After nine years, solo developer Austin Jorgensen revisited his work on horror RPG classics LISA the Painful and LISA the Joyful to develop a new LISA: Definitive Edition. The experience let him reflect on his earlier work and what message he was trying to deliver, as well as update the title from RPG Maker to Unity.
The experience invited introspection for a developer who wasn’t used to looking back at past projects and helped him discover what more there was to say in his seminal horror title. And thanks in part to the delays caused by COVID-19, he was able to expand LISA: Definitive Edition in ways that enhance the original and help illuminate the message he set out with nearly a decade ago. Jorgensen sat down with Game Rant for an interview ahead of LISA: Definitive Edition’s release. The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What inspired the original LISA?
A: That is a hard question to answer. I mean, I could say there are some primary inspirations, but when you actually sit there and play it, it’s just littered with a lot. Earthbound would be the biggest one, probably from an aesthetic standpoint, and it’s my favorite game in the sense that like it, to me, it kind of defied norms in a lot of ways. Maybe a core element of that being the biggest inspiration for LISA is just its subversive nature really sucked me into talking about Earthbound. So that was huge. I was not afraid to wear that element on the game’s sleeve.
I’d say there are things like The Last of Us being a surprisingly big inspiration, moreso seeing a game that was pretty bold in being cinematic with a little bit of real humanity, realism, and being very successful at it. So that was very inspirational and encouraging. I mean, originally, it was going to be the main character Brad with his son, and those were going to be the core like the key dynamics. And then when The Last of Us came out, I changed it based on that. So that was definitely an inspiration.
And gosh, I don’t know, I mean, pro wrestling is a huge one. Zelda. Dark Souls. Lots of things. That’s just talking about games. But I can stop there because I could probably go on and on.
Q: I’m really interested because some of the things you cited are very different, like pro wrestling, Earthbound, and The Last of Us; what was balancing those influences like?
A: I wouldn’t use the word balance. It’s more like chaos. But if we were to use the word balance, it’s really just the things I’m into or the things that leave an impression on me. In that sense, nothing’s off-limits. The only limit is just like what I’m into, I suppose, or… it’s more than just that. It’s maybe what really leaves an impression on me or is something that I liked enough or I cared about enough to want to reflect it back. It’s not so much about ownership or whatever. It’s more about… This is cool. I want more people to be into this, you know, or just to at least see it to be aware of it. These things, these elements.
Q: What do you think makes LISA stand out among other atmospheric horror games?
A: I think it’s kind of a genre hybrid. I don’t just mean video game genres. Like okay, it’s pretty much an RPG, a sense of horror, of comedy, things like this are in there. So in that sense, it stands out a little bit that it’s very, very dark, very miserable at times, but it also wears a lot of different hats. It’s not always that sad. It’s not always a haunted mansion with dilapidated paint. You know what I mean? Like, there are cheery elements.
Not to divulge too much, but it’s trying to give a different perspective. You still lean into its horror elements, but illuminate the fact that there is a humanity here beyond just trying to upset people and creep people out. It’s so much more about attempting to be in service of, I’ll just use the word humanity for this.
Q: Could you elaborate more on what you mean by humanity?
Austin: I mean, it’s maybe a little cheesy to say there’s a message here, but I value that, and I value when media tries to have a message. During this process, I’ve learned what I’m really doing here. I’m sure a lot of people have their own definition of a game developer, but it kind of has helped me, almost forced me to figure out what I am doing as a game developer and how I see that. A big part of that is really trying to say something. Film does this all the time. Music does this all the time. Video games are maybe emerging with some of these concepts.
We’re used to games being something you play like a toy, and not so much something you consume and really take seriously. But that’s where Last of Us, like I said earlier, is a great inspiration because things like that are breaking the mold. And now you have the TV show, which is doing that even more. So people are finding out like, “What this is a video game story. Like, that’s crazy!” Anyway, I’m kind of going on a little bit of a tangent here.
A preacher is someone or a coach is someone who can get in your face and tell you exactly what they think, and that’s their job. But for me being a game developer, I’m kind of also flirting with being an artist a little bit, at least that’s what I like to think. In doing that, I think when trying to deliver a message, you can’t just be blunt. You have to hide it behind symbolism and let people discover it. Trying to get back on topic, I just really am attracted to the idea that the surface of LISA might appear as one thing, but I love the idea of people trying to dig into the game and realizing that there’s a heart at the core.
