I enjoy a post-apocalypse. One of the facets of having a broken personality is being able to look at a collapse of societal infrastructure, where mob rule is law, morals evaporate, and people are willing to hold a knife to your throat over a packet of Smarties, and think: I get it. The worlds portrayed in things like Mad Max, the Fallout series, Night of the Living Dead and A Boy and His Dog have always been to me the way Middle Earth or Narnia are to some other nerds. I can close my eyes and imagine I’ve got no electricity or clean clothes, and that I’m making a petrol bomb to kill a giant spider – it’s a lot closer to home than fantasising about magic swords and goblins, especially the part about not having any clean clothes.
I haven’t seen a better post-apocalypse in a video game, than in Lisa: The Painful RPG. Lisa is a retro RPG, more genetically similar to Pokémon or the old Final Fantasy games than your modern blockbusters like Skyrim or The Witcher 3. It’s taken a lot of cues from an old Super Nintendo game called Earthbound (which is also brilliant). The battle system is quite simple, and the graphical style is more scaled back and pixelated.
The post-apocalypse portrayed in Lisa is based on one concept: imagine a world without women. Are you picturing men running around wearing skulls, playing Russian Roulette and living in caves while crying, drinking and taking any other substance they can get their hands on? Because that’s what happens. The fabric of the economic system collapses to the point where the most common form of bartering is either murder, or trading pornographic magazines in exchange for goods (porn is the game’s currency). For a game with no women in it, it still manages to say something quite interesting about gender, and if we’re being honest it’s probably not a million miles off what would actually happen.
You play as Brad, a fat, balding former martial artist with a history of substance abuse, on a quest to rescue Buddy, his surrogate daughter and potentially the last female on earth. Obviously the dangers of a young girl going missing in a lawless land filled with perverts is immediately apparent, so there’s a sense of urgency from the start.
The game utilises something called the sacrifice system, where most of the dramatic choices you make will change something about how you play the game as well as how you watch it unfold. Whereas with titles like The Walking Dead game, you’re given a big decision to make (kill/don’t kill, loot/don’t loot) and then watch a cutscene of how it plays out and affects your character, Lisa’s dramatic choices are more morally ambiguous and designed to affect gameplay more than anything else. Example: at one point you’re given a choice by a bloodthirsty maniac, he’s either going to kill one of your party members, or cut your arm off. You’ll be severely weakened with losing a limb, but you might also be losing a particularly useful party member if you keep it. There’s no right or wrong choice, really, just more pain. You look at which is going to make your journey harder, and you make the trade-off. The genius of this game is that it uses these difficult choices to get the player into the post-apocalypse mind-set.
Another reason for this game’s brilliance is its truly masterful storytelling, which is the best example of “show, don’t tell” done right that I’ve ever seen in a video game. There’s no clunky expositional dialogue where another character approaches you and says something like: “YOU DON’T NEED TO TAKE DRUGS TO OVERCOME THE TRAUMA OF YOUR ABUSIVE CHILDHOOD”; instead you’re shown Brad’s abusive childhood in the introduction, you’re shown that he’s grown dependent on an addictive substance, and then the very nature of his addiction is woven into the gameplay mechanic. Brad will be fairly useless in a fight unless you’re constantly taking these little blue pills called Joy, because he suffers from crippling withdrawal from it. He also becomes much more powerful for a short period after taking it. Rather than being told the character is a drug addict, the player becomes aware of this because taking Joy literally makes the character function better in the game. It’s clever stuff.
At the risk of rambling, I’ll cut myself off here with a final note that you can get this game on Steam for less than a tenner. A DLC expansion for it also came out at the end of August, and you can buy them both in a bundle for something like twelve quid. The DLC sequel isn’t as clever as the main game, but it rounds the story off nicely and you’ll definitely want to play it if you enjoyed the Lisa The Painful. It’s a hearty recommendation from me if you enjoy black humour, difficult retro gameplay, and are hoarding petrol and cigarettes and making yourself a set of spiked raider armour.