The following will contain spoilers for all the LISA games.
A while ago, I did a blog on LISA: The Painful RPG, which is a game I really enjoyed and felt had good commentary and deconstructionist elements. Well, recently, I purchased and completed (Without completing most of the side content) LISA: The Joyful RPG, its DLC, focused on deuteragonist Buddy and main antagonist Rando. Joyful is meant to close off and conclude the story of LISA, and, despite its supposed focus on Buddy, actually concludes the story of Painful protagonist Bradley Armstrong more than anything.
Our protagonist this time around is Buddy, the little girl who served as the damsel in distress and daughter of protagonist Brad in Painful. Buddy has grown up a bit since Painful, becoming a katana-wielding badass and drug addict. She has abandoned any pretense of being the helpless MacGuffin of Painful in favor of becoming Queen of Olathe. In some stories, this would be the idea for the "Protagonist to Villain" journey. With Buddy, it's less a journey and more flying off a swing.
Buddy is just like Brad. That is the main idea of LISA: The Joyful. If there could be a thesis statement about LISA, it would be the statement that "Abusers create abusers." For us to fully cover this theme, we have to go back to the original flash game, now titled LISA: The First.
The First is the only LISA game about Lisa Armstrong, the person who started all this. As Joyful reveals in flashback, Lisa was, thanks to being sexually abused by her father, a deeply unstable child. At a young age, she forced the boy who had a crush on her, Bernard, to maim a friendly cat, before forcing him to maim her as well in hopes of stopping her father's abuse of her. After that did not work, things got worse. Brad, her older brother, who had cared for her like a father, was forced to participate in the abuse, and abandons her out of guilt. Lisa hangs herself.
Holy shit. It gets worse. This provokes incredible guilt in Brad. In dedication to becoming the opposite of his own father, Brad, after an event that wipes out women, adopts the only girl remaining in the world. Naming her "Buddy", Brad's overprotective tendencies kick in. Longing to redeem himself, Brad accidentally abuses Buddy by keeping her from the outside world, and becomes an alcoholic pill-popper not unlike his own father. In the end, he attempts to save her from Rando, a foe who does not truly seek to harm her. Brad successfully kills Rando's entire army, and knocks out Rando himself, before transforming into a mutant due to drug use seconds after begging Buddy for a hug.
This is where Joyful begins, with the player as Brad once more, dragging his horrifically mutated body to Buddy. After their brief confrontation, Buddy is saved by Buzzo, Brad's adversary from Painful. This starts Buddy on her journey to kill every warlord in the wasteland and becomes its Queen.
The story doesn't matter anymore. We need to talk about the themes and characters. The theme of Joyful is laid very bare: Buddy is just like her father, who was just like his own. Rando, with nothing but kindness, allies with Buddy. While he is in a way controlling, he is also a kind, anxious, pacifistic companion. Buddy proceeds to abuse Rando horribly, forcing him to join in her murderous craze even when dealing with warlords who aren't evil. Buddy manipulates Rando, who considers himself her brother, guilts him, and eventually kills him.
This feeds perfectly into the theme. Rando is Buddy's only escape. He is kind to her, encouraging her to avoid violence and telling her she is the future of mankind. Ironically, while he too is attempting to take control of her life, the character thought to be evil is the only one trying to treat her like a human being. History repeats, however, and just as Brad abandons Rando in flashbacks in Painful, Rando abandons Buddy after being pushed too far. He is later captured by a man attempting to rape Buddy, and Buddy either lets him die or kills him outright.
Rando gave everything to help Buddy, just like Brad, only with kindness instead of violence. He, the only Armstrong to refuse the cycle of abuse which permeated the family, is rewarded for his dedication by being brutally killed. However, he can serve as an inspiration to Buddy.
Brad is a monster, but Buddy finds herself rejecting any similarity to him, rejecting him altogether, just as Brad did to his own father. In the end, Buddy, overdosing on Joy, the same drug that ruined Brad, begins to see Brad, confronting her once more. Buddy eventually accepts that Brad, while evil, genuinely loved her and that she must accept him if she is to be above him. Brad, The Nobody, is finally acknowledged.
The final choice belongs to the player. Buddy can choose to remain with hallucinations of Brad and Rando created by Joy, or she can choose to end the cycle. Via taking a vaccine, Buddy can change. She can take Rando as an inspiration and finally change herself and end the Armstrongs' line of abuse completely.
From a literal standpoint, Joyful ended up divisive. Buddy, in no small part due to sheer sexism, has been condemned more than Brad ever was. The gameplay is simpler and less fun, the choices and party members are minimal. From a completely literal perspective, Joyful is indeed a worse game. However, thematically, Joyful is the perfect conclusion. A player who accepts only the characters, the literal interpretation, will be inclined to choose the ambiguous "Join them" option, and join the hallucinations of Brad and Rando due to their love for them. A player who recognizes the themes will know that, while interesting, these two characters both need to evolve and be left behind through Buddy.
Buddy's story is divisive for good reason, as is its conclusion. However, when taken as the extension of the theme of the cycle of abuse, Joyful is the perfect closing point for the LISA series. It took years of death, abuse, and bloodshed, but Buddy can choose to be better, to accept the goodness of the Armstrong legacy and abandon its evil. While it may not be perfect in every form, LISA: The Joyful is a beautiful conclusion to the story of the Armstrong bloodline and the only true conclusion Buddy Armstrong deserves.
I'll admit, LISA as a whole was a long and difficult journey for me. It was, however, well worth it to see Buddy finally achieve what every Armstrong since Lisa deserved: A peaceful life. In that manner, I am satisfied.