Hopefully, it is meaningful for people because that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s hard to talk about it without sounding too cheesy and fluffy, you know, because of the game. I don’t want to be deceptive. The game doesn’t really feel like that all the time. You really got to work for it.
Q: The game has been out in the world for, I think, nine years now. Looking back from the 2023 perspective, what do you think of your work?
A: In general, just like kind of a baseline, I’m the type of person that does not enjoy wallowing in reflection too much, not just for games. I mean, that goes for any type of creativity, you know? Maybe where some people take pride in their work, I sometimes flinch a little bit, but that’s just the baseline, like my own personality, regardless of the video game work. I’d say so much of what I did was okay.
When I look back, I really look at it as if I was possessed at the time. A lot of people ask me, where’d this come from? Why did you do this? What’s going on? A game like To the Moon had just come out, which is an RPG Maker game. And I’m like, “Oh, my God, like, you can sell RPG Maker games? That’s insane!” And then I made one–it was a free game. And then that passed, maybe two years go by, and I look back and it’s like, “Wow, people actually, like, are paying attention to this. Okay, maybe I’ll try to sell an RPG Maker game.”
It’s a humble beginning, maybe there wasn’t any sort of grand idea. I would have rather made, at least my intention was to make, LISA like a sidescrolling River City Ransom-style beat ‘em up. That was the goal, but I was limited in my tools and my abilities at the time. So really, it was kind of a humble beginning, ignorance, but I was a horse with the blinders on and reflecting back on it. I could maybe make assumptions about things I was doing or what I was feeling. But that’s also one of those things where I can’t entirely… it’s like, not even I was fully paying attention.
Q: Looking back on the initial release, how do you feel?
A: Yeah, yeah, there you go. How do I feel? That’s more interesting. I mean, really, as I said, I flinch sometimes. But you know, a lot of it also is reflecting back on how people received it. Because my intention and what I meant is one thing, and then how people receive it, maybe that’s not always connecting. So it’s very nice to have this opportunity to try to illuminate different perspectives or certain perspectives without outright changing anything. So that’s interesting.
But yeah, I feel it’s been helpful for my own understanding because the game was not necessarily a diary, but in a lot of ways, there was a certain amount of unfiltered newness and naïveness and oblivion. You know, I just really thought like, who knows? Maybe like, if 2,000 people buy this game, that is so cool. That was my goal. In the moment, it was very simple-minded, small-minded.
Q: What was the reception for the original release like? Did you meet that 2,000 goal and how quickly?
A: There’s LISA the First, which was the very first game I made for free. That’s a type of thing where I was just randomly on the internet, and I saw it kind of regurgitated back to me? I’m just scrolling through some website, and it’s like, “Hey, look at this game. LISA the First!” It’s like, whoa, that’s crazy. Someone inadvertently reminded me of the game I had put out there. So that kind of sparked the whole suit to do LISA the Painful and then after that, LISA the Joyful.
I sometimes think why I stumble on this question is I generally try to refrain, you know what I mean? I don’t spend too much time engaging. I’ve read reviews and I’ve read people’s comments and things, but for the most part, I keep my head down and just keep kind of going about my own work and stuff. Future, repeat that again. I got really hung up on that aspect of it.
It did take me by surprise. Absolutely. Yeah. I can’t say that was the intention. I’m glad. I’m very glad it’s well received. I’m grateful. Absolutely, but it’s absolutely an accidental side effect. I strive to tell a good story. But I don’t know, I got lucky.
Q: With the Definitive Edition, what sets this new release apart from what came out nine years ago?
A: Well, it’s essentially the same game. I have to be careful what I say just because, you know, I don’t want to spoil too much, but we could talk about a lot of different things. I mean, there’s some stuff that’s been in the kind of upfront trailers and things; new campfire conversations to kind of flesh out interactions with party members.
