PART ONE: Finally Beating Lobotomy Corporation

CW: Horror, gore, addiction, stress, depression, capitol riots, death – basically everything. And also MAJOR spoilers for Lobotomy Corporation

On some strange level, I feel like Library of Ruina is the last game I will ever play.

I don’t even know what I mean by this.  I’ve played games since, obviously.  But I still feel this way.  As though the summer of 2021 was this hinge between two unrelated parts of my life that otherwise have very little traffic between them.  As though my entire relationship to playing video games has been irrevocably modified.  As though I have seen the heights of what video games can achieve and expect only disappointment from the entire industry in the years to come.

It’s only a feeling, though, mind you.

But let’s back up.

Writing, Like Staring Into the Abyss

Back in January of 2021, a time that feels like ages ago, I wrote an essay on my experience with Lobotomy Corporation and how it connected to my understanding of the horror we’ve all faced in the wake of the global pandemic, the Trump administration, and the hostile social circumstances we find ourselves in.  I encourage you to read that essay before going on, if you haven’t—because I doubt I’ll be able to make much sense of my feelings here without making reference to it often.

Honestly, I doubt I’ll make much sense of any of this, but we are going to try.

Here’s the thing about writing personal essays.  The very act of doing so is, to some degree, utterly nonsensical.  And I suspect my method in that essay—tying my review to my personal experience to some greater philosophical/ethical point about something as broad as ‘dealing with horror in everyday life’—is even more nonsensical.  Words fail to capture even a sliver of an instant of personal experience, no matter how eloquent those words tend to be.  Not to get too philosophical (it’s rare that I can write without the specters of Wittgenstein and Derrida hanging overhead), but language simply does not map perfectly onto experience.  That’s why poets and writers have always felt obligated to push the boundaries of language into new and interesting directions and forms.  As experience and perspective change, we need to change our language to match.

Gaze into the well long enough, and it will gaze back into you.

But it is always insufficient.  Every language is haunted by semiotic ghosts, and English seems especially full of them.  Writing is an act of both evocation and exorcism in that way—an attempt to navigate between the present truth of our own experience and the experiences well-documented before we begin to speak.  Consciously or unconsciously, we summon the specters of Shakespeare, Austen, Tolkien, or Stephen King to inform our writing, embracing some of what they say while banishing others.  And when writing a personal essay, that bleeds into and through one’s own personal experience.

Nor is writing just an act of scientific observation.  Writing about Lobotomy Corporation was not just an act of jotting notes on an indifferent keyboard.  There’s an “equal and opposite reaction” in the soul as there is on the page; both are stained equally by ink.  What is said to others also echoes in oneself.  When you take the time to put words to your experience and beliefs, you do so imperfectly (they can never fully capture the experience), but also permanently (by putting your experience and beliefs into words, you sand down and simplify your memory of those experiences and beliefs).  After you’ve tried to say what you believe, what you said becomes what you believe.

In short, the act of writing is as informative to one’s character as the experience one writes about.  Writing is a form of processing experience, turning ugly and complicated raw data (stimulus, memory—your word choice may vary) into something easily digested by the mind (brain, soul, etc.).  There is truth in it, as it involves exploration, discovery, and clearing the ground for what you’ve felt; but there is always deception as well: rough edges cut off, specificity made simple, details left out or ignored—and that deception sticks in your mind like a landscape photograph, framed.  The lies, omissions, and over-simplifications all become real and undetectable.

Which is not to say that my Lobotomy Corporation essay was a lie.  I’m proud of its earnestness as well as its artifice.  But it was, at least partially, artifice, and now that I’ve beaten both Lobotomy Corporation and its sequel (despite my concerns last year that this would never happen), I want to take a second look, but this time without the gravitational pull of a pat moral or need to find hope in the midst of horror.

Today I want to talk about horror without the moral.  I want to talk about the personal without the wide applications to Trumpism, pandemic life, or even what these games might mean on some deeper thematic level (though these things will obviously factor into this process).

I want to talk about what they mean to me.

And if this sounds unnecessarily narrow, I beg you to bear with me. 

That Time I Did, In Fact, Keep Playing Lobotomy Corporation

Let’s start with the simple stuff, zoomed all the way out.

In January of 2021 I wrote an essay about Lobotomy Corporation.  At the time I thought I was about a third of the way through the game (though, now that I’m more familiar with Project Moon’s work, it makes sense that I had NO IDEA WHATSOEVER what my progress was at that time).  Despite my reservations about this being a stressful and emotionally exhausting game to play, writing that essay somehow lodged a splinter in my mind: I felt compelled to keep going.  Perhaps it was curiosity, perhaps defiance (against aging, against responsibility, against my own limitations—we’ll get to that later); whatever the reason, I continued.

I should specify: I continued irregularly.  The spring semester was predictably busy and stressful.  I got into the habit of playing for a level or two once or twice a week, along with semi-regular sessions of No Man’s Sky, of all things.  The two made for a surprisingly compelling marriage.  Lobotomy Corporation was bite-sized, stressful, and manic; No Man’s Sky was relaxed, largely aimless, and suited looooooong sessions.

Most of my time was spent wandering over the frozen surface of the first planet I colonized.
I may have played this game totally wrong.

But—and we’ll talk about this, too, later—Lobotomy Corporation never gets easier.  If anything, my essay only scratched the surface of its difficulty.  To continue required more and more time, more and more skill, more and more stress.  By mid-March, I had dropped No Man’s Sky altogether.  By April, I was playing LC for hours on end, frequently long into the night, just to get past some particularly nasty hurdle.  Each time I thought it would be smooth sailing after I’d overcome that challenge; each time I was wrong.

In May this came to a head.  I realized I needed to start the game over (we’ll talk about what this means, too), but rather than be frustrated or despair, I did so with renewed determination and expertise.  I blew through the early levels, deftly handled the mid-game, and quickly reached the same challenges that had stymied me before.

The last week of my semester, with papers due and grades to finish, I spent working feverishly and trying desperately to beat this game.  As always, it took longer than expected.  I managed to close my classes, turn in final grades, planning to spend the last week of May (before I went camping) beating LC for good.

And then, in that last week, everything blew up at the same time.

Everything is fine.

But we’ll get to that, too…

That’s Nice; So What?

So I want you to understand that this was, start to finish, an experience I can never hope to duplicate—nor would I wish it on anyone.  But it was also extraordinary—even transcendent.  This work of art, which I had pinned to my life experience in January (by writing my essay), was now pinned again to my direct and personal experience.  Overcoming this game will forever be linked in my mind to overcoming one of the worst semesters in my life.  The trauma the game discussed is my trauma.  And I don’t mean this melodramatically—remember, writing reflects back into the writer.  I had, perhaps unconsciously, made this so when I wrote my essay.  That whole semester, I was gauging my progress in dealing with my demons by my progress in the game.  It may well have been a stressor, exacerbating my anxiety and horror with the world; and it could be that things really weren’t that bad, except that Lobotomy Corporation’s nightmare-world of unspeakable horrors and impossible challenges was the filter through which I was viewing my experience.  The melodrama was something I’d made real for myself.

And I beat it.

I want to say, academically/objectively-speaking, that the ending of Lobotomy Corporation is this transcendent, cathartic experience—perhaps one of the most profound I’ve ever encountered in any medium, ever, period…but I recognize that the transcendence and catharsis were (at least mostly) inextricable from my own psychological attachment to this game—that I had symbolically loaded it with so much meaning and significance in the 100+ hours I’d spent wrestling with it (like Jacob’s angel) over the course of this hellish semester.  When my responsibilities intensified, it responded in kind; every time I thought I was near the end of my semester, LC hinted at an endpoint as well.  When I reached a reprieve in my teaching schedule, I restarted the game and had an easier experience for a few weeks.  And when all hell broke loose in my life, the game unleashed hell as well.

But did I receive my blessing?

We danced, in lock-step. Life and art; art and life.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to separate this semester from the game that I used to understand and process it.  We were—are—one.

The first week of June I went camping.  When I came home, I started up Library of Ruina.  And the dance started all over again.

But we’re already getting ahead of ourselves.  We can’t play the sequel until we beat the first game, after all.

How to Play Lobotomy Corporation (With or Without the Obsessive-Compulsive Psychological Identification-Slash-Projection Business)

Time to zoom in.  And in order to do that, we need to talk about the basic ways that Lobotomy Corporation works, mechanically as well as in its narrative.

