[This article contains numerous spoilers for the LISA trilogy]
Although they have existed for decades now video games still struggle for proper artistic recognition. One reason for this is that many video games simply fail to live up to the title of art. There are various economic reasons for this: games typically must have a mass appeal. The industry is expensive and competitive, and this creates an environment which pure entertainment value can override artistic aims. Yet they have also been misunderstood as a medium. The defining feature of video games is often perceived to be their interactivity, but that is not quite what makes them unique. Now, video games do have unparalleled interactivity when compared to other mediums, but interactive art has existed since long before video games. Even books and paintings are something we interact with in minor ways; we can view a painting from many different perspectives, and our reading of a book or painting will always be applying our own personal categories and experiences to it, actively generating the artistic experience.
The essence of the medium of the video game then is not its interactivity. The thing which video games are uniquely able to do as a medium is to represent decision-making or choices artistically. Not only can it represent them, but it can make us live through the choices we make. Even regular games are all about the choices and strategies we make and living with the consequences of those choices throughout the game. In the ideal game, it is through the choices that we make as players that the game expresses its unique themes, experiences, and styles. A video game cannot be good art if it just contains good art. A game can have beautiful environments and a fascinating plot told through cutscene movies. It can even have entertaining gameplay and still not be good art. In those cases, it just contains good art in the form of the movies, environments, et cetera. In order for it to be good art, the game must unify these elements and knit them all together so that each element of the game enhances and is deeply tied to the others.
No game does this better than the LISA trilogy. The most famous entry in this series is LISA: The Painful RPG, which tells the story of Brad Armstrong, a martial artist in a post-apocalyptic world. In this world, a mysterious event caused the death of the entire female population. One day, though, Brad discovers a female infant and brings her home, raising her and hiding her from the world with his friends, naming her Buddy. When Buddy is inevitably discovered and kidnapped by a warlord, Brad begins a violent quest to “protect” his adopted daughter.
One of the most immediate ways in which this game handles choice is through Brad’s addiction to the powerful drug Joy. Joy is an in-game item, and using Joy regularly makes the game significantly easier, for it makes you significantly stronger for a short period of time. However, Brad faces Joy withdrawal at intervals which become shorter and shorter the more Joy you take, and these make him significantly weaker. The only way to cancel withdrawal, other than waiting it out (and possibly being killed by an enemy because of this) is to take more Joy. The fate of all Joy addicts, though, is to eventually mutate into horrific and terrifying monsters, and the player faces these Joy mutants as some of the toughest enemies in the game. The game makes the vicious cycle of Brad’s addiction, and its inevitable consequence, a feature of the gameplay itself.
Brad is also faced several times with brutally unfair choices. For example, near the beginning of the game, he is given the choices of either having one of his party members killed or losing an arm and all of the abilities which required that arm. The attachment the player has to their party members similarly grows out of the way the player comes to need them to progress in the game. The characters have personality, and it is expressed not only through non-gameplay elements like dialogue, but through their unique abilities and fighting styles as well. This makes the decision between losing a party member and losing an arm something significant to the player, not merely because of number-crunching utility. The world forces Brad to lose pieces of himself just to continue. In another situation, Brad is forced by an enemy to either give up all his items or to give him his arm. The player has a third choice here: to ask why this is being done to him. This attempt to understand and reconcile with someone, however, leads to Brad losing both his arm and his items.
Over the course of the game Brad is shown to not be the hero he thinks he is. It implies that Buddy was not kidnapped, but she rather escaped. Buddy wants to join the warlord and to help rebuild humanity. Brad is blinded, though, by his own trauma. The game makes clear from the opening cutscene that Brad had an abusive drunk for a father. Images of the titular Lisa, his sister who killed herself because of abuse, constantly haunt an increasingly more deranged and violent Brad. One of the most significant moments of the game is when it denies us a choice near the end of the game, Brad finds that his abusive father Marty has miraculously survived, and furthermore that he is sheltering Buddy. Marty seems to have become a docile and kind old man, who is nothing like the abusive and lecherous father he knew. The player is given a choice whether or not to kill Marty, but the choice does not matter. Brad is overtaken with rage and kills him regardless, even when Buddy tries to protect him, and the player can only watch helplessly.
Cruelty, unfairness, self-destruction, loss of control, and addiction are all themes that reach the player purely through the choices made during gameplay. The player is not a third party to a decision-making process that is outside of their control, like the audience of a play, but instead lives through the choices made. When the themes of the game as an artwork and the choices that the gameplay requires align, the game is a true work of art. In many games, especially RPGs, the story and themes are almost completely divorced from the choices the player makes, reducing it to a “choose your own adventure” movie with bits of gameplay in between. LISA is different. The choices made in LISA have little impact on the outcome of the story, yet that is not what matters. The choices are significant because of what they make the player feel and understand. They force the player to empathize with the conflict at hand. The last decision in LISA is Buddy’s choice. She can choose whether or not to hug Brad as he is dying, having pointlessly killed everyone in his path to “protect” someone who did not want or need protection. This choice has no impact on the ending whatsoever, yet it is perhaps the most important choice of all: to comfort a failure or to leave him.
You can try to be a good person and make a small impact on the world of LISA, but Brad will ultimately fail to be a good person no matter what the player decides. He will die pointlessly, hurting everyone around him. But the point of the choices in the game is not to tell us that we can just overcome any adversity if we are virtuous or if we make the right decisions; rather, the game wants to tell us that we can make decisions and that they do matter even if they do not change the world entirely. You can protect and care for your party members, you can sacrifice yourself for them, and you can even help a few people here and there. You can try even if everything is against you. In this sense, the choices in LISA are extremely significant for the story, in a way that only a video game can express.
When We Cannot Choose
There is a flipside to all this, and another LISA game, LISA: The First, exemplifies it. Through use of meaningless choices, or the exclusion of choice, A game can bring us directly into the situation of someone who is helpless, who has no choice. This first game puts us into the role of the titular Lisa and is the only game in which we see her view of things. Lisa is a small child living in the terrifying world of Marty’s abusive household. Much of the game is exploring the young girl’s surreal interpretation of abuse, both physical, mental, and sexual. Lisa’s deranged and damaged mind sees her father Marty everywhere. Every single character and enemy in the game excluding Lisa herself bears the face of Marty and forces Lisa to complete arbitrary, pointless, and cruel tasks, navigating through Lisa’s frequently terrifying dreamworld to find items for the various manifestations of Marty. Vomit, blood, broken beer bottles, and Marty’s face stain the floors and backgrounds of almost every environment. Every interaction with the various Martys leads to something bad for Lisa. The player has no choice but to truck on.
Eventually, the player is able to attempt what seems to be an escape, but as Lisa runs, the very background of the world is a mosaic of Marty’s face, and the player receives a game over. There is nothing you can do to stop this.
Yet, there is one other ending, albeit an even bleaker one. If the player collects all of the tapes hidden throughout the game, Lisa seems to encounter her mother in her imagination during the final escape. Her mother tries to comfort her, telling her she loves her, yet when she turns around, even she bears Marty’s face, crying that she did not mean to die. Every positive memory of Lisa, even of her seemingly kind mother, has been replaced by Marty. There is no outside for Lisa, and there is no choice she can take to make it better. There is no law except Marty’s. The player understands this because to play the game, they become Lisa. To play the game is to become helpless. The video game is the medium best suited for this. In fact, it is the only medium suited for this. Choice, then, is the true artistic essence of a video game.