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The Day The Laughter Stopped: A Powerful Game in a Tiny Package

Review

The Day The Laughter Stopped comes with a trigger warning. This article does, too. The catch is, this game is much more effective if you don’t know what it’s about. Let me put it this way: If the presence of a trigger warning gives you pause, I’ll provide specifics just after the jump. If a trigger warning doesn’t concern you, go play now. It’ll only take ten minutes. But be aware, this game is deeply uncomfortable. It crawled into my chest and gnawed for hours, thanks to some very simple, very clever design. I’m not kidding, it’s one of the smartest uses of player agency I’ve ever seen. The subject matter is upsetting, but the message is entirely relevant in our current social climate.

If you need to know more than that, read on.

The Day The Laughter Stopped is a game about rape. If that subject hits close to home, I strongly recommend against playing. You may want to avoid this article as well.

For those who still intend on playing, now’s the time. I’m about to spoil everything.

I’m picky about interactive fiction games. I appreciate the effort and creativity that goes into them, but with a handful of exceptions, they’re not my cup of tea. I did not expect much from this game. I certainly did not expect to become physically upset. I hugged myself for a few seconds. I shut my laptop, and paced. I coaxed myself to think about something else for a while. I put on my favorite cozy sweater. I pawed around my kitchen, looking for comfort food. You’d be right in wanting to avoid a reaction like that, and yet, I am suggesting that you give this game a look all the same. The Day The Laughter Stopped is a brilliant argument against victim blaming.

You play as a fourteen year old girl. You’ve gained the attention of one of the older boys at school. A lot of your friends have crushes on him. You’re not sure why he thinks you’re so cool, but it’s pretty exciting. He befriends you. He gains your trust. He becomes a valued person in your life.

I should mention that The Day The Laughter Stopped is based on the experience of one of the developer’s friends. Used with permission, of course.

I knew the subject matter going in, so I was cautious. Knowing what the boy was capable of, I did everything I could to avoid prompting that outcome. I declined the alcoholic beverage he gave me at a party. I did not respond to his flirtatious Christmas card. I pulled back when he tried to kiss me. He kissed me anyway.

Regardless of what choices you make, the story leads you to a lakeside barbecue. The boy pressures you into going for a walk with him in the woods. It doesn’t matter if you say no. You can’t get away.

I was given two options: fight back, or freeze up. Obviously, I chose the former. Except the game wouldn’t let me. The option was visible, but I couldn’t use it. I clicked, and nothing happened. I clicked again, and again, and again. Fight back! I couldn’t. I wanted to, but I couldn’t.

When it was over (and yes, it is described), I started thinking in game-mode, analyzing my choices. What could I have done to change the ending? Was there a way to unlock the option to fight back? If I had found a way around that first kiss, would he have left me alone? What if I hadn’t gone to the party? Or if I hadn’t —

I stopped, feeling sick. I knew this line of thought. I’ve had four friends over the years — three women, one man — who have suffered sexual assault (that is, I know of four; I’m sure there are more I’m unaware of). In every instance, the perpetrator was someone they knew. Someone they cared about. All four of them expressed similar feelings when recounting what happened. “If I hadn’t” featured prominently.

The Day The Laughter Stopped gives you a “Continue” option at the end. I clicked it, reluctant to play through again but hoping for a better conclusion. I was taken back to the end of the game, all my choices right where I’d left them. “There is no starting over,” it says. “This happened.”

Because no matter how much you want to go back and change things, no matter how many times you reconsider your actions, no matter how much you want the option to fight back, none of it makes a damn bit of difference. The boy in the game targeted you. Drink or don’t drink, kiss or don’t kiss. The ending is always the same. Your actions change nothing.

It is not your fault.

There are few things that make me as angry as victim blaming. It’s vile, insidious behavior, and it manifests in truly ugly ways. Combating it is no easy task, but efforts are being made. I have read heartbreaking accounts written by survivors and their loved ones. I have seen videos by incomprehensibly brave men and women telling their own stories. A game, though — it may not be the likely choice for a story such as this, but I think it’s ideal (if done with care). The thing I love best about this medium is its ability to transform the player into someone else. When I play a game, I am not considering the actions of someone who lives behind the fourth wall. I am that person. I am there. I do imagine myself in the worlds of books and movies, and take the lessons therein to heart. But I do this after the fact, as an additional step. I can’t think about my own life while I am reading someone else’s. If I start to think about myself, I have to set down the book, or look away from the page. A game — a good game, at least — lets you do both at the same time. I can take that imaginative leap the moment I arrive. If you want to make someone walk a mile in another person’s shoes, a game’s the way to go. It’s the perfect instrument for inspiring empathy. That certainly was the case here. The Day The Laughter Stopped was not a story I wanted to engage with. But until things change, it’s a story we need to keep telling.

Becky Chambers writes essays, science fiction, and stuff about video games. Like most internet people, she has a website. She can also be found on Twitter.

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