In my essay I talked about how Lobotomy Corporation is Warehouse 13/Cabin in the Woods re-imagined as a management simulator.  Think SimTower but with Lovecraftian nightmare-monsters ripped from a deranged psyche rather than office tenants and hotel guests.

We can re-use images if we’re talking about the original essay, right?

That’s…part of the story.

The fact of the matter is that there’s really three games here, each with their own mechanical and narrative function, each with its own arc (and gameplay loop).  Every in-game day of Lobotomy Corporation occurs as its own arc/loop and as a component in the other, intersecting/nested arc/loops.  Kind of like how you choose how to use each ‘day’ in the Persona games to advance your progress in the overall plot.  In fact I suspect that Project Moon is cribbing hard from the Persona playbook in a number of ways, but innovating so hard on the formula that it’s barely noticeable in the moment-to-moment gameplay.

Enough abstraction: let’s talk about these loops individually.

(Loop 1): A Day at the Office

Each day, starting with the first, you have a simple, straightforward goal: produce enough energy to meet your quota and proceed to the next day.

You could theoretically get through this game just by doing this for 45 days in a row, at which point the endgame starts and you will be punished for not paying attention to your other objectives (if you haven’t).

It will get progressively more difficult as you go, though.  Each day:

  1. You get a new abnormality—some new, unknown monster that you’ll have to interact with, usually by trial-and-error, to discover how to take care of it without it breaking out of its cell and cutting through your employees like a Cronenbergian lawnmower.
  1. You’ll expand your department, usually (but not always) by receiving a new employee and/or quest (we’ll get to these later).
  1. Your energy quota will increase, forcing you to do more work with the abnormalities in your facility in order to meet that quota.
He’s actually much nicer than he looks.

So while everything is nice and breezy on Day 1, when you’ve got three employees and one abnormality to worry about, and you’ve only got to work with it three or four times to complete the day, by Day 4 you’re wrangling four abnormalities with only five employees and three times as much energy needed to complete the day.  By Day 20 (out of 50, mind), you’re looking at sixteen abnormalities, twenty employees across four departments, and the obligation to turn in a staggering pile of energy to progress.

A couple of hiccups to note, though.

  1. Not all abnormalities are created equal.  The game starts you off nice and easy with green ‘Zayin’ abnormalities, some of whom are actually friendly and helpful.  But, as you progress, you’ll find abnormalities with greater danger ratings, up to the mighty ‘Aleph’ abnormalities, could tear your whole facility apart if you aren’t careful.
  1. As you might expect, higher-difficulty abnormalities produce greater amounts of energy than low-difficulty abnormalities.  Zayin abnormalities will only yield six-to-eight energy when you work with them; Aleph abnormalities might give you a whopping 24+ energy.  But they tend to be more hostile to your employees (may very well devour someone inequipped to properly handle them), and if you upset them for some reason, they’ll escape and kill anyone that gets in their way. (LC PIC: Aleph Work)
[CENSORED]
  1. Likewise, working with abnormalities also gives you fancy equipment (E.G.O.) that you can give to your employees to protect them and make them more effective at working with and subduing escaped abnormalities.  And, like you’d expect, higher-level abnormalities yield better swag.  Which makes it all that much more tempting to work with the higher-risk monsters, in order to make your employees more powerful, better-protected, and more able to deal with them if/when they act out.
  1. Remember that many abnormalities are upset by events unrelated to your work with them, as well.  Some will break out if enough people die in your facility—for any reason whatsoever.  Others will be upset if nobody dies in a given time frame.  Some will become agitated when other abnormalities escape, while some will just escape on a whim—either because you weren’t paying attention to them, or because you paid too much attention to them, or just because they do that sometimes: get used to it.  And these effects will stack.  When Punishing Bird breaks out, it triggers the escape counter of Big Bird, which starts devouring employees, which wakes up the giant corpse monster in Disciplinary and OH NO EVERYONE IS DEAD NOW!
  1. Last but not least, there’s the Qliphoth Counter.  Every time you work with an abnormality of any kind, the Q-Counter advances.  Once it fills, one of two things will happen: either a fixed number of abnormalities will become agitated, requiring you to send somebody to work with them before they escape; or, some random gang of wandering abnormalities will just show up out of the blue and mess up your stuff.  The longer the day goes on, the more of these events you’ll have to deal with: and they, too, escalate in strength—from a petty nuisance to a sizable threat to an all-hands-on-deck catastrophe.
Image courtesy Let’s Play Archive: Just one of the many strange ordeals you’ll face as the day goes on

This is every in-game day, mind you.  Many of these problems and habits won’t be something you have to deal with at the start of the game, but as you accumulate more abnormalities, and as the days grow longer, you’ll find yourself trying to build routines even as every day’s new, unknown abnormality shows up to confuse things.  And nobody tells you what these rules are.  When some new critter shows up in your facility, or some new daily threat randomly shows up (like that rotten Purple Noon obelisk that squishes all the employees hanging out in the break room) all you can do is pick some hapless employee to work with it and hope they don’t die horribly—or if they do, that you’ll figure out why they died horribly and prevent it from happening again in the future.  Knowledge is power; ignorance will frequently get you killed.

Fortunately, there’s one HUGE saving grace to all this.

The game only saves at the start of each day.  So it’s totally OK if the entire facility is on fire.  You can restart the day and try it all over again, now that you know what you are dealing with.

But did all your employees actually die? Did all that suffering actually happen?

If this seems like an exploit, it totally is.

But it’s also part of the core mechanics of the game.

We’ll get to that, too…

For now, notice the pattern.  Every day you are building your routine, but there are always new abnormalities, larger quotas, and escalating dangers.  On the one hand, it’s business as usual; on the other, it’s always a new, fresh hell.

(Loop 2) I Hate Mondays

Each day fits into the greater scheme of the story and the game’s progression.  And it’s pretty easy to divide the game’s 50 days of play into ten ‘weeks’ of five days apiece, each week devoted to one of the game’s departments, along with its department chair character.  In the essay I wrote about each of those characters: how they each represent a different way of dealing with trauma and the horror of this horrific, soul-grinding death-machine-corporation.

Each week you’ll unlock a new department (or you’ll have the option of choosing between two, allowing you to stagger your choices during the week), meet the head of that department, and unlock three employees stationed in that department. 

Three full departments, complete with abnormalities, employees, and powers

The department head will also start to give you quests—optional side objectives that you can choose to complete while you go about your day-to-day business of collecting energy.  Some of them require you to perform certain tasks in a given day (face a Midnight trial; work with X number of different abnormalities; subdue X number of escaped abnormalities); others accumulate over time (collect X number of unique EGO; fully research X number of abnormalities, and so on).  When you complete those quests, you’ll unlock passive bonuses to the department that will stick around for the rest of the game.  You’ll also see a new cutscene with the character, and they’ll give you a new quest to work on.

Many of these quests are thematic to the department, and to the person running the show.  So Hod, head of the Training Department, wants you to train employees up to certain skill levels.  When you do, she’ll make it easier for your employees to level up their abilities, or make employees more likely to succeed at their work.

You don’t have to complete quests within the week you work on the department—it makes more sense to work on some objectives concurrently with others, after you’ve built up experience, skill, and strength—but as the game goes on and the end draws near, you won’t have the same leisure to wait.  You’ve only got until Day 45 to finish quests, so you’d better finish Binah’s and Hokma’s quests ASAP.

But there’s one more wrinkle in all of this.

After you’ve completed all of a character’s quests, and advanced their story/character arc, they melt down.  The disconnect between their morality and the demands of the company becomes too great, and they (basically) lose their minds.  At that point, you’ll have the option to confront the melted-down employee during the day.  If you take the challenge, you’ll totally lose control of the department (you can’t even deploy employees to it), and suffer whatever adverse affects are caused by the department head literally working against you during the given day.

Image Credit: Let’s Play Archive; Not sure I have the guts to replay this much of the game for research purposes…

In case it isn’t clear: this is a management sim with boss fights.  And, specifically, boss fights which represent the character’s psychological breakdown, complete with monstrous AI/mechanical body horror avatar looming in the department.

Nor is this purely metaphorical.  Some of the AIs will attack you during their meltdowns, forcing you to either ignore them as you try to complete the day, or defeat them in long battles of attrition while trying to keep your facility from falling apart in the meantime.

(Loop 2.5) Meltdown

Let’s take a few examples of how this all works.