I’d say the thing I’m most excited about–it’s the same game, but there is a whole new layer, there’s a whole wrapper around it. The intention is that people can look at it in a different way. It invites people to see the same game and the same characters, but hopefully with new perspectives. Maybe they can form opinions that are guided by unreliable narrators, maybe as a way to put it. So for me, that’s really fun. I’m very much excited about that. But there’s really a lot of stuff that’s just quality of life changes. New music, new interactions, just a lot. But I’m very much excited about… I’m trying to be vague, but you can almost call it a DLC. However, It’s a DLC that’s not just something that’s tacked on the side. It’s like it seeps through all the parts of the existing game for both LISA the Painful and LISA the Joyful.
Q: What makes 2023 the time for this Definitive Edition?
A: Um, COVID delays?
There are a lot of factors, we maybe would have hoped to have got this project out there sooner. But you know, at the same time, these types of delays have been an inadvertent thing to allow us the opportunity to inject a lot of new stuff that is giving a lot more value than just what was initially planned. COVID actually gave us a lot of space and a lot of opportunities to add new things, which is really amazing. At first, with COVID and everything, I was a little worried about things, but it’s really turned into an awesome opportunity to kind of crack the story back open.
It’s like I laid that egg and that bird has flown. I’ve moved on. COVID delays have given me a chance to go find it again. And at first, I was shy, but now it’s really turned into an excellent opportunity to elaborate on this very convoluted story.
Q: Ah, speaking of cracking the story back open, has this process inspired you to potentially add another chapter to the saga, something like LISA the Powerful?
A: The way I look at it is I already told the story. You know, I kind of gassed myself out, I used up all the LISA fuel at that time. I didn’t want to approach it like, “Well, this is successful, this is way more successful than I imagined. This could easily turn into an opportunity to franchise make money, blah, blah, blah.” But for me, it felt disingenuous. What do I do? I don’t know what to say, I’m done. You know what I mean? Like, I’m done. That’s how I felt.
And then through this process of doing the remake, it’s actually cracked me open a little bit. I’d say that there was something left in the tank, but that was really what pushed me into this Definitive Edition. My point is, talking about the real heart, the meaningful content, or I should say the content that’s meaningful to me, I put the last ounces of that into this. It’s become very exciting. The game’s coming out pretty soon, but even now, it’s at a point where some very crucial important content to me is getting put into the game.
I think I’m open to some types of additions, but this Definitive Edition is LISA the Powerful or whatever is going on here. It’s not like it’s a whole brand-new game, but I hope that at least it’s meaningful. I tried to squeeze out every last little bit, and it’s here.
Q: From the perspective of a developer, what is going back to such an old project, relatively speaking, and revitalizing it? Breaking the story back open?
A: I could approach that in a lot of ways. I mean, from a development standpoint, it’s become an interesting balance. We’re using Unity. I think there’s an RPG Maker tool out there using Unity. It’s maybe a lot easier to just make an RPG Maker game today. But the Serenity Forge team built the engine we’re using from the ground up from scratch. That’s another reason why the process took so long. It took a lot. And then it kind of creates this interesting space of well, okay, this is Unity now, how much of the new content is using things that RPG Maker can even do?
And then there’s this balance of… Well, LISA, because it’s an RPG Maker game, its pixel art is very simplistic, and the game is, from a gameplay standpoint, a relatively simple game. Maybe the more difficult part is finding that balance and not going overboard. You know, the game looks simple, and that’s part of it and retaining that, while also trying to open the door for interesting new things that might surprise players. There are these kinds of effects, things that RPG Maker just couldn’t do. That’s a cool thing, but also it’s been a balance, trying to retain the original soul and all that.
Maybe for the emotional side of it, I’d say that’s the part that took the longest for me to kind of warm up to. Serenity Forge had a lot of great ideas for little additions, and then it put me in a position where I kind of had to go back to the drawing board and figure out things like how this character feel about certain things, what is going on here. And once I did eventually warm up to it, it was like the switch got turned back on. So it became exciting to try to just dig back into the characters and try to represent them better after having the chance to reflect on them.
