It has taken me a long time to write about this game. The Day the Laughter Stopped, by Hypnotic Owl, is a Ludum Dare entry that has been long praised for a wide variety of reasons. Rami Ismail, whose opinion I greatly respect, called it “brave” and an “extraordinary use of the medium,” which is certainly high praise.
It has taken me a long time to write about this game, because I do not agree with almost any of the praise. The reasons are both technical, but also deeply personal and perhaps this is the reason I have trouble talking about the Day the Laughter Stopped without feeling like I haven’t quite grasped the point of my own argument. On the cusp of another Ludum Dare, I think maybe it’s time to talk about it.
the nature of trigger warnings
This game is interesting, because it is difficult to discuss it in its entirety without first playing the game. It is a situation where knowing the trigger warnings can upset the story, and not allow the reader to be immersed. At the same time, the trigger warnings are important to people who might feel uncomfortable and unsafe without them. The game has its own trigger warning tab that repeatedly warns the reader off reading trigger warnings unless you absolutely must, an interesting conundrum that for the curious will prove to be catnip. It’s a long, creepy road with several signs that say “turn back now,” but you have to keep going to see what could possibly be so dangerous.
But if you are concerned about certain topics coming up, screw the spoilers. Your personal well-being is way more important, and if these are a triggering topics for you, then you really don’t wanna play this. Trust me.
This review will feature several spoilers for the game, and if you have any interest at all in the Day the Laughter Stopped, you should probably visit the Hypnotic Owl site now and play. Turn back now. The game is not very long, and can be completed easily within a single session.
The Day the Laughter Stopped is a story about high school, about rape culture, and ultimately about power. You play as a fourteen year old girl, a character that by most regards has little agency in real life let alone in games. She is held sway by her friends, by expectations, by peer pressure — if you choose that she doesn’t want to go to the party, she does anyway because who can turn down an over excited friend. For example, if you choose for her not to drink, you get this prompt:
I didn’t want to look like a loser and took the drink. I brought it up to my mouth and the smell alone made my stomach turn. I tried desperately to look relaxed, holding the drink casually in my hand as if I had just taken a sip.
It is this lack of agency that is somehow the strongest aspect of the game, as well as one of its weakest points. The whole game, your decisions (the power you hold in the game) are subverted by the nature of her world. You can feel what is coming like you are careening down a cliff face, aware of impending doom but unable to stop yourself from falling. In fact, the only way you can change her future is to shut off the game. To end it. To quit the experience. That is not an acceptable decision, of course, because you leave this girl alone.
Being That Fourteen Year Old
I suppose now is the moment for personal reflection. I was not this fourteen year old, but I almost was. When I was a kid, I had an older boy stalk me from class to class, following me across our tiny school and leaving me unwanted love notes. His affections, personally unwanted, were encouraged by my friends at the time who found the attentions of an 17 year old on a middle school student to be “cute.” I would leave art class, and he would be standing there, waiting, even if I chose not to acknowledge his presence. With a school our size, it was impossible to avoid him.
I lucked out. I explained the situation to my mother, who in turn took it to the principal of the school because, as in the game, a teenage girl has no agency. My attempts to stop the flirtations, to make him leave me alone were met with indifference. But a mother’s will to a small-town principal was enough to make him back off. I still caught his gaze every now and then, still saw him on the edge of my peripheral vision like a haunting until he moved on to another diminutive red head.
This narrator does not get that chance, but she does get the friends who push for her to be more active with him, who think it’s great that she’s “seeing” an older boy.
My best friend saw me and snatched the card out of my hands. She started giggling and teased me about my secret lover. I told her we were just friends.
It’s this that contributes to the sense of what Porpentine would call “fatal inertia.” If you’ve been in a similar situation, you know that feeling of powerlessness – that sense that no matter what you do you have no choice. Whether you were that fourteen year old, or just playing one, you can feel that lack of agency.
Player and character agency
I had seen it before. But it wasn’t mine. It belonged to someone who didn’t live here anymore. Someone I had known for a long time. Someone who had left, and left me behind.
I am not upset that the Day the Laughter Stopped does not offer similar outs. I appreciate that the game leaves us in a situation where we are powerless to stop what is happening because for that character, that is the situation.
I know you’re not supposed to like the victimization of this character, but there is something about it that rubs me the wrong way. She has been painted into her own victimized corner, and since it does not feel like I am that fourteen year old, it instead feels like I am the person who must instead protect her. To play her guardian, but the game does not allow for angels.
This does not feel like a battle between characters, but rather between player and developer The writer might suggest that the boy is powered by rape culture, that he feels that this child is his prize, but instead it feels like I’m battling against some unseen God who desperately wants this girl to be taken roughly on the ground, to be assaulted and violated.
The writer tells us that this situation is not our fault. And it doesn’t feel like our fault. It kind of feels like it’s his fault. In this, he is the uncaring God who has created an unforgiving world. An example, from his post-mortem about the game explains this futility:
After he asks you to meet him behind the school, you get to choose whether or not to go. If you do, you just meet him and he forces a kiss on you. If you try to go home, he finds you before you can leave and drags you behind the building where he forces a kiss on you. It happens, no matter what, because he makes it happen.
This gives the reader a sense of the violation, which is the authors intent. But this is a created world, and since the developer never pushes us into his creation you rail against him instead of the attacker.
The writing is perhaps where these issues arise — it is melodramatic and finely detailed. We feel her disgust when she is first presented with his juvenile erection, unwanted and undesired. This is part of the issue, because even I (most sheltered of fourteen year olds) could easily have picked out an erection. It feels a contribution to the naivete of the character, which is the responsibility of the developer. And this comes to an unfortunate crux of the argument. The developer doesn’t know what it’s like to be a fourteen year old girl, because the developer is a man.
A Man Telling a Woman’s Story
The rest of the week I tried to wrap my head around what had happened. I didn’t understand why he did it; I thought we were just friends. I tried to understand what I had done wrong, what I had missed.
I’m not the kind of person who believes that games about men should only be written by men, or vice versa. It simply comes through in this story that the developer does not understand the subject matter or his own character in any clear way. In the post-mortem, he talks about being inspired by the stories of a female friend who had gone through her own sexual assault. His post-mortem for the Day the Laughter Stopped is unknowingly the thing that made me most aware of the issues I had with his game. He explains being targeted by men who desire to rape you, and the powerless you must feel followed by the line “Imagine how that must feel.” He talks about this concepts in the abstract, and perhaps that is the issue. When I went to college, they told us that 1 in 3 of us would be sexually assaulted while on campus. 1 in 3. For many women, we don’t have to imagine that situation — we’ve been there. He writes “So let’s talk about rape,” and it feels so conversational that my body rejects it whole cloth.
The story feels inauthentic because Hannes Flor doesn’t know what it’s like to be a fourteen year old girl and he stumbles through some blocks that make the story feel unrealistic. Because he doesn’t establish the year, the final look at the room with the NSync poster feels bizarre and dated, like an advertising guy out of touch with “hip” culture. It’s more likely that the story is set in the mid 90′s, but having never established the year it makes it feel strange. Because of this delicacy, Hannes treats his narrator like an untouched, innocent child and she feels like a construct rather than a person. He handles her with lily white gloves that strip her of any agency, almost more than the rape itself, and paint her as a born victim, incapable of moving from her own predestined path.
The Day the Laughter Stopped doesn’t feel brave. It feels horrifying, it feels indecent, it feels like the cold but well meaning hand of a gynecologist deep inside of you. You know that they mean well, but you just wish they’d kind of leave you alone.