Yesod is the Director of the Information Department.  He’ll typically ask you for quests involving researching abnormalities.  When you complete them, you’ll see that he’s struggling to square the fact that he is supposed to be responsible for providing information about abnormalities to other departments, with the fact that Angela (head AI of the facility) is telling him to specifically hide the dangers posed by abnormalities from employees, lest they shirk their responsibilities in favor of preserving their own lives.  Finally, this disconnect between being head researcher and head censor comes to a boiling point.  Yesod melts down, and to overcome his trial, you’ll have to play through the day while the text and HUD elements get progressively more scrambled, until even the screen is covered with a layer of video snow.  And all the while this haunting music, unique to the encounter, plays while you fight through it, growing more ominous as the day goes on and the afflictions grow worse.  In short: when the Information Department Head melts down, you spend a day without information.

Or Gebura, once called the Red Mist.  She leads the Disciplinary Department.  Once she was a fierce warrior, on a crusade to protect those weaker than her by drawing out the power of EGO.  Remembering her past life, and still consumed by rage against the abnormalities, she tasks you with letting the abnormalities escape, so you can then attack them, beat them up, and send them back to their pens.  (I should remark: this is absolutely counter-intuitive to the way the game is typically played, especially when, in her last quest, she demands that you deliberately unleash and defeat four high-level ‘Aleph’ abnormalities.  This is basically suicide on your first play-through.)  When you complete this mad, Ahab-esque act of vengeance, rather than express gratitude, she finally loses her mind: having lost her former life desperately protecting others, she now realizes she has been carelessly sacrificing lives to her obsessive vengeance.  In her meltdown, she appears in her department as The Red Mist, wielding the most lethal EGO in the game in ways that utterly embarrass your employees wielding the same weapons.  When attacked, she’ll sprint through the hallways, killing anything that gets in her way, forcing you to constantly chase her around through four long phases of combat, each one more dangerous than the last.

Image credit: Lobotomy Corporation Wiki – I’m DEFINITELY not replaying this one anytime soon…

But—she also takes doubled damage from abnormalities.  So rather than try to defeat her by waging this war of attrition, you could just let the abnormalities loose.  Let the facility rot, keep your employees hidden, running, or huddled together, far from the action, while nightmare monsters descend on The Red Mist like some Apocalyptic hell-army.

I’m trembling as I write this; I remember this battle so well.  Much as this game had connected with me before this encounter, I think this is where it really clicked into focus.  At this point, everything about the game made a certain mad sense.  The mechanics (Gebura asking you to release the abnormalities as part of her quests, then proving vulnerable to their attacks during her violent meltdown) merged seamlessly with the story (her clear psychopathic carelessness toward human life, brought about by the desperate, broken hopes of keeping people safe), all within the greater context of trying to preserve this broken, ugly, exploitative, horrible facility in order to maybe—just maybe—build something better out of it.  At the same time as I was horrified, beating my head against this encounter over and over again, I felt so profoundly moved by her plight: I knew what it felt like to give up, despair, want to hurt and kill because the urge to protect and save was so strong and so impossible.  I felt her rage, even as I fought to turn it, overcome it, drown it under an unending tide of monsters.

This is what I’m saying about this game.  The interlocking mechanics: the fact that you are assigned to deal with every new day’s worth of horror while also facing these impossibly-escalating boss fights—they so perfectly captured the experience of living through the pandemic: every day you woke up to a disintegrating normalcy, interrupted by days spent fighting horrors you could not have expected or handled.   Every act you took was a pittance of goodness against a tide of mute, indifferent hostility.  Fighting Gebura, I was Gebura, rage incarnate, beyond sanity, screaming violently in my helplessness.  I was also attacking Gebura, trying to overcome my own pointless and destructive anger by transmuting it into something productive, loving, and protective.  I felt that inner conflict as I went through the motions of the simulated battle.

Each of these characters has a similar story—they are all torn between their responsibilities and the basic morality that drives them.  Hod’s responsibility is to train and support her employees, but each time one dies, it underscores her failure.  Realizing that she cares less about their welfare than her own apparent goodness, she breaks down: you’ll have to overcome a day while your employees’ power degenerates to help her self-actualize.  Chesed (‘mercy’ in the Kabbalah’s Old Testament Hebrew), head of the ‘welfare’ department, was an idealistic young man when he came to the facility, determined to turn it around—until Angela commanded him to send employees to their deaths in order to cure him of his idealism.  But the greater cure came later—when The Arbiter arrived, indiscriminately killing Chesed’s friends while he hid, helplessly, selfishly, desperately awaiting reinforcements that never arrived.  When he breaks down, you’ll spend a day while Chesed doubles, then quadruples, the damage dealt by randomly-chosen abnormalities.

Hang up the Intercom.

But as the game goes on and the later characters are unlocked, you realize that this battle for the sephirahs’ souls was all already lost, long ago.  Malkuth, Yesod, Hod, Netzach, Tiphereth, Gebura, Hesed, Binah, Hokma—they are all dead.  Long-dead.  They were wiped out when Binah, The Arbiter, sent by the mysterious and apparently-omnipotent Head—a corporation governing all corporations—waged war on the facility, only to be stopped when the mortally-wounded Gebura impaled Binah on her blade.  But all their minds (including the attacking Binah) were preserved by the survivors: Carmen, Benjamin, and A—the shadowy manager whose identity remains a secret until the last days of the game—uploaded them into computers to run their respective departments.

Pulp Made Surreal

If this all sounds ridiculous, contrived, or absurd, you are not wrong to think so.  All this high drama and surreal science-fiction is a difficult pill to swallow.  And the delivery is stilted and abstract enough to make it very difficult to follow on your first play-through.  I won’t even say that it’s well-written; it’s not, really.

But at some point I stopped caring.  Not because I’m especially tolerant of this sort of thing—I’m not.  I usually get annoyed by this kind of vague posturing at epic scale, preferring concrete storytelling, even in science-fiction and horror.  The abstractions and hand-waving often frustrated me—but because it is all so earnest, so well-buttressed by the gameplay, and rooted in characters and philosophies that are just specific enough to recognize as distinct approaches to dealing with horror—and just vague enough for the player to impose their own experiences over the dialogue—I stopped critiquing and started seriously investing myself into the struggles of the characters and the mysterious objective of breaking the cycle.  Or maybe it was just because of the ol’ sunk-cost fallacy: I had worked so hard to get past each day that the reward of more dialogue and story increased its value in my eyes.  I don’t deny that possibility—I even suspect myself of falling victim to that trick.  But that’s a conversation for later, when we talk about the difficulty in this game.

For now I need to emphasize the way that this story moves.  Your first week is what you would expect from a new job.  Your boss (Angela) briefs you on the expectations set out for you.  You meet co-workers (Malkuth, Yesod, Hod) who encourage you, but are also preoccupied with their own responsibilities.  Everyone is polite enough, if a little distracted.

And then one day, the veil parts.  You see death.

So much fan art…

The game emphasizes this by radically changing the art style—the only time it does this.  Most of the shots I’ve shared, both in-game and in story beats, share a anime-ish, cartoony style.  Even the violence is stylized and silly-looking.  But you get one glimpse, one screenshot, of reality.  Angela is no longer the cute, prim administrator, but full-grown, indifferent to the carnage she witnesses.  And then it snaps back—sorry you had to see that.  She explains that the visual style you see is, itself, fiction: a filter over your own perception that keeps you from losing your mind.

This little story beat serves a lot of purposes.  It fires the player’s imagination (and also justifies the game’s easily-rendered visual style), while encouraging the player to fill in the gaps where the limits of the style leaves off.  It shocks the player, functioning much like an early jump scare in a horror movie.  It encourages the player to distrust Angela and the other characters—what else are they hiding from you?

And, most importantly, it drives home one of the game’s central themes: coping with horror through self-deception.

Each of the Sephirah melt down because they can no longer keep deceiving themselves about the horror they impose on their employees.  And when they melt down, their friendly, cartoon-character façade falls away and they become a monstrous amalgam of twisted limbs and computer monitors, effectively communicating their brokenness and self-denial.  They are no longer human—just minds downloaded into machines—and they abandon their pretense to humanity in their rage and despair.

Self-deception is not an effective solution to managing horror.  As the game’s tagline emphasizes: you must face the fear.

On the one hand, all these plot points and outré metaphysical explanations are tough to swallow.  But they set up each character’s rich inner lives: their half-hearted coping mechanisms, their deep fears, and the resolution that you ultimately provide.  As in Persona 4, these characters’ personalities are split by their trauma and denial; and like Persona 4, the player is responsible to help these characters face their fears (and themselves), accept their culpability in the name of a greater mission, and go on, stabilized.