I don’t want to just say we represent them better. A huge aspect is, while it’s not so much changing any of the canon, I do want to give new perspectives and illuminate how honest some of these characters are in their own reflections on things, whether they have a choice or not. That’s kind of a mouthful, but it’s fun for me.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Well, I put it out there in the open, this idea of Ninja Tears coming out. I have to fully admit that has been completely put on the backburner, more or less. I’d say that indefinitely delayed for who knows when just because LISA took so much of my attention, much more than I was expecting.
So there’s a game called Ninja Tears, I still would like to touch on that. Beyond that, I don’t know. I mean, I think there are so many opportunities. I’m open. I don’t want to sound too committed to anything, but I’m also very open to lots of things.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?
A: Sami Zayn should have won the WWE Championship? No.
We’ve talked about a lot of things. Like, why now? As I said, COVID was a big issue, but I also had removed myself from the game a little bit and just moved on and was interested in working on new projects. I just turned my back on that. I want to look towards the sunset, you know, not just because I was excited about future games. I mean, I was very motivated to move forward. Yeah, so, it was nice.
Also want to shout out Marina Hova. She kind of spearheaded the meeting with Serenity Forge, which spawned this whole thing. So I’d say you have Serenity Forge and Marina to thank for waking me up from my hibernation and getting me back to this project because I was ready to move on to other projects. Now I get to, that’s fun. But I also have been blessed, this has been such an opportunity that I wasn’t expecting to get to go back and try to bring out more of the possibilities of what could be there.
This is even more random, but it was just when I was going into the meeting, I just thought about the important stuff to me. One huge part of the game that’s easy to get lost is this concept of personhood, and lost or damaged personhood, and using the new content to reflect on that concept. How people’s purposes can be tied in that can push you to redemption, you know what I mean? Like it could make or break you and it’s something that was always there in the games, but looking back, I think I can amplify it even more now that I kind of have a whole new perspective and outlook on things. It’s very easy to get lost in so much of the wackiness, silliness, violence, and so on.
It’s hard for me to talk about some of that stuff because it also teeters into… I’m not trying to spoil it. And also, it’s what I mentioned earlier–I’m not a preacher, I’m not a motivational speaker, I can’t just point my finger in your face and tell you to feel this, believe this, because that’s not right. I think there should be a certain amount of mystery to the art and discoverability, and how that makes it more meaningful to people. But full disclosure: the game involves suicide imagery and suicide in general is a huge theme of the game. It’s very easy to get lost in that and what may be the darker stuff. You might have to work a little too hard to find the light element of that. Even with the new content, there is a certain amount of work to get to the heart with the new content.
But it is very important to me to reflect on suicide, and not just suicide. I mean, that’s the extreme. That’s like the end of the spectrum, mental health, self-worth, self-image, value, all of it, you know, it’s more or less under this umbrella. That’s why I tried to use the word personhood. I do think something about having your own identity, personhood, and purpose, this thing is very important. And using the game, I think it can lead to darker topics, but it can also lead to things like self-reflection and can be very fulfilling. I don’t know how upfront to be about this in any sort of writing, but it is important to me to reflect this stuff back in a positive way.
I want to be totally open. That’s the thing. I want to tell you exactly what happens, but I am trying to leave a little bit of that there, the mystery there and stuff. If discovering this really is important to a single individual, if it means something to like one player, they took all the time to dig and dig and dig and figure out what’s going on with this new content and fit. And if they do that, it’s my hope that we’ve done some content that is rewarding and fulfilling in this sense, because it’s the light at the end of the tunnel, because there is so much.
There are a lot of themes of suicide and generational trauma, and this sort of thing. That’s always been there, that’s existed. Hopefully, this new content is an opportunity to make a definitive statement on it without just leaving it as open-ended as the current game does. Maybe that’s the best way.
I kind of take pride in that if there is any element to take pride in. For me, it would be okay to speak about this new content, taking pride in this new content. I really am proud and hopeful that it can be meaningful to someone and help somebody out. That’s the biggest hope, above all else. Have fun? Sure, that’s great. But I really hope that it can reach someone if there is someone that is in need of some type of… guidance is such a bad word that postures me like I’m like a know-it-all or something, but just like a helping hand or like in affirmation. There are tools out there, there are ways of thinking about things. There are different ways of thinking about things, you know, and we can be open to that.
LISA: Definitive Edition releases July 18 for PC, PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.
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