Drowning In Problems is a game that carries a lot of emotion in just a few pieces and in the playing of those pieces. This game caused me to feel growth, frustration and loss in a way that no other game has. This is not really why I have to write about this though. Those are emotions that other games have evoked as well, and while Drowning In Problems gives them to me in a way that felt wholly unique, triggering these emotions was not. The emotion this game elicited that most interested me was jealousy.
I have never truly been jealous of a fictional character before. There's no need to be jealous of Luke Skywalker. I don't need to be jealous of his force powers or galaxy hopping, those are mine as well. As long as the movie is playing, I am Luke Skywalker and I can't be jealous of myself. Similarly, I can't be jealous of Timothy Hunter's magical powers or Nick Adams' competence or even Leslie Knope's happy marriage. I am jealous of how easy the character portrayed in Drowning In Problems finds it to make friends though.
This is the point where you will need to play the game. It only takes about ten minutes to get through and I clearly believe that you'll find it worthwhile. If, for whatever reason, you cannot play the game, it consists of a minimal webpage that lists out a number of needs and a link (that says "solve") to solve each one which results in an addition to your inventory. Some actions, such as getting stuff, require inventory pieces. The game communicates using only a modicum of text, all of which describe only the action and nothing more. However, when needing to move on requires losing a friend, that does not really require a paragraph to describe what happened.
One of the other needs is acceptance. Acting on this need loses you your lover and gains you a broken heart and experience. Solving for the others seems to result in something that looks like it should move you toward sating the need. Solving your need for more friends results in you gaining another friend. The need inexorably remains, but at least you have another friend.
A quick aside here, I can say that you gained another friend, I can say that the character gained another friend, but with this game I cannot say that I gained another friend. This game did not let me be the protagonist, and one of the results is that it feels wrong to use the pronoun "I" when talking about the results of my actions in the game. This fact is important. This fact is what runs this article.
Anyway, solving your need for friends gains you a friend. Solving your need to learn gains you knowledge. I just don't think that solving for acceptance resulted in this character feeling more accepted. You gain a broken heart and you gain experience, but you never gain any kind of acceptance. The desire to solve this need leads to all of the character's relationships failing. This is a system I can empathize with. I like to think that I'm better about this now than I was in the past, but it has happened to me before and will happen to me again.
The game lets you choose not to solve this need. You can leave it hanging on your list of needs until you die. This is the sadness that this game elicits. I feel sad for a person who will never find acceptance and who moves on from all of his or her friends. Mechanically, spending time with friends or lovers in this game triggers a need to lose that person from your life. I understand the life that these systems imply and I'm sad that this character has to live it.
Of course, this is all me projecting onto just the barest bones of a story that the game provides. The tone of the game is quite bleak, which aids me in this projection, but you could read it as a lifestyle preference of your main character, no better nor worse than any other. I can't.
The major theme of growth and frustration, of failing at all of your projects, of trying harder and losing your ambition are all strong as well. They are all things I struggle with constantly too. In my first playthrough, I refused to lose my ambition at first. I tried multiple projects before letting the game progress, but it just doesn't feel quite as sad as the first to me. I'm not sure why this is, I've always put more of myself into my work than any other part of my life and the need to create is important to me. Maybe it is just the number of projects that I've failed. Maybe it is that I've always known that this is one of the risks of working in and caring for a medium like video games. Maybe it is just because people really do matter.
That might actually be the key note here. Creation is a necessity for me, but I don't look to it to provide happiness. The feeling of having done really good work is a drug, but it is rare and only comes after months of work. The day-to-day satisfaction of smaller successes is real, but again is just not what I look to as a source of good feelings. Rightly or wrongly, I look to people as the way to make my life happier. The dream of meaningful relationships magically improving my life is still alive for me, but the dream of work doing the same has long since died. I want to create something I can be proud of to have something that I can be proud of, but I don't really expect it to be the thing that makes me happy. That's just me though. You're free to identify with whatever you choose.
Maybe it's mechanical instead of purely semantic though. Once you become an adult in the game, leaving people behind becomes more of a sidequest. The only real reason at this point to satisfy your need to find a lover or to make friends is because you, the player, want these things for your character. Failing at creation though is something that you need to do to progress. This takes the control away from the player and gives it to the game. This is the equivalent of mobile game tutorials where every step has a bouncing arrow pointing you toward which button to press next. I find it impossible to learn mechanics when I'm being railroaded and similarly, I think I'm less convinced by a game's arguments when I have no autonomy.
The game does force you into your first two heartbreaks though. Those happen as a teen however, and are presented as necessary for the character to mature into an adult. The failed relationships as an adult are entirely your own though.
It could however just be the repetition of the point. To gain a lover is just a single click, to create requires something close to ten. Additionally, creation requires me to obtain less stuff as they both compete for money and so keeps me from progressing in the game. I can gain and lose friends and lovers without dropping a beat on my way to completing the game though and so I did.
Incidentally, this is how the game made me envious. Adding people to my life is not as simple as choosing to solve a need in the way of this game. The action is not as free for me as it is for the protagonist of this game and for that am jealous of this character. It's something I've had ups and downs with. There are a lot of parts of it that I'm better at now than I have ever been before and there are parts where I can see that I slid back a bit. Overall, I think I'm getting better and there should come a time where it becomes easier still. I can still be jealous though.
Trying to decompose the game into mechanics and theme is foolish though. The game does so well because of how deftly it mixes them both. Pretending the whole is nothing more than the sum of its parts is foolish.
The small things do so much to tie the game together. Many actions are made meaningful by the fact that they create memories. That's an easy result to identify with. The level of abstraction is perfect for this. The game is extremely sparse and that gives you, the player, the space to fill things in with your own experiences.
There are valid criticisms to be made though. The game says nothing particularly new, the novelty is entirely in the way it presents what it has to say. I've also read players stating that they chose not to need all of the things the character does. The game really doesn't give you the autonomy to make the character your own or even to make the character do the things you would, and so dismissing the game is possible in the same way that you can dismiss any other media for the unrealistic actions of its characters. I think that much of the strength of this game lies in the fact that the character is not a person I can seamless drop myself into, but inevitably the character is then easier for people to dismiss.
This game is important though. Characters that are individual enough to resist becoming the player's surrogate make much more powerful storytelling possible. Communication through systems expands what we can say and how we can say things. Also, it's just a very meaningful game, and that's reason enough for it to be important.