In Lobotomy Corporation, this transformation is physical as well as psychological.  Once you’ve faced these meltdowns, the character’s human appearance is replaced, for the rest of the game, with a machine.  Not the twisted half-organic, half-mechanical monster-hybrids you face in their trials, but a simple, helpful machine.  You have helped them deal with their missing humanity, and the solution is—to discard that humanity.  It was already lost.  Pretending to be human was just further damaging them, exacerbating that split between morality and responsibility.

Lucy, alone

But your own mission is not that different.  Gradually the pleasant affect of this facility is stripped away.  Week after week you find new, ever-more-horrifying revelations about the facility and its functions, accompanying the gradual rise in difficulty and the new dangers that accompany your new monsters.  Eventually, you discover your own identity—your own role in Lobotomy Corporation’s twisted history.  Your innocence, too, must be stripped away.  You, too, must face the fear.

(Loop 3) Forever and Ever

If you read Lobotomy Corporation’s promotional description, you’ll see that it is, in some way, a rogue-like.  I could probably go on for a while about how the game mashes up its genres (Monster-collection/rouge-like/management-sim/visual-novel…), but the rogue-like-ness of the game is one that sneaks up on you.

Namely, there will likely come a time that you give up on the game.

But starting a new game doesn’t actually change your facility all that much.

I stumbled into this revelation by accident.  The first time I picked up the game, I spent a week or two playing it—not even far enough for one of the meltdowns—and gave up.  It was too hard and stressful; I was busy—just as I discussed in my prior essay.

When I decided to give it another try in 2021, I didn’t remember much about my previous efforts, so I started a new game, assuming that it would delete all my progress and start me from scratch.

Instead, I discovered that much of my progress had been retained.  Sure, I still started from Day 1 in the facility’s calendar, the monsters had all disappeared and all my employees were gone—but all the Sephirah quests I had completed, remained completed.  Any monster I’d researched and/or identified remained researched and identified once they appeared in the new iteration of my facility.  Angela ran through the same story beats as the first time, but the Sephirah acted like they knew me, and it didn’t take long before they started melting down—something I didn’t expect, because I hadn’t seen it happen before.

If only we could all return at will to the earliest days of a new job…

See, the game wants you to restart.  Not only do you face the daily loops of managing monsters and keeping the facility running—and the weekly loops of opening departments and managing Sephirah meltdowns—you also, at your discretion, can loop the entire fifty-day story of the game (or just the last week).  And there are a ton of advantages to this.  You can choose less dangerous monsters for your facility once you’ve researched and identified their quirks.  You can start the game with powerful department upgrades that help your employees level up faster and manage abnormalities more effectively.  And, importantly, once you’ve helped a Sephirah overcome their meltdown, the massive, game-breaking benefits they offer persist as well.  Some of the late-game Sephriah, once overcome, will even let you retain the super-rare weapons and armor you’ve collected through subsequent play-throughs.  Never mind the fact that you can miss the “good” ending if you haven’t budgeted your time properly, and would have to restart anyway.

There’s even in-game justification for this, along those same pulpy science-fiction lines: namely, the facility has been operating for millions of years at this point, and you (the player) have been endlessly resurrected (long story) in the hopes of breaking the facility out of this eternal cycle.

And, if all goes well, you will.

Escalation

It feels weird spending this much time rehashing the game’s mechanics and plot points—it seems like I’ve spent far too much time just summarizing things that become second nature by playing.  And I imagine it makes for boring reading, to boot, weird and crazy as it may sound.

So let’s skip forward to the first thing I want to emphasize here.

Lobotomy Corporation and its sequel, Library of Ruina, have the best escalation mechanics I’ve ever seen in video gaming.

This may sound like a finicky sort of observation, but I have to stress that this is the thing that kept me coming back to these games, and that took over my life for the better part of 2021.

Image Credit: David Maletz, Game Developer

See, escalation is a pretty typical discussion in game design circles.  You want your game to feel more daunting and impressive at the same time that you increase the game’s difficulty and complexity.  So in a game like Mario, you start with very manageable enemies and challenges (one goomba rushing you), but by the end you are dodging multiple hazards, obstacles, and enemies with varied attack patterns.  In an RPG like Final Fantasy, you graduate from small groups of weak enemies to bosses that can knock out fully-leveled character with a single attack.

But in a management sim—?  Escalation usually takes the form of increasing restrictions or complexity in decision-making.  Think of unlocking higher-level facilities in a game like Anno or Caesar 3.  Or think of the tiny islands and weird scenario conditions in games like Tropico or Banished.

But Lobotomy Corporation basically invents its own playbook here.  Not only do you have the gradual escalation of a bigger, more complicated facility with every progressing day, you also have to face boss fights in the form of Sephirah meltdowns—each of which radically changes the basic rules of the game to the player’s detriment.  Each day has its own pattern of escalation: as the Qlipoth counter rises, scarier trials await you; each week has its own escalation: Sephirah meltdowns drastically increase the panicked dread of trying to get through the day; and each play-through has its own escalation as you try to push further and further through the story.

Until (spoiler alert), you face multiple Sephirah meltdowns at once.

I’m not doing it justice here.  This is nuts.  Multiple times, as I saw what the game was throwing at me, I felt completely overwhelmed.  The first time I fought The Red Mist, I couldn’t even get past the first phase.  When my first Aleph abnormality entered my facility, I had no idea how to keep him (The Silent Orchestra) from repeatedly driving every employee in my facility insane.  The first time I hit the “purple noon” ordeal, well over half of my employees died—and for a full minute I was just trying to figure out what the hell happened.  “This is impossible,” I would think.  “There is no way that I can do this.”  But, importantly, the game has offered so much power—so much control.

Image Credit: Lobotomy Corporation Wiki: Protip – don’t put The Silent Orchestra in the center department.

Maybe if I rearrange the departments, so this employee can manage this monster when this problem gets out of control…

What if I backtrack a few days, make sure to get this one particular EGO weapon which is really strong against this enemy…

What if I restart the whole game and make sure to get that particular monster that could counteract this problem…

Lobotomy Corporation is, without a doubt, one of the most difficult games I’ve ever played.  But its difficulty is secondary to its escalation.  Those moments of real dread and horror: seeing my facility twisted in a way I could never have anticipated, and adapting to this seemingly-impossible breakdown by thinking about the problems in new, strange ways—that is what made this game so powerful to me in the end.  Where the storytelling felt hackneyed or overly-convoluted; where the character beats fell a bit flat—it didn’t matter.  I had earned those beats, dammit.  I had survived the onslaught of Gebura with one lone employee huddled in the safe room—and like that employee, I too shook with a mix of terror and exhilaration.  It had taken probably a dozen tries to get through that day.  And it took me a half-dozen tries to get through the next, much more routine day.

And when that last week arrives, and the escalating difficulty ramps up to 11, and the real fireworks start going off—when you realize what you’ve been fighting for (and fighting against)—and when, at the last minute, when it seems like you’ve won, Angela turns on you…

I don’t know how to explain it.  It’s something so personal and profound that it defies words.

But we’re going to try.

Routine Horror

Lobotomy Corporation is a horror game about horror.  It is not about facing some one-off existential threat like a monster or a slasher.  It is about living with horror.  It is about being complicit in horror.  You could get high-minded and talk about capitalism—the “Corporation” of Lobotomy Corporation certainly invites the comparison—but I think it’s even more broad, more basic, than this.  The monsters are manifestations of our nightmares and fears, and you exploit them for energy to keep the lights on and the world running.  Day after day you do this.  And it gets harder and harder with each passing day.  And around you the other people on your team break down and turn against you, and you have to confront their destructive capabilities, weather their hatred and bile, and help restore them to themselves.  Everything is against you.  It is never fair. And it is your job to keep the system running, keep things unfair and exploitative for your employees, no matter how many lives are destroyed or lost along the way – including your own.

I’d like to follow this up with some dramatic comparison to reality in 2021, but the truth is far less dramatic than it is plain and obvious.  2021 was the year that horror became routine for me (For us?  I don’t think it’s a reach to speak for us all here).  In 2020 we encountered a horror we were unprepared to face: a global pandemic.  We locked down for months.  We all donned masks to go to work.  People lost their jobs.  People lost their homes.  People lost their lives.  The government failed to provide effective leadership.  People turned on each other, denying the reality of this horror.  And we all said to ourselves: “We just have to get through this.”

Then it got worse.  In the fall “we” decided that the economy was more important than public health.  Businesses re-opened.  Schools re-opened.  Many classes were still online; many weren’t.  Everyone implemented poorly-thought-out half-measures to accommodate the new paradigm.  I’m not sure we’ll ever really sort out how many of them were effective.

