This articles includes unmarked spoilers for major themes and story beats in Get in the Car, Loser!
When I was growing up, I had enough privilege to have a distant and theoretical relationship with violence. I was taught from a very young age that violence was not a viable solution to problems. My mother encouraged me to either talk to people to try to find common ground, or to get help from an authority figure rather than using my fists when I had problems with other kids. This was ingrained in me so thoroughly that it actually impacted my athletics. When I played for the school’s American football team, my grandad would question why I seemed so timid around the other linemen, barely hitting them or blocking them despite being bigger.
“Mom says violence doesn’t solve problems,” I would tell him, and he’d shake his head at how literally I was taking that advice. Fast forward to the present day and my relationship with violence is changed. Still distant and theoretical, but informed by new perspectives and a better understanding of how violence can be inflicted by systems and not just exchanged between individuals. I still don’t want my kid to punch their friends over a video game, but I would buy them ice cream for punching a transphobe in the nose. Because if people whose ideology is defined by hatred are afraid of the consequences of those beliefs, then maybe down the line we avoid the kind of horror currently unfolding in Texas – systemic, state-sanctioned violence against an entire class of people.
This is one piece of the thesis of Get in the Car, Loser!, a road trip RPG about a group of queer twenty-somethings journeying to defeat a demon called the Machine Devil. The Machine Devil is a clear metaphor for the hateful ideology espoused by right wing extremists, particularly neo-Nazis. The cultists who worship the Machine Devil are easily identified by their armbands (hmm), benefit from the inaction of the prevailing system of power (Hmm), and ultimately want to “purify” the world by killing people who are different than their ideals (HMM). According to the teaching of the scriptures, the world will be saved from the Machine Devil by a chosen hero at an appointed time. Every thousand years, the Sword of Fate will choose a champion to start the cycle anew. But a young woman named Grace Morningstar can’t stand for true evil to be ignored and thrive for even one more second, so she steals the Sword of Fate and travels to the pit where the Machine Devil is stirring to kill him herself.
The cyclical nature of the Machine Devil is an interesting point here. Try as she might Grace cannot just put the thing down forever. He will be back, and this reflects the kind of evil that the monster is based on. We’ve seen it in real life; my generation has watched as the enemies we grew up learning about in books and watched having their teeth kicked in during action movies have now become a dangerous and very alive political faction in the modern world. Evil always comes back. What is important is how we deal with it, and Grace proposes that the way we do so must be swift and proportional to the harm that this evil intends to cause. We don’t revel in violence, and avoid it if we can, but refusing to consider it a tool in our belt when the truly evil people in the world will gleefully use it is unhelpful.
One impressive feature of Get in the Car, Loser! is how the mechanics reinforce this idea of “violence only when necessary, but it is necessary.” As you travel along the road monsters will be available to battle in certain lanes. You can avoid lanes with monsters if you wish, but without battling you don’t raise the money needed to keep gas in your car to finish the trip or to purchase the trinkets needed to become powerful enough to take on the Machine Devil. Alternatively, fighting every single battle you can taxes your resources like health and healing items, and having more money than you need for gas or trinkets is worthless because there is nothing else to use it on. Fighting more battles than are necessary burns time and energy in service of nothing. The gameplay itself teaches you – at least in this abstracted fantasy setting – how to apply combat as a solution rather than avoiding it endlessly or engaging in it thoughtlessly.
Grace Morningstar is an impressive hero. She is a role model for fighting evil and for refusing to sit back and wait for a savior. But notably, she is not the player character of Get in the Car, Loser! That role goes to Sam Anon, Grace’s meek and insecure friend who cannot fight at all. Instead of making the player the hero, GITCL makes you the healer and puts you in the position of a young woman trying to figure out her place in a problem way bigger than she is. How can Sam contribute to the cause when she’s helpless? When she has her own problems and feels like she is worthless? When the only words she has to fight with are ones taken from someone smarter, cooler, better? If all these questions sound familiar, you’re not alone. They’re the same ones I’ve asked myself every time we’ve been faced by true evil on a national scale over the past two years.
Sam may not be able to deal exploit damage in combat, but she contributes in her own way. The healing she gives on the battlefield gives her friends the strength to go on even when they are totally drained of health. While she doesn’t see her own worth and has burdens to carry, her allies value her and together they all share the weight of the struggles they have to set aside in order to fight against evil. And as she finally faces off against the Machine Devil himself, Sam realizes that it’s okay to simply say the words she learned from Grace. There’s no debate to win – the ideas she’s fighting against were debated and found wanting years ago. All she has to do is be there, stand up in the face of evil, and do her part in doing the right thing.
Playing as Sam is yet another aspect of GITCL that I think is quite smart, because I imagine that most players probably see more of themselves in Sam than in Grace. We want to do the right thing but we feel like we aren’t enough, and we have no idea where to even start. But what we can learn from Sam is that no matter what we bring to the table, we do bring something, and all we have to do to do our part is refuse to falter in the face of evil. Combine that with the lessons we learn from Grace – to stop evil quickly and decisively and refuse to suffer it in hopes that the “right” person will step in – and we have a pretty solid blueprint for actions we can take when we feel helpless to fight against the real world versions of the Machine Devil and his wicked followers.
I’ve talked a lot about GITCL from a mechanical perspective over the past couple of weeks. It’s a sharp RPG that offers fast-paced battles while still challenging you to think about the actions you are taking. What I hope I’ve conveyed today is that the game is more than just a pretty good indie RPG. It’s a didactic game skillfully crafted to make a point about the times we live in now and teach you how to deal with them. Through characters like Grace, Sam, and their companions, we learn how to effectively use the tools at our disposal to fight evil wherever we may find it. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with the game, and I hope if you’ve not checked it out for yourself that this is helpful in understanding why it’s a special game.