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Fetch quests in a fleshy purgatory.

  • Gibmaker
  • 03/06/2013 04:55 AM

Lisa is a game in that style originated by Yume Nikki, where you do nothing but blunder around a series of bizarre settings hoping for something to happen. By now this genre has thoroughly lost its novelty, and I find myself quite impatient with these games. Like so many entries in the "art game" lexicon, their creators often think that obliqueness can take the place of actual skill and artistic focus.

The creator of Lisa assures us that there is indeed a story, but that isn't enough: the story has to be communicated to the player through effective symbols and imagery. And this is where Lisa does better than other games in this genre that opt to simply pelt the player with arbitrary nonsense and then try to "explain" it by suggesting that "the main character is depressed/insane".

This game starts in an introductory area, which depicts a girl sneaking out of a house, behind the back of a certain bearded man who we will be getting to know very intimately over the rest of the game. In this area we're treated to a television sound effect which may be the most perfectly-engineered BGM ever used in an RPGMaker game. The voices are represented with synthesized nonsense, sounding absurd and demonic, but it's still instantly identifiable as television dialog. And I happen to think that inappropriate laugh tracks are one of the most sinister audio cues ever.

Of course, before you're even two hundred meters away from the house, reality breaks down and suddenly the entire sky is filled with the man's features in a display that would make even Giygas squirm. This seems to be the theme of the game; no matter how far the girl might run, this creepy man has all ready imprinted himself so thoroughly that she will continue to see him everywhere for the rest of her life.

The problem with this introduction is that it communicates the theme so concisely that, really, the rest of the game is unnecessary. For the rest of the game, all we do is travel around a landscape that I assume represents the girl's mind, encountering the innumerable grotesque apparitions that have infested her because of this happening. There are clues that the story has more nuances, but nothing is ever as powerful as that first tableau and none of the extra details stick. Not even the ending of the game, which presents itself as a shocking revelation; I wasn't entirely clear on what had been revealed. (See the end of this review for my best guess.)

Definitely, the one concept that was conveyed perfectly was the sense that this man has completely invaded every part of the girl's mind. Some version of his sunglasses-wearing face is around every corner, and the mutations get more grotesque the farther you progress. Although these apparitions are rarely actually threatening to the player, the man's relentless reappearance creates a kind of passive oppression. You want him to just go away, but, sure enough, all you find through the next door is yet another monster with the same beard and comb-over.

Other symbols, such as the crosses, the saxophone and the "I'm just waiting" man didn't resonate in the way they were probably supposed to. The saxophone in particular I suspect was just a random indulgence.

The actual game is structured as a series of fetch quests, which are forgettable in that the items don't contribute to the theme, except that some of them might be vaguely sexualized. There are also a couple of dodge-the-moving-event areas that are simply roadblocks and ultimately meaningless.

The game's "world" is smaller than many others that have been proposed in this type of game, but you won't find me complaining about that. It's easy to explore every area fully and to learn your way around, which is crucial in a game full of fetch quests. A smaller scope means that many of the settings are more detailed and vivid than they would likely be otherwise.

The most effective setting is definitely the rotting village. Everything from the music to the unsettling colour scheme creates a sense of filth that you can almost smell. (Or at least feel grateful that you can't.) It's also home to one of the game's most disgusting iterations of Beardo. I returned to that area several times just for the experience.

My least favourite area was the one that does what Yume Nikki did worst, which is taking a blank wraparound map and sparely peppering it with details that I'm expected to find by plodding through the emptiness. There is thankfully only one area like this, but I'd have preferred if there were zero.

The central "hub" area is also quite disappointing in this respect, since it also has a blank background. I would expect the hub of the dream world to have a particularly symbolic presence, but this one seems purely functional.

Interestingly, instead of opening the menu, pressing ESC teleports you to a special room where you see all your current items laid out on the floor. Sure enough, late in the game this room itself opens up into an explorable environment, but unfortunately at this point the ESC function becomes glitchy, and I was concerned a few times that I had broken the game when I used it. (In a weird game like this, how are you supposed to know for sure?) The SHIFT function (which returns you to the hub) also starts glitching up in the final areas.

Also, there's no way to quit, since the ESC key was commandeered for the item room function and we can't access the regular menu. Yes, you can always press F12, but I don't think games should rely on this. The F12 function is meant for debugging, and also for when I hate a game and want it off my screen quickly. I don't like it when games fail to include a "proper" way to quit.

Kind of like this review, Lisa starts off strong and focused but eventually peters out to an ending that is nowhere near as spectacular as its beginning. Still, the creator's artistic strategy of using a single character design as the basis for an entire landscape is a welcome and unique approach to the "dream/experience" genre of RpgMaker games, which can very easily turn into tedious tripe.

My score: 3/5
Positives: Execution of theme, the introduction, music and Beardo designs.
Negatives: Dwindling significance of later areas, glitchy ESC function, some tedious wandering still required.
Maybe the ending means this:
The player actually *is* the man, and the game represents his opinions of himself as projected onto some kind of imaginary girlfriend?