2020 ended with an enormous spike in COVID cases: far worse than during the summer.  More people died.  More restrictions were put in place; others were, perhaps inexplicably, lifted.  People were angry—angry about everything.

Image Courtesy BBC

2021 opened with an insurrection.  I suppose that’s the word we’ve chosen to describe what happened, since “attempted coup”, well—the jury is, almost literally in this case, still out.  Trump left office, despite his claims that the election results were untrustworthy, but COVID was still out there, even as more restrictions lifted in the first half of the year.

But by February or March of 2021, we all were living in this absurd world of public health half-measures, politicians using their platforms to radically distort reality, people hating each other for their political allegiances.

But we weren’t saying “We just have to get through this,” anymore.  We were seriously wondering if this wasn’t just the new normal.

Waking up and checking the news to see what new (escalating) horror awaited, became routine.  Memes joked darkly about dumpster fires and the end of the world.  We all lived horror.

But it was also abundantly clear that not all horror was equal.  Sure, we all dealt with the horror of all these things I’ve mentioned, but most of us weren’t rationing hospital beds, or loading bodies by the truckload, like they discussed on TV.  We knew these things were happening.  We knew we were pretty much powerless to help.  Heck, if we couldn’t even convince our relatives that Fox News was effectively lying to them, what chance did we have to force real legislation through the federal government?  But we certainly weren’t in any position to complain, or to expect sympathy from our friends and loved ones.  It was pretty terrible for all of us, but it was better for most of us than it was for some of us.  Every one of us knew somebody who had it worse than we did.  Someone who was taking care of sick relatives, or who worked at some awful, thankless job, or whose family members had died, or who died themselves.

This was just life now.

People died, and we couldn’t even figure out how pointless their deaths were.  In many cases, we couldn’t even go to their funerals.  We just…kept going.  Each day twisted our reality into knots, and we just—shrugged, made a bitter joke, and kept going.

I lost family in the Spring of 2021.  I fought with relatives online in the Spring of 2021.  I counseled students dealing with stress, with grief, with dread.  I got e-mails from students who were experiencing every one of the things I’ve described here.  I had a lot of serious conversations that semester, with a lot of depressed, confused, and scared people.  I honestly couldn’t tell you if it was the hardest semester I’ve ever faced.  It might have been.  It was hard to see it from the ground level, especially since 2020 had been so bad, too.  Most of it is a blur.

But, somehow, I remember the details of my run through Lobotomy Corporation in crystal-clear detail.  And virtually nothing else about those few months.

Binah, on a typical emo jag

I wonder sometimes if I didn’t just disappear into that game.  If I poured every bit of anger, frustration, ennui, dread, horror, and misery into it.  If I somehow psychologically transferred my doubts and fears into the characters I’ve discussed here.  If I didn’t project my anger into Gebura’s pointless, destructive rage; my crushed hopes into Chesed’s bitter retaliation against his own cowardice; my stalled wishes to do good into Hod’s anger at not being recognized for his good intentions.  My fear of the future into Hokmah’s unflappable authoritarianism.  My powerlessness into Binah’s cruelty.  I didn’t know that was a thing I could do.  And I might very well be overstating it.  But it seems the best explanation for why this video game means so much to me now.  It was a series of escalating impossible challenges that I grit my teeth and overcame—since the other impossible challenges out there were to banal and too big to overcome.

The Light at the End of the World

May 2021 came late.  To prevent the spread of COVID, most of my schools opted to begin the semester several weeks later than usual, and forego Spring Break.  As a result, I ended up teaching into the third week of May, when I would usually be done grading by the end of the second week.

In January, stressed out of my mind, I had made plans to go camping in the first week of June.  I found some cheap cabin on the PA/NY border, booked it for a full week, and kept that as the light at the end of the tunnel.  I could get through each week as it came, because in June I was getting away from it all.

I, too, am surprised it didn’t fall off the cinderblocks at some point

But those last couple weeks of the semester were still very rough.  One of my classes was a perfect storm of problems.  It was an eight-week, compressed-schedule, all-online class.  Worse, it was a class that many students take in their final Senior semester to finish the requirements for the major.  But it’s a demanding class, heavy on reading, and many students aren’t prepared for it in a normal semester, much less at double speed during the compounded horror of 2021.

That semester, the class was rank with plagiarism.  Ever since classes had moved online, instances of plagiarism had tripled across my classes, but I was not about to give students a pass.  I vividly remember that last night of the semester:  I found one plagiarized assignment, then another, and another, and soon I couldn’t keep grading because I had to deal with angry, dismayed students indignant at my accusations (no matter how well-founded).  I was getting e-mails faster than I could respond to them, and couldn’t finish the grading I had to do—and this at one, two, three in the morning.

Around five, exhausted, I finally managed to send the last e-mails and assign the last grades.  The class was closed.  I went to bed.

At the same time, I had been playing the very last week of Lobotomy Corporation.  I’d cultivated my perfect team of employees, my perfect monster spread, and I was ready to face the compounding meltdown effects of the endgame, while the mysterious final Sephirah warped from official to demon to angel, all the while twisting my office into a hazy nightmare of office furniture re-imagined by Dali and David Cronenberg.  When I woke up the next day, I returned to the game, eager to finish it before my camping trip the following week.

Instead I had an e-mail: several of my students had gone to my department chair and challenged my ruling that their assignments were plagiarized.  One of the deans had hastily ruled that my assessment was incorrect.  The college feared a lawsuit.

I spent the next day collecting my evidences, explaining my findings, and building my case.  The day after that, I met my department chair face-to-face; it was not reassuring.

Then my computer crashed.  The software was well out-of-date and couldn’t support the newest Windows updates.  I was restricted to my finicky laptop.

Every system-builder’s favorite sight.

It was hell.  I was broken.  I might not be able to assess that semester as a whole, but I can tell you with virtually no doubt: that was the worst single week I can remember.  I was terrified that I’d be fired and blacklisted.  Neither my department chair nor the dean seemed willing to consider my evidence.  All they cared about was avoiding legal action.  I was terrified I’d lose all my files on my computer.  And I couldn’t play the last days of Lobotomy Corporation on my laptop.

I got through it, somehow.  The students all backed off after I presented my case.  I finally got my computer up and running, after several re-formats and multiple changes to the BIOS (which now prevent me from installing Windows 11, alas).  I finally submitted my grades.  The semester was over.

I remember the few days between submitting grades and leaving for my trip as cloudy and vague (probably sleep deprivation), but I remember that I somehow managed to beat the last three days of Lobotomy Corporation.  And in that final day, as the facility reversed itself and discharged all the accumulated energy I’d collected into the sky, I wept.  When Angela stopped the discharge, hoarding the remaining energy to herself, I was upset, but calm.  I understood her anger, her frustration.  She had suffered the most, after all.  Her betrayal was unfair, unjust—it short-sheeted the redemptive catharsis I’d hoped for—but it was appropriate.  You can’t just ignore suffering, even if your intentions are good.  Anger doesn’t just go away.  And facing horror for that long doesn’t allow you to leave unscathed.  The damage remains.  Dead people don’t come back.  Broken lives don’t magically knit back together.

The tree of light

It hurt to admit it, but I wasn’t done.  The semester had been awful, and I’d earned a reprieve, but not release.  There was still so much fighting to do yet.  I’d get my little vacation, but the fall semester was just around the corner.

But there was consolation in that.  Much as I wanted to just be DONE, it was good to know that I had overcome this chapter of my horror—faced it and beaten it—and that I was still standing, enough to face whatever new escalated challenge or horror awaited.

Assessment

In a casual conversation about our favorite video games, I mentioned to a friend that, despite many years of confidently saying that The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was my all-time favorite video game, I might now have to claim that Lobotomy Corporation and/or Library of Ruina had unseated it in my affections.

He said: “you can just say that.  It’s OK if it’s your new favorite.”

But I hesitate.

People often talk about their favorite video games in the kind of personal terms that I’ve presented Lobotomy Corporation here.  “Zelda got me through a difficult time in my childhood,” or “Dark Souls got me through a terrible breakup,” or “Mario was always there for me when my parents weren’t.”  And I’ve always tried to distance myself from that kind of personal criticism.  You can’t duplicate those experiences, and the recommendation you offer won’t necessarily apply to another person’s experience with the game.

To some degree, this whole essay is an attempt to examine the process by which this happens—by looking at how it happened to me.

