story about a college student and the overwhelmingly large dilemma she deals with in her quest to make some oatmeal in her dorm’s communal kitchen. You never see Samantha’s face, which makes her an easy host to embody, and some of your choices are seemingly inconsequential, like what type to make (I picked apples and cinnamon, obviously) and how much to stir the oatmeal after adding hot water, and others are large enough to give you pause. Like in a Telltale Games story, when the moment hits where you have to decide to betray a close friend for everyone’s safety or side with the villain in hopes that nothing further goes wrong. Except these moments for Samantha are whether she should greet the other girls in the communal kitchen or not. Whether she should ask on how to properly use the kettle. For an introvert, while there are often choices, they always all feel wrong. The phrase “between a rock and a hard place” kept coming to mind as I clicked, as it constantly felt like deciding between two terrible scenarios, none better than the other.

So, The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne is a game of unfair decisions. All of these affect Samantha’s hunger/stress meter. I assume there is a “game over” state if it fills up, but I never got to that point. Every decision you make affects the meter in different amounts, meaning there is no ultimately safe path, and I completed the game with Samantha feeling somewhere around 75% mentally overwhelmed, but at least she had a mug of decently cooked oatmeal (two packs!) to eat back in the safety of her room. We’ll count that as a small victory.

The game is clearly quite personal, written and produced by Andrea Ayres Deets, and features original artwork and animations by comic book artist Reimena Yee, along with a soundtrack by Adrianna Krikl. Some scenes are highly detailed and others minimalist, reminding me of the early seasons of Home Movies, minus the squiggly lines, but the art style is both colorful and interesting without being wholly distracting.

Something I’m not sure of, but the game opens with Samantha instant messaging a friend online while a TV show plays in the background. You get slices and pieces of the dialogue as you read their chat log, but it was hard to truly make out what the show was about. I do recall it being somewhat vulgar, with a line related to ripping someone’s nuts off. Hmm. I don’t know if that’s an inside joke or something, but, after seeing everything else in The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne, it feels a bit out of place tone-wise. Granted, there’s some super silly stuff here too, like picking the right spoon, so maybe it all balances out. Also, there were a few sentences that read awkwardly, which could be cleaned up with a quick editing pass.

Look, The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne is important. Many might not see what the big deal is with going down the hall and making some food, but that scenario can be and is just as daunting as performing live on stage for a large audience or asking a stranger for directions or so on. Sure, you expect those situations to bring about a lot of anxiety, even in people not suffering it daily. It is meaningful to understand that not everyone experiences everything in the same way. This is about anxiety, and if you don’t know what that personally feels like, then this is about empathy. Please take the time to see which you relate to more.

Second-guessing all my choices in The Novelist

gd impressions the novelist screen2

I myself am not a novelist, though I’ve taken a stab at completing several books, one of which still lingers in the back of my mind as something decent or, at the very least, worth finishing off. That said, I have had some short stories published over these past years of my capricious life–hey, check out “Opportune” in the Triangulation: Lost Voices anthology, being sold over at that Amazon dot com site–and do grok a bit of the internal struggles that come with balancing time with creativity and drive, in terms of producing something.

That’s what’s at the heart of The Novelist–balance. This 2013 game about life, family, and the choices we make comes from Kent Hudson and Orthogonal Games and packs quite a wallop. Maybe not for everyone, but certainly for me, an introvert who spends far too much time worrying about decisions, both past and those still to happen, and whether anything could have been or be different. I will most likely only ever play this game once, and so the decisions I made for the Kaplans are final and finite, never to play out differently. Let me set up the plot for y’all…well, at least how it starts.

The Kaplans are on vacation in an isolated house on the coast. Novelist Dan Kaplan hopes the time away will not only reconnect them all, but also defeat his crippling writer’s block, which is stopping progress on his next book. Dan’s wife Linda wants to work on their failing marriage, as well as develop a career as a painter. Their son Tommy is incredibly lonely here and desperate to gain his father’s attention. Also, the house is haunted, and you play as this spiritual incarnate, listening to the family’s thoughts and influencing the decisions the family makes over the course of the summer. More on that last bit…in a bit.

The Novelist has two styles of play: stealth or storytelling mode. I went with the former, since it seemed to add more to the gameplay, wherein you actually have to be careful not to make yourself known to the house’s inhabitants, otherwise you can’t read their thoughts and help influence them in a certain direction. As a ghost, you can travel–and safely hide–in lights, but you can also exit light fixtures to move around the home, and this is when you need to be aware of where Dan, Linda, and Tommy are at all times. If they see you, they’ll become suspicious, and if you can’t hide fast enough, they’ll eventually be spooked to the point of no return. Without this element, I feel like The Novelist would simply be an interactive story, which is not a deal-breaker at all, but trying to remain hidden at least adds some tension while searching the home for clues.

The Novelist is separated into chapters, and in each one, you must gather clues and listen to the family’s thoughts to learn about their lives and true desires. Once you are ready, you must make a decision, which means selecting one person’s desire over the other two, which often leads to disappointment on their parts. If you found enough clues, you can make a single compromise, which means it’s only half disappointing and probably better than nothing. For one chapter, I forgot to make a compromise before whispering my ghostly choices into Dan’s ear as he slept, and I’ve felt horrible ever since–someone else could have at least be minutely happier, if not happy, and I funked it up.

Anyways, your decisions then affect the next chapter and how the characters feel and move on with their days. You’ll read letters and notes that give you a glimpse of the repercussions you’ve created, as well as feel like a sad sack of slop every time you spy one of Tommy’s crayon drawings. At night, after you found all the clues and selected your decision, you get to wander the house freely as everyone sleeps, coming across spiritual journal entries of people that once lived in the house; I found this to be the least interesting aspect of The Novelist, and it felt like a forced way to explain how the home became haunted by a spirit. All I was concerned about was the here and now, the current happenings.

Ultimately, from The Novelist I learned that I’m probably going to be a terrible parent. Many of Tommy’s issues, such as wanting to build a toy car or look for arrowheads in the woods, seemed trivial when compared to fixing Dan and Linda’s marriage or Dan making progress on his next novel, which, as an author, is his job and future income and security. So Tommy got left out for a lot of the game, except later when I did make his education a top priority for the family. Still, there were ups and downs across the whole summer, and while things turned out okay-ish for everyone involved, I still wonder if I could have done a better job of manipulating them towards happiness.

The Novelist will not blow anyone away with its visuals, but the writing and solid voice acting really help bring the Kaplans to life, in a way that makes their dreams and desires feel tangible–and thus more heartbreaking when you steer them off the path. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in choice, as this is basically those big moments in Mass Effect and Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but from beginning to end, and much more mundane. It’s all the more believable despite the magic whispering ghost zipping from lamp to lamp and hiding in bathrooms, which never seemed to get visited, to not get spotted.