Video games are a hobby I engage with for fun. I enjoy the experience of learning the new systems of each game. I love to write about games and to talk about them with my friends. They are a part of my life that, at different times, allow me to relax, socialize, be creative, and push myself to master something. And occasionally video games are something that truly resonate with me at an emotional level. A character arc or a thematic meaning will feel personal and relevant and elevate that game to a new level. Sometimes when this happens I expect it – I’m playing something like Celeste where I’ve heard plenty of people talk about how much it meant to them. Similar with Night in the Woods, a game where basically the only thing I knew about it going in was that it had a relevant political message for our times. But sometimes the emotional impact of a game catches me totally by surprise, as is the case with the road trip RPG: Get in the Car, Loser!
I’ve been talking about this game once per act and if you’ve read my previous writing, you’ll know it has primarily been focused on the mechanics. Get in the Car, Loser! (I’m probably gonna use the acronym GITCL from this point forward) has a quick and punchy RPG system that nevertheless manages to get you thinking. The way it handles difficulty across the spectrum from “I basically want a visual novel” to “make me suffer, please” is clever and customizable. So while there were clear and obvious real-world parallels in terms of the game’s story and the writing is quite sharp and funny, I had sort of conceptualized GITCL in my head as a lighthearted fun sort of game and not the kind that could make me introspective or give me a gut punch.
Act three flipped that perspective real quick.
The remainder of this article contains GITCL spoilers for the first three acts of the game.
The main protagonist of the game is a woman named Sam (she/her). The premise is simple: Sam’s pal Grace (she/her) decides that instead of waiting on a “prophesied hero” to save the world from a terrible entity called The Machine Devil, she’s gonna steal the Sword of Fate and do the damn thing herself. She chooses to bring her boyfriend Val (they/them) as well as Sam along for the ride. Sam has a huge crush on Grace and spends much of their early journey being completely flabbergasted at how brave and wonderful Grace is as well as how cool and tough Val is. With only the power to heal at her disposal, Sam doesn’t feel that she brings anything worthwhile to the team. These internal struggles are always quickly snuffed by encouragement from her friends, and even as the angel Angela (she/her and also I just realized the damn pun) joins their ranks the dialogue stays focused primarily on flirty banter between the crew.
What sets off the change is the conclusion of the second act. While the first act boss was a giant horrible monster with Angela strapped to its chest, the second villain is much more human and real. Once an acquaintance of Val, this young man has thrown his lot in with the machine cultists and he quickly demonstrates himself to be an asshole by frequently misgendering Val. He supports the actions of the machine cultists despite saying he is “not as extreme as the ones who burn down farms” and his hope is that the Machine Devil will cleanse and restart the world through a massive purge. This man’s disregard for human life and his disdain for anyone not a cis straight male deeply impacts Sam, and his words touch on hidden insecurities that had not fully manifested until this time. As act three begins, the metaphorical glass wall protecting Sam shatters, her friends disappear, and this entire phase of the trip is spent alone with Sam as she battles the most terrible thoughts that exist in her own head.
Sam’s anxiety and intrusive thoughts are specific and deeply personal. She is trans – a fact alluded to in vague dialogue previously but never really confirmed until act three – and in her battle against the act two boss she is certain that she was misgendered like Val, although in a way that was perhaps more subtle. Intrusive thoughts about the validity of her identity attack her from all angles. Her womanhood is questioned, her attraction to women questioned, and even familiar hurts like her inability to do damage in battle are questioned. We get a deep look at the hurt Sam has been carrying with her the entire journey, and during this time where the friends right next to her in the car feel a world away, she begins to panic and struggle.
This sequence in which Sam’s worst enemy becomes her own brain was deeply relatable for me. As someone who has struggled in the past with depression and who still battles intrusive thoughts and self loathing, I recognized a lot of the way in which Sam’s struggle manifested. The pain of feeling utterly alone despite literally being in the middle of a group of good friends, the feeling that you are an imposter playing at being what you truly want to be, the belief that you contribute nothing to the people you care about and that they would be in a better place without you there – I’ve been in each of those places despite my literal circumstances being very different from Sam herself.
One particularly striking feature of this sequence is a series of transitional screen cards that cut in during the conversations Sam is having with herself. She’ll be saying something clearly hurtful or unhelpful and occasionally the whole screen will shift to simply a title card with a sentence about what is going on. For example, at a point when Sam is talking about how she intentionally searches out transphobic comments online, the card cuts in and clarifies that searching out things she knows will hurt her in this way is a form of self-harm. While the cards are primarily meant to mark transitions to new thoughts and aren’t always positive, from time to time they are like the voice of reason in Sam’s head, occasionally managing to cut through the darkness just long enough for Sam to have a moment of clarity. But even then, her mind often manages to turn those things against her. In a moment where the title card gently corrects her about her sexuality, she begins calling herself stupid for ever believing the intrusive thought that led her down that path in the first place. That back and forth between a reasonable, more positive part of the brain and a hateful part eager to twist even productive thoughts back into self-loathing is a specific manifestation of my own depression that I still deal with today.
Sam ultimately comes face to face with a sort of twisted idealized version of herself, a figure called “Deadname” who is the person that Sam thinks other people want her to be, a “what might have been” if she suppressed her true self inside of the masculine cage she had been assigned. She makes the determination to stand against that false identity, and as she fights her friends finally manage to break through the isolation Sam has been feeling and she can well and truly hear their words again. They love Sam as she is, every perceived flaw, and together the four of them overcome Deadname. While Sam has plenty of work left to do, she has broken through a significant milestone by accepting herself as she is now and letting go of this fantasy picture of what the worst people in her life want her to be.
GITCL has up to this point been a game that I described primarily as something to be experienced for its mechanical offerings. The gameplay is an excellent piece of the package, yes, but after experiencing act three I can also say that the story has plenty to offer as well. While Sam’s experience is specific to her transness, queerness, and femininity and I imagine would resonate strongly with people like her, it still hit me hard even as a cis guy. Hating yourself, feeling like you’ve failed to live up to the expectations of others, not even wanting those expectations for yourself in the first place – these are feelings we can all encounter in our lives. Sam’s battle was a familiar one for me, and now more than ever I will be rooting for her and her friends to overcome the Machine Devil in the game’s final act.