The Games of Life

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.