Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
LISA is a strong example of what I would call a recent indie movement in “ironic games.” This category covers titles like Undertale or Goat Simulator where a lot of the enjoyment comes from the way that the game subverts expectations. Cynical gamers think they have seen everything, and then these ironic games come and do something completely stupid, but it’s so unexpected that it works. One moment in LISA particularly stuck out to me in regards to this: the two minute climb.
WARNING: Minor spoilers for LISA, Metal Gear Solid 3, and Psychonauts.
Area 2 Crossroads
LISA‘s level design is spread out over three areas, each of which has its own crossroads. To get from one area to the next, you have to go through the different paths to accomplish various goals, such as collecting TNT to blow up rocks that are in the way, or rebuilding a bridge that had been razed. Area 2 has many possible paths such as a boatman who will take you to distant islands, but the path I want to discuss is an absurdly tall tower. It’s hardly a tower and more of a perfectly vertical rock formation.
You can reach the base of this formation at the top of the crossroads area, where a sign says “VERY IMPORTANT ABOVE!” A rope leads to the top, and epic music begins to play as you ascend. After about two minutes (really, one and a half), you reach the top which is just a middle finger. If you try to jump off, a message prevents you from doing so and pushes you back. The only path is back down the ladder, with no music and a feeling of being shafted.
In terms of level design, this is absolutely silly and there is no reason whatsoever why it should ever work. Long ago, the designer Zileas wrote a list of “game design anti-patterns” where he described exactly this, calling it “screwing the player”:
“This is where you straight up screw over the player, usually with dramatic flair, or maybe just try to make the player feel crappy in a way that isn’t contributing to the fun of the game. These range in severity, but examples usually are spawned because the designer is a pretentious wanker who likes to show what a smart dude he is and how stupid the player is.”
But I don’t think that a two minute climb by itself is necessarily screwing the player. Plenty of games have used ridiculously long climbs as an attempt to add something to the game experience, to varying degrees of success. These are born out of an honest desire to make the game better, to make the player feel a certain way.
In Metal Gear Solid 3, there’s a giant ladder climb where an orchestral version of the theme song plays epicly in the background. By itself, it seems very similar to the climb in LISA, but in MGS3, this climb happens right after an intense and grueling boss fight which can last for hours. This is an important distinction that sets the tone for how players are meant to approach the ladder.
From a game design standpoint, the ladder gives the player time to take a breath, relax for a moment, and cool down while nothing important happens. From a narrative standpoint, it can be argued that it represents how the protagonist is never given a chance to rest and must continue climbing tirelessly, as if progressing through a state of limbo. From a player standpoint, you never know if something is going to happen to you while climbing the ladder: maybe the boss isn’t actually dead and they’re waiting to ambush you at the top? It’s very significant that the ladder comes right after this boss fight.
On the other hand, LISA‘s ladder is in the middle of a safe zone. The player is free to approach it whenever they wish, and they most likely start with a relaxed attitude because they had just reached the crossroads where they can save and heal. This ladder is not a period of downtime where players can unwind from a stressful scene. Instead, it is a period of uptime where players anticipate a great reward after finding safety.
Psychonauts does something similar with another crazy ladder near the end of the game. Just like in MSG3, the ladder comes right after going through a very difficult test by Raz’s nightmare father, and also serves as a way for players to calm down a little.
MGS3‘s ladder connects an intense moment to a calm moment. Psychonauts‘s ladder connects an intense moment to another intense moment. But LISA‘s rope connects a calm moment to a (presumably) intense moment. This makes a large difference in terms of design.
Design vs Dadaism
In the sequel, Dingaling added a similar rope but prefaced it with a short letter about how amazing it is for players to invest so much into the game and how great it is to be able to make people feel something, anything, and how grateful he is for having such an opportunity. Then he uses that opportunity to make people feel angry, cheated, annoyed.
Are these really the feelings that players experience though? Since there was no meaningful buildup, there’s no reason for players to care about the rope. They just saved, so anything that happens doesn’t have to have a consequence. I just held down the up arrow key and played Puzzle and Dragons with my other hand. With MGS3 or Psychonauts, the ladders were tense moments that demanded my attention, and used my attention to enhance the game experience. But with LISA, the rope didn’t hold my attention in the first place.
The same thing happens when you descend, which is presumably the point where you feel like you want to punch the developer in the face for wasting your time. You can’t jump off and commit suicide to get back faster. But there are items you can use to warp back to the crossroads, or you can back out to the main menu and reload your save.
This is strange because LISA actually has plenty of moments like the ones discussed in MGS3 and Psychonauts. At the very end after you’ve defeated the final boss, you crawl along the ground at an excruciatingly slow pace, and it’s riveting. You’re moving horizontally rather than vertically, but it’s the same concept, and it works because the game has earned your full attention. It also has a narrative payoff instead of a pixel middle finger, so that’s nice.
All of this, however, is approaching LISA‘s rope from the perspective of a game designer. And from that perspective, it is indeed frustrating and meaningless. But from the perspective of an artist, isn’t this exactly what Dingaling wanted?
It reminds me greatly of Marcel Duchamp, the Dada artist who created “Fountain”, a “sculpture” which was really just a porcelain urinal that he bought, turned upside-down, and signed. I’m a great fan of Marcel Duchamp, but I’m only that way because I read about his works a hundred years later. If I had been someone living in his time, and I paid money for an art exhibit and saw “Fountain,” I would probably be mad too.
As an outsider, it’s easy for me to say that being mad is part of the experience of Dadaism and it’s the artist’s intention. But experiencing the exact same thing firsthand with LISA is a strange experience. Maybe as a modern gamer, it’s just harder for anything to keep my attention the same way that a museum could keep someone’s attention a hundred years ago.
But even though I dislike LISA‘s rope climb from a gamer’s perspective, I wholeheartedly support it from an artist’s perspective. There just need to be better ways to integrate it into the medium. All sorts of games have drawn upon this kind of artistically-designed helplessness, from the end of Halo 5 to the infamous chapter 13 of FFXV. Sometimes they work really well to draw players in, and sometimes they don’t.
I think the context is the key. Viewers need to be eased in to the experience so that they are in the most receptive state they can be in. Dadaism and ironic games are hard to appreciate unless you are willing to appreciate them. Even I would most likely think that Dadaism is ridiculous if I didn’t have a whole class series teaching me how to appreciate it. These moments can be very powerful, but they have to be earned.