The fact is: there’s a lot of jank in Lobotomy Corporation.  The music is almost all licensed inclusions—not specifically composed for the game.  And it shows.  Many of the tracks cut out for whole seconds between loops, and others seem unsuitable to the context.  Likewise, the monster design is frequently discordant, blended from a variety of animation styles and priorities.  There’s a “magical girl” straight out of a Sailor Moon knockoff, and the cute little “Punishment Bird”, and a round black abomination composed of corpses stitched together, and a tough-looking bounty hunter Red Riding Hood that looks like it fell out of a Clint Eastwood Western.

Please ignore Mei’s questionable fashion choices; she’s seriously one of my strongest employees.

But to me, that discordance is part of the whole experience.  You really don’t know what your next monster is going to be.  And the fact that the possibilities are cobbled together from a wide variety of myths, fairy tales, nightmares, legends, and genres drives home the idea that these “abnormalities” really represent a cross-section of the human psychological experience.  Likewise, the music—it misses its beat from time to time, but when it hits, it hits hard.  For every dull or unmemorable inclusion, there’s a positively haunting and memorable moment sharpened to a knife’s edge by the musical choice: whether it’s Binah ruminating about his mistakes to “Awake in Death”, or the old-timey jazz trumpet riff growing more and more distorted as Hod loses his grip on reality (“Theme—Retro Time ALT”), or the use of generic upbeat tracks like “Romantic Memories” to punctuate the horror with glimpses of hope and fond recollection of lost loves—the music may not always specifically capture what is happening, but each track was chosen with shocking, insightful care, and it shows.  A fan tracked down each of the tracks in the game on YouTube; I’ve listened to the whole 115-track list multiple times since beating the game.

I’ve been listening to it virtually non-stop during the writing and production of this post.

What I want to emphasize is this:

I can’t tell how good this game is.

I want to emphasize: it’s really good.  It’s a ridiculously creative mashup of genres that shouldn’t work together at all—but do, presumably by the sheer audacity of the creators, along with a perfect sense for how these discordant elements fit together.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if some people bounce right off its campy delivery, dysfunctional-oddball horror aesthetic, and quasi-deliberate jank.  In its most heartfelt, emotional moments, it often fails to stick the landing: the dialogue is too frequently wooden or imprecise (perhaps due to translation issues?); the emotional beats are buried under layers of improbable lore; the symbols are too vague.  Even the great character catharses and finale sometimes miss the mark.  What I’ve presented as a psycho-philosophical masterpiece may come off about as deep as an edgelord undergrad’s philosophy paper.

But it’s so damn heartfelt about it.  This is a work of art, bled out into computer code to jerk us around, cruelly test our patience and abilities, and cosmically torment us according to some arcane and esoteric formula that seems somehow older than myth.  It is at times a grunge ballad, a Lovecraftian nightmare, a bureaucracy-simulator, a capitalist allegory, an unhinged emotional deconstruction, an undertaker’s cackle, a cyberpunk horror epic.  It’s Cowboy Bebop and Persona 4 and Cabin in the Woods and The Stanley Parable and SimTower and The Matrix: Revolutions all rolled into one Katamari-ball that smooshes you over and over again as you play.

And by the time I was done, its off-kilter aesthetic, story, and gameplay had somehow woven itself together with the fabric of my own mind.  This game—this play-through—is as much a part of me as childhood memories of hiding under the covers from monsters and the trauma of fighting for my integrity in the last weeks of May 2021.

And I’m not really sure that’s healthy.

Damage

I told you not to touch…

Video gaming as a coping mechanism is not a new phenomenon.  Nor is video game addiction.  And I suspect I walked both of those lines in my play-through of Lobotomy Corporation.  It was, in point of fact, dangerous.  Dangerous to invest so much of myself (my time, my energy) into a video game I didn’t understand or know.  Dangerous to let it infiltrate my way of thinking.  Dangerous to let my emotional and mental well being ride the peaks and valleys of its frequently-cruel difficulty curve.

And the trouble with trauma, with coping mechanisms, and with getting this close to a work of art, is that it is frequently impossible to say how much good and how much evil that relationship offers.  Because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter: it’s part of me now.  The same way that we, in hindsight, say: “I’m glad that happened, because it made me who I am today.”  That’s always a fallacious assertion: it assumes that we are the best version of ourselves, and ignores the unknowable consequences of the alternatives we rejected.  In some way it’s a necessary dodge—we have to interpret our lives and experiences according to our present perspective or face the very real possibility that we’ve become something bad or wrong, and that we can’t appreciate that badness or wrongness.  Evil people don’t believe they are evil; they believe that their actions were justified when they weren’t.  That’s what makes them evil. If we have become evil, we won’t be able to tell.

Likewise, when you look back at a choice (like investing one-hundred-and-fifty hours into a video game during a particularly stressful time of life) and find that this choice is one of the major constitutive factors of who you are—looking back at that choice, it’s impossible to say whether you are better or worse for it.  I got through 2021 with this game—a game about horror, psychological breakdown, and hope in a hopeless world.  The worldview I now hold is informed by the game’s perspective.  On the one hand, I’m inclined to tell you that this game was beautiful, transcendent, and healing.  That it is an overlooked revelation. 

But 2021 hurt me, bad.  I came away changed by my experiences: perhaps strengthened, perhaps damaged.  And it’s very hard to say how much of that damage was mitigated by my artistic encounter with Lobotomy Corporation, and how much of that damage was exacerbated by that same artistic encounter.

This is not necessarily a new revelation to us millennials, either.  The generational war perpetually simmering on social media often assumes that millennials deify their own trauma, play up their damage and suffering to win sympathy and avoid contending with their own failures.  According to our elders, we are not disenfranchised by social forces outside our control and economic disadvantage: we are disenfranchised because we haven’t earned the house, nice car, or family the way our parents and grandparents did.  We are lazy, and justify our laziness with pseudo-intellectual excuses.

We millennials, in turn, respond with painstaking explanations of our circumstances, which read to us as obvious truths of our world, and read to our elders as more pseudo-intellectual excuses.  We remain caught in this push-pull of self-validation, endlessly scrutinizing ourselves to try and determine where the lie is.  Are we in fact lazy?  Did our parents work harder than we do?  Or are the prevailing economic winds really against us: an insurmountable disadvantage downplayed by older generations who never had to contend with these problems, but who assume they are overstated?

2013? Aw, bless. We’ve destroyed so much since then.

So, like most millennials, lacking the sports car and the house and the family and the savings account and the retirement plan, I cope.  I express my railing frustration with the world by playing video games.  But the cope is, from the elder generation’s perspective, precisely the symptom of that afore-mentioned laziness and weakness.  Where millennials argue that the escapism of video games and movies and TV is a necessary method for dealing with their bad circumstances, our elders argue that our bad circumstances are the consequence of the amount of time we spend escaping them.  And millennials aren’t unaware of this problem.  It just deepens the cycle.  During the pandemic, I saw many cases of people—stressed, depressed, and unemployed—who would spend an entire day binging some stupid show on Netflix, admit that they’d wasted their time, and be so disheartened by the experience that they’d spend the whole next day binging as well.  We hated ourselves for not being able to do more; and that hate incapacitated us from doing more.

I don’t have a solution to this: either in the sense of “how do you break that cycle” or to the question: “was it justified?”  But that’s probably why validation has become such an important part of millennial life.  Without that validation, the days spent crashed on the couch were wasted: we weren’t healing, we were just bad people.  Only if we suffered enough to warrant that escape—only then does the escape become meaningful.

For me, I find validation not by appealing to other millennials (who I distrust, for the same self-justifying bias as I distrust myself), but by looking to art to reflect what I feel.  I see my alienation from the world in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and the cosmic absurdity of institutional power in Heller’s Catch-22.  I recognize my own frustrated artistic aspirations in DFW’s Infinite Jest, my love of nature in Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, my grief for lost beauty in Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

And I very much found validation for my exhaustion-from-horror in Lobotomy Corporation.  Not because it excused my feelings, hand-waving it away with a gentle, loving nod (“It’s OK.  You did the best you could.”), but because it relentlessly beat the ever-living crap out of me.  Because it knocked me flat on my back and kicked me again: refusing to let me pause or quit until every last employee had been killed by the game’s abnormality-surrogate for God.  Because it slapped me around, mercilessly, for hours, ramping up the challenge each time I pleaded for mercy.

Literally the message that comes up if you try to quit the game mid-apocalypse.

And then—only then—did it nod.  It picked me up and said, quietly, “It was worth it.  You did it.”  And we quietly watched the end together, both broken and bruised by our conflict.

