TW: MENTIONS OF ABUSE AND SUICIDE
‘Hard to watch’ is a pretty common phrase. It relates to any piece of media that is emotionally draining, something that you don’t want to sit through. Movies like Boys Don’t Cry or Requiem for a Dream are hard to watch. They’re bleak and gory and reprehensible, but utterly well made in a way that you feel you have to sit through and appreciate. Lisa: The Painful is a special type of video game that could be defined as hard to play— both in the sense of strategic difficulty and subject matter. It’s an uncomfortable game where you’re usually the one making it difficult.
The Painful follows a man named Brad Armstrong living in a wasteland that is entirely populated by men. An event called ‘the white flash’ occurred and eradicated the women, so the men are essentially left to die off, join different gangs, kill one another, and pay for things in the form of dirty magazines. It’s like if Mad Max was disgusting. Shortly after the white flash, he finds an abandoned infant. After checking, he sees that it’s a girl and takes it upon himself to take care of her, naming her Buddy. One day, he finds that someone has revealed that she exists and she’s been taken. The rest of the game follows his intense and madcap journey to retrieve her, and make sure no harm comes to her.
The Painful is actually a sequel. It follows a game called Lisa: The First. The First follows a young girl named Lisa having a nightmare after trying to escape her father, who is revealed to sexually abuse her. The whole game she has to appease her father and any attempt at rebellion won’t affect the outcome of the game. It’s a heartbreaking and difficult game, and they do an incredible job at showing how much this abuse stays with her. It’s apparent how lasting her treatment was when the opening screen for The Painful is her, hanging.
The First and The Painful are connected through the fact that Lisa and Brad were siblings, and Brad was also abused. He’s trying to protect Buddy not out of the obligation to protect, but out of guilt for being complicit to his sister’s abuse. Drug-induced hallucinations of his sister follow him as he goes, guilting him for not saving her, or loving Buddy more than he loved her. She only exists in the game as a manifestation of his guilt.
The gameplay of The First resembled that of a cult classic from 2004 called Yume Nikki. There wasn’t any combat involved, and if the Lisa got killed somehow she’d just be returned to the last save. The Painful, however, has a huge combat portion that closely resembles that of Earthbound. Brad can fight with three other party members of the player’s choosing who all deal different types of damage unique to their fighting style. There are up to 31 people to have in the total party, all of which are completely different. Some characters that are weaker can deal restorative effects, while some characters who are powerful in dealing damage can be KO’d (or killed permanently) easily. There’s a lot thinking and managing to be done when it comes to figuring out who to have fight alongside Brad, and who to sacrifice. At some points, a character may come up and have Brad make a choice between sacrificing a few men, losing his items, or even his arm. That’s not even including the party members who can choose to abandon him whenever the party decide to rest. The player has to actually think through these things, which really makes The Painful stand out against other Role Playing Games from the past few decades.
The visuals in The Painful are phenomenal. It takes inspiration from other old-school pixelated games while keeping its own slick, personal image. There’s one excellent sequence in which Brad has to scale a mountain to cut down an endangered tree, and the color scheme of the area is beautiful. The sky has a bright red gradient darkening from the ground up and stars sprinkled across that can be seen once Brad reaches the top. It’s darkened in a way that’s melancholy yet peaceful. Those kinds of effects aren’t limited just to that area. There are so many incredible visuals throughout the game. There’s a brothel that has a foggy, swamp-like air about it. There’s an abandoned neighborhood full of mutants that’s muted and disquieting. Whenever the father character is on-screen, he’s posed to not even look at Brad, as though he’s undeserving of any attention, and there are neon lights flashing on him from the TV he’s watching. The first time seeing him is chilling, the player instantly remembers everything he’s put his children through and feels shaken. The way The Painful puts in these effects is masterful.
There are only a couple issues I have with the game. There are a couple major pieces left unsolved. Of course, those pieces are picked up in the game following The Painful. However, these pieces didn’t necessarily need their own game. There are two major questions left unanswered; Why does one character hold such a huge grudge against Brad, and how did another character seem to know Brad and come into so much power? The writing in the Lisa series is excellent, no one would have had a problem with more exposition added. There are flashback scenes around the beginning that are compelling, and those flashbacks popping up in the form of Brad’s drug trips was cool to see. Including more of that to tie up the loose ends in the game wouldn’t have weighed it down at all.
It’s tough to recommend a series like Lisa. Of course it’s well made, well written, and plays well, but it struggles with difficult topics. Being presented with subjects like the cycle of violence and sexual abuse is upsetting, and it’s hard to face that if one goes to games for escapism. Some might not even want to think about that, and that’s okay. Of course no one wants to see the suffering that all of these characters go through, but the Lisa series was made to be experienced. It’s meant to show the lasting effects of abuse when put into horrifying circumstances. The Painful is all about impact; the impact of others’ actions on you and the impact of your actions on others. All of one’s choices have consequences, and The Painful teaches you that that’s not just restricted to video games.
story and graphic by jane knudsen