PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The Games of Life

Marshall Sandoval

When we play house and doctor, we chart out an imaginary adult life. Something compels humans to grapple with their lives and their mortality through rules and in play.

It starts at a young age. We play house and doctor, charting out an imaginary adult life. As a suburban kid growing up in the 90s, I remember bus rides to field trips and youth camps playing M.A.S.H. It has been this way for years. The Checkered Game of Life was the first board game from designer Milton Bradley in 1860. In the 1960s, the game was recreated as simply The Game of Life or LIFE, while the game has been remade several times, it has remained popular ever since. On some level, every game simulates aspects of life though systems, but games like LIFE try to neatly encompass an entire lifetime, and Notch’s Ludum Dare entry, Drowning in Problems follows in this tradition.

Drowning in Problems is a giant tonal departure from LIFE. While LIFE ends with determining where you’ll be able to retire, Drowning in Problems ends with posthumously losing hope, once you’ve been forgotten. All of the mechanics of Drowning in Problems reinforce this almost nihilistic outlook. Notch uses the basic form of resource management browser games like Cookie Clicker and Candy Box to create a structure for a brief game about the stuff of life, what we gain and what we lose. As with those other browser games, things quickly become too hectic to easily manage. The thing that makes Drowning in Problems such an existential shot in the arm is that you’re trading in abstract things like -1 Lover for +1 Experience and +1 Broken Heart. Additionally, it becomes tough to do the things that you did as a child, like playing, because playing doesn’t yield the things that you need to advance in the latter parts of the game. The bluntness of the writing and the proliferation of problems to solve with your clicks becomes disheartening.

Eventually, the game instructs you that “You need to create”, but you can’t afford to create until you gain 4 Money. This leads to +1 Project and the project leads to a new instruction that “You need to fail.” You solve that problem by losing your project and gaining a crushed dream. The game’s internal logic is truly harsh. I don’t know that much about Notch, but he seems to be struggling to grapple with the massive success of Minecraft. This bleak outlook on a creative life feels like a genuine personal expression.

A final comparison highlights the elegantly bleak design of Drowning in Problems. Jason Rohrer’s poetic Passage is a vastly different take on a video game that spans a single lifetime. Both games last around five minutes to complete, and both games present a single life ending in the player character’s death. The two games tackle player choice in very different ways. Passage lasts exactly five minutes, no matter what. You will die at the end, but you’re given a great deal of agency in determining what the player character does in that time. Since the game lets you take a life partner or not, find treasures or not, and even chase your elusive memories or move forward, you’re dictating the contours of the character’s life span. In this way, the game, which ends in death, is actually life affirming. Rohrer has said it is supposed to be a game about memento mori or the remembrance of death. We are all dying, but Passage’s mechanics suggest that we have a great deal of opportunity to make what we can of our limited time here. On the other hand, Drowning in Problems doesn’t allow for the same player choices. The problems you encounter are tersely written: “You need to create. You need a better job. You need to relax.” They’re imperative statements and the player character is forced along this life journey as an inevitability.

Passage is more representational and it allows for player creativity and choice. LIFE itself, of course, limits your choices, but it does nothing to critique the societal structures moving you and your car along a gilded suburban track. Drowning in Problems says this is how life is, you are locked into these expectations and systems. It ain’t always pretty. The systems of each game present an implicit message about what a life should entail.

I’m not sure that I agree with the bleakness of Notch’s outlook in the game. Yet, it is a wonderfully executed statement. Something compels humans to grapple with their lives and their mortality through rules and in play. Drowning in Problems does so in a heavier way then childhood diversions like M.A.S.H. The choice to limit player choice creates narrative tension. I wanted to get off the game's linear rails. Notch doesn’t give you that option. In its way, Drowning in Problems is a knowing and effective critique of other life simulators like LIFE and Cookie Clicker. The needs of Notch's game are inescapable. After all, you’re drowning in problems.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.