Somehow, that’s the fantasy I wanted at that exact moment.  I didn’t want some patronizing admission that things were hard; I wanted someone to show me that they understood just how hard things were, and still conclude that it was worth fighting.

Maybe wanting that is just indicative of how damaged I am.  (Isn’t there something akin to abuse in the relationship I describe?)

Maybe wanting that just shows how lazy I am.  (Rather than face real problems, I wanted the game to imagine fake problems real enough for me to be fooled into thinking I’d accomplished something when I overcame them.)

Maybe wanting that shows weakness, or vice, or fear.

But I wanted it, and Lobotomy Corporation provided it.  A full, comprehensive look at the horror of the universe that did not trivialize how awful that horror can be, and that did not stumble in its justification for why fighting is still worthwhile.

There is a profundity to Lobotomy Corporation’s outlook that I’ve never seen in a video game before or since (with the exception of Library of Ruina).  A profundity that well surpasses the so-called maturity of games that revel in violence or nihilism or superficial horror imagery.  And it used its medium not just to express that horror and hope, but to draw the player into experiencing that horror, and that hope, personally—something no other medium could hope to accomplish, because no other medium expects such work from its audience.  No other medium can be so cruel, so demanding, and (as a consequence) so rewarding.

Hope

Pictured: Me and my friends, five minutes after explaining that I don’t have venmo

There’s this famous parable in the gospel of Matthew.  Jesus is describing the “Kingdom of Heaven” to his followers in a series of parables—many of which remain pretty obscure.  But he tells this story of the “talents”—Greek coins—by way of explaining the expectations that God has toward human beings.

He says that there’s this Lord, who is going on a long journey, so he gives his property to his servants for safekeeping while he is gone.  He gives one servant five talents, another two, and a third servant receives only one.  He goes away for a while, then comes back and asks what happened to the money he gave them.

The first servant invested the five talents he received and made five more, so the Lord takes the money and tells him (in King James English):

“Well done, thou good and faithful servant.  Thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter into the glory of the Lord.”

The second servant also doubled his money, and receives the same blessing.  But the third servant had apparently buried the one talent he had in the ground for safekeeping, and could only return that one.  So the Lord condemns him, takes the talent and gives it to the first servant, and fires the lazy servant on the spot:

“And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

i.e., the really fun parts of your art history class

This parable is one of the all-time most important parables in Christian teaching and theology.  So much so that the Greek word for money, “talent,” has become the English word for a special skill or ability (as in “talent show”) after years of priests teaching this allegorical interpretation of the parable.  We, as Christians, are expected to “invest” our “talents”—use the gifts given to us by God—to produce more fruit (read: do good and spread the word of God).  The reward for doing this is great (“I will make thee ruler over many things: enter into the glory of the Lord”), but the punishment for failure is terrible (“There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”)

But in modern Christian circles I find that the formula: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” has become a kind of shorthand in its own right, signifying the most basic desire of every Christian: to please God and receive that frank and simple admission of praise.  Never mind the promise of more rewards: God nodding to you and saying you did a good job will be reward enough.  Because he’s God, the only one who can say, for certain, what the moral worth of every one of your actions turns out to be.  He is the only one who can offer true validation—validation totally separate from the biases and corruption of subjective attitudes.  Like the Egyptian god weighing a soul against a feather, this standard is absolute, true, and perfectly objective.

I imagine that most of my Christian friends would look askance at me for this: connecting this ultimate expression of true, objective validation, straight from the scriptures—to pagan understandings of death and a Korean video game.  Many would question my engagement with horror media at all.

But to me, Lobotomy Corporation just expresses the other side of this great (and terrible) Christian truth.  The parable does not dwell the actual difficulty of investing talents wisely.  What if the servant had turned up and said: “I thought I made a good investment, but it turned out that I lost all five of the talents.”  Would the Lord have punished him—maybe even worse than the servant who didn’t invest at all?  Or would his intentions have been recognized, even if the outcome did not match?  Is God more interested in results, or in effort?  Lobotomy Corporation doesn’t necessarily answer these questions, but it is certainly willing to face them.  The cost to win, both of in-game lives and out-of-game player effort, is staggering.  “Is it worth it?” is the constant question the player must face, both in-universe (is our goal worth this sacrifice?) and in reality (is it worth continuing the game?), and, though the ending is cathartic, the question remains unanswered.

But that, to me, is a matter of hope.

No. Just no.

Hope is proceeding through horror in the face of overwhelming adversity, because the pittance you produce will be worth the struggle.  Hope is ignoring uncertainties, doubts, and equivocations in the conviction that the end goal is worthwhile, even if the cost is high.

I don’t know how much of my work redounds to the Glory of God—or if any of it does.  The casual Christian, trained by rote, might question my video game habit.  “What good does it do?” she might reasonably ask.  “How could the sinners who made this game possess truth?”

To which I might respond: “Good question.  But if their game echoes the gospel, how can it be sinful?”

The casual Christian might well ask: “How are all your essays, your novels, your lectures, and your classes redounding to the Glory of God?  How do you expect all this talk about worldly things—literature, pagan mythology, secular philosophy, video game criticism—to ultimately serve God’s Kingdom?”

And I, as always, would reply: “If I teach others to seek truth, and God is Truth, then aren’t I teaching them to seek God?”

“Then why not just tell them to seek God?”

“Because most of them have been trained not to.  They have to find Him for themselves.  You can’t just talk people into being Christians.  They have to experience the truth of Christianity: the horror and dread of sin, the despair of secular solutions to evil, the pain and frustration of living in a broken world, and the persistent grace of the gospel in spite of all that.  According to the justly-famous parable, we sow seed.  God provides the growth.”

Pictured: Famously civilized Christian debating techniques

You can’t teach hope, in short.  You can’t pay lip-service to it.  You can’t exchange platitudes about it.  And you can’t just feel it like you feel happy or sad, depending on the weather.  Hope is the little engine that keeps driving you forward when you’re dead on your feet and there is no conceivable reason to keep going.  Hope is the divine backup generator that kicks in when your last battery is drained.  And you charge it by confirming the reality of goodness without downplaying the reality of adversity.  Cheap victories don’t encourage hope—at least not for me.  And much as many Christians look to the Bible to recharge hope, I find that the promises of love and grace, profound as they are, get counterbalanced a bit by the distance between my plight and that of the Biblical writers.  Reassuring as it is to hear Jesus say that he has “overcome the world,” or to re-read that promise: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” life in the 2020s is not so simple as just investing one’s talents at the local money-changer’s, and magically doubling them.  I distrust these promises unless they are coupled with the Biblical stories of suffering and toil that accompany them.

Because that talent-investment requires work.  Day in and day out, with very little promise of return.  Sometimes you pour your heart into a class and all you get out of it is plagiarism and lawsuits.  Sometimes you insist on telling your differently-minded relatives the truth, only to realize that no proof clear enough will ever exist to demonstrate your point to them.  And on those days I find myself reading the laments of Jeremiah and Job, rather than the promises of Philippians and Thessalonians.  I find myself drawn to the nuanced, robust horror of Lobotomy Corporation because it confirms the reality of sin, confirms the horror of this broken, ugly world, and confirms that some hard work yields unimaginable reward, not as due or pay, but because it is good and worthwhile to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven for its own sake, according to a cosmic calculus no science can untangle.  You will always work without a safety net, without guarantees, and without even knowing what, necessarily, you are working toward—but out of some insane hope that the architect of the universe wouldn’t equip you with a passionate drive to do these things (write, read, play video games, manage nightmare monsters) unless there was some purpose to it.  You trust that, even when you are unable to see it (especially when you are unable to see it), the universe, despite all the evidence to the contrary (horror, sin, cruelty, etc.), makes sense according to some superhuman rationality and plan, dimly seen.

And you go on hoping.

This is the truth Tolkien taught in The Lord of the Rings.  This is the truth taught by the original Star Wars.  It is the truth you learn playing Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.

Keep going.  Keep hoping.

Many have been wrong—have followed that conviction of rightness into destruction and cruelty and dogmatism—but that’s the danger of all convictions, all faith.  The best you can do is check yourself, listen occasionally to the deep corners of your soul where you aspire to a clear, unadulterated perspective, and question whether your convictions are rooted in selflessness or selfishness (a fine distinction, always).  But there’s no use in obsessing.  Course-correct if things seem amiss, but don’t stop.  Eventually, you have to decide, and keep doing.

Keep hoping.

That Would’ve Been a Great Place to End the Essay.  Which is Exactly Why We Aren’t Going to Do That

But I said I was going to avoid pat morals here.  In part because I’m trying to be honest, and in part because that’s NOT actually how the game ends.

The last week of the game you are introduced to a mysterious character in a pinstripe suit carrying a cane.  By the game’s pattern, this would be “Keter”—the last of the Sephirah from the Jewish Kabbalah (or the first, since, again, LC reverses the order of the sephirah for reasons about to become clear).  On day 46 he introduces himself, but without a name.  On day 47 he names himself Abel, and suggests that he is…you.  ‘A’.  The Founder of Lobotomy Corporation.  On day 48 the suit is gone, and now he names himself “Abram”, explaining that Carmen, your co-founder, the heart and soul of Lobotomy Corporation, and possibly your romantic partner—killed herself to keep the facility running, and her resurrected, mechanized identity now bridges the psychological gap between reality and the well-spring of nightmares lying beneath the facility, in the person of the primary AI running the facility, Angela.  On day 49, ‘A’ is for Adam, a quasi-angelic figure who insists that you continue the facility’s current objective, providing power to the unknown city above by continuously sacrificing souls within.  But, with the help of the sephirah you’ve helped through meltdown, you parry his arguments and proceed—into the unknown future (assuming you’ve helped them; otherwise, the game ends unsatisfyingly).

Day 50: ‘A’ has no name. He wears a simple black suit and white lab coat.  He is young, idealistic—as you were, once, presumably.  Together you will break the cycle: the cycles of sin that have damned you to this awful place; the cycles of guilt (for all you’ve done to others, especially Carmen); the cycles of pain, and horror.  It’s time, finally, to move on.  Past the mistakes of your past, into the future.

As you work with the abnormalities, the facility reverses.  With each Qliphoth counter, it rotates on your screen, until Malkuth is on the bottom and Keter on the top (as it should be).  Then all the energy you’ve claimed is discharged: a beam of light that rises into the sky, presumably empowering the people of the city above so that they can face their own monsters, strong enough now to throw off the yoke of the head and wings (the corporations, like Lobotomy Corporation, which rule lives by making such horrific moral sacrifices).

But Angela interrupts the process, cuts off the beam of light prematurely: it’s her time now.  She has chosen to keep the energy for herself, for her own projects.  She’s served the facility for untold millennia (and you didn’t redeem her like the other sephirah).  She decides enough is enough.  She will harness this power for herself; she’s earned it.

There is still work to be done.  The damage of the past cannot be ignored so easily.  Hope requires moving forward, without losing oneself in either one’s regrets or one’s doubts—but hope is not enough to actually fix things.

Congratulations: this is the good ending.  Boot up the game again and the menu screen—once the stylized image of the corporation running under the ominous city streets—now shows a crater, covered in fog and rubble.  It’s the same image of the beam of light rising out of the ground, but now it is quiet, lonely, dark, and empty.  It’s not encouraging.  Not hopeful.  Not validating.

It’ll take a whole sequel to make the next step and convince Angela to join your crusade.

No Validation; No Moral

In my first essay, I talked about how I was upset about not being able to play difficult games anymore.  I was wrong.  I got through Lobotomy Corporation, despite its difficulty.  In some sense, I was being lazy.  Perhaps in another sense, I was right, and playing Lobotomy Corporation overextended my limited fund of energy and peace of mind, making the semester worse than it had to be.

In both these essays I talked about how Lobotomy Corporation is about horror becoming routine, and the hope that gets you through.  That’s true enough, I suppose.  But hope is always deferred in these games.  You hope that things will get easier after you beat this one quest, this one trial, this one meltdown—but you are wrong.  It always gets harder.  And you keep hoping, and fighting, and that hope is never really rewarded.  You’ll get to the end of the game, but the ending isn’t happy.  There’s just another game afterward.  More work to do.

In this essay I talked about how Lobotomy Corporation validated my sense of horror, agreeing that the world was often terrible, painful, and cruel.  I said that it finally nodded, and agreed with me.  And that, too, isn’t really all that true.  The world of Lobotomy Corporation and Library of Ruina IS terrible, painful, and cruel, but mapping my experience onto it is false.  I chose this game as my mirror.  I chose to see my (much less horrible) situation reflected in its horrors.  I validated myself, in short.  But even if Lobotomy Corporation encouraged that choice on my part, the message is not a comforting one.

“Wow, that must suck,” Lobotomy Corporation said.  “Now pick yourself up.  We’ve got a lot more work to do.”

In 2021, I was in terrible pain.  Some of that pain I could attribute to forces outside my control: the pandemic, political upheaval, stress at my job.  Some of that pain was self-inflicted (battering my head against a terribly difficult game for six months).  Some of that pain lay in the gray areas between these two: dissatisfaction with my accomplishments, regrets, unfulfilled desires.  And the trouble with all this pain is that it was often difficult to tell where my culpability began and ended.  It wasn’t my fault that people were refusing to get the vaccine—but perhaps I could have been a better diplomat to the people in my life.  It wasn’t my fault that my job pays me very little, despite the effort I put into my work—but I could do more (spend less time playing video games), and I could work harder at getting a different job, or applying to Ph.D programs, or any number of other things to advance my career.

We are all in this space.  We all could do more.  And we all can’t do enough.  Our unhappiness is, nearly always, partially our own darn fault, and partially the result of factors outside our control.  We all are privileged, and we are all lacking certain privileges.

For some of us, we see the things we’ve failed to do, and we spiral.  We fall into a hole of doubt and self-loathing so deep that we can’t see the way out.  We succumb to the horror.

For some of us, we blame our failures entirely on outside forces, seeking perpetual validation in order to keep from seeing our own faults.  We succumb to ignorance.

But here’s the thing.  We cannot, ever justify ourselves.  It’s not possible.  Self-validation is a myth.  So is external validation.  No amount of assurance will ever silence the wretched little voice that lives in the back of your head.  Trying to navigate the moral calculus necessary to determine that all-important question: “Am I a good person?” is frankly impossible.  We don’t have the tools, the objectivity, the certainty, or the context necessary to figure out whether we have done enough or not.  It’s useless to try and assess your moral worth.

But that’s not what morality is about.

To boil it down to one of Aristotle’s characteristically-simple observations: we all want to seem moral; we don’t all necessarily want to be moral.

Better to seem Great than be Great.

Even if you do want to be moral, one of the few metrics by which we can judge ourselves is (surprise!) how moral do other people think we are (i.e., how moral do we seem), which brings us right back to seeming moral again.  Aristotle may not have had “seeming moral to ourselves” in mind when he made his observation, but, if anything, the axiom applies double.  We don’t care how good we actually are; we just care about believing we are good.

But if you want to actually be good, it matters more that good is done than that you do it.  Being a good person is utterly secondary to doing good.

In 2021, I was in terrible pain.  I want to say that pain was justified—I want to prove to you through storytelling and explanation and characterization—but it’s not possible or necessary.  It’s pointless, even.  The best I can hope for is your pity.  Or maybe some admiration, if I’m able to convince you how brave I was when I overcame this adversity, etc., etc.  None of that matters. None of that will take away the pain I felt, or make me feel better now.

In 2021, I coped with my pain by playing a video game that reminded me just how little my pain actually meant.  I coped with my pain by inflicting more pain on myself.  I coped with my pain by imagining that my pain could be reflected in a video game about pain and horror and suffering.  I coped with my pain by writing essays: one in January, one now (i.e., over the last year); in which I tried to make sense out of that pain by explaining, rationalizing, justifying, qualifying, questioning, and doubting the conclusions I reached.  It remains unclear how much of that was helpful; how much was harmful.  It remains unknown whether I helped anyone deal with their own pain and doubt.  It remains uncertain whether or not any of that was, unqualifiedly, good.  It always will.  I did these things because they seemed right to do at the time.  Only God can say how much that was true.  All I can do is hope that it is true. None of that matters, either – not now that they are over and done, anyway.

The real question is: “What now?”  What do I do with this experience?  How do I turn it into self-understanding?  How can I use what has happened to benefit others?

But that, too, is getting ahead of ourselves.  Lobotomy Corporation is fundamentally about being moral: shutting up and moving past our trauma, guilt, doubt, anger, and pain—and just doing what needs to be done.  It’s about accepting ourselves, as-is, and focusing instead on the future.  Face the Fear; Build the Future.  It won’t fix everything; but facing the fear is the first, necessary step – the prerequisite to being able to do anything good for the future.

If we want to talk about actually fixing ourselves, we have to talk about Library of Ruina.

Next time…

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