July 24, 2021

Annapurna's Last Stop: Zen And The Art Of A Philosophically-Driven Video Game

Last Stop is the latest game published by Annapurna Interactive, developed by Variable State. Variable State is no stranger to creating meaningful gaming experiences as seen with 2016's Virginia, so when I dove into Last Stop, I couldn't wait to see what else this studio had in store. As a massive Albert Camus fan, I was not disappointed by the intricate existential philosophy interwoven into the Last Stop storyline

After our Last Stop review went live, I had a few readers reach out to me asking who Albert Camus even was. He was a French philosopher, journalist, and author of some of my favorite humanistic books like The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Fall. His belief is that humans need to embrace the absurdity of our very existence, which blends the philosophies of existentialism and nihilism in the face of chaos. Last Stop's story reflects that blend that the Absurdism philosophy centers on with the story offering a dualistic experience that pits the mundanity of daily life against the absurdity of a supernaturally driven fate.

Last Stop features three characters, each with six chapters detailing their journeys towards an epic conclusion seen in the final arc. The journey starts off slow, monotonous, and without any real purpose. Moments in time captured that we can all relate to: feeling stuck, feeling too tired from being alive to where even picking out a simple outfit feels like too much work, feeling suffocated by overbearing family and expectations, feeling hurt when you feel slighted by a person you care about, feeling aimless when hanging out with friends, feeling like a failure when faced with someone younger and more successful. The instances are endless, but all equally relatable. This level of the mundane is the perfect juxtaposition to the unbridled chaos seen with the supernatural element. Each character is faced with a different aspect of the supernatural despite there being a connection to all three. This is where the Camus reference comes in. This story is about embracing that absurdity and realizing that sometimes there is no choice but to succumb. This is especially evident in the final two chapters, and it was within those arcs that I couldn't put the game down. 

But it was much more than just the narrative itself that had me reminiscing about The Stranger and other reflections of human thought. It was the design elements that Variable State included, as well. The characters we play as and those that matter to them all have detailed faces, features, and expressions that reflect their own human experience. Everyone else? No facial features at all, not even in vague detail. I've seen some conversation that seemed to indicate this was a "lazy" design choice, but I have to disagree. To me, it felt like a deliberate decision to reflect a few points: one, a focus on the main characters. The story is about their individual experience, their choices, and their reactions. It's not about those on the "outside," and that's very much how we are in real life. When we are hyper-focused on our own reality, anything outside of that reality is non-existent or seeming unimportant. We almost become like faceless ants to one another unless our paths directly intersect in a way that our mind deems notable. The choice to make the faces of those not directly correlating with our characters be completely featureless, even when up close, reflects that tunnel vision that we are all intimately familiar with. 

The story of Last Stop also delves into themes of perception as reality, meaning my perception may be different than your perception but both perceptions are our realities as we know them. What we see is what we know, therefore that is what is "real" in that moment in time. With that aforementioned tunnel vision, those outside characters are not an impactful part of our perception, making them blend into the background almost equitable to that of furniture: replaceable existence. 

Last Stop also tackled issues that were less philosophical and more ethical, such as candidly talking about crunch in games. Crunch isn't working a little extra here and there, which is a common misconception and a reason why I tend to avoid using that word in casual conversation. It's about extended periods of overworking, oftentimes under leadership that doesn't really see their teams as human. We've seen it time and time again in the news, and even the media side experiences it. I had one job in games media where I worked 8 months straight without a single day off and was expected to write from the hospital when I had a seizure and even had to work from the front row of a funeral of a close relative. Luckily, that was years ago, but those types of working conditions are more common than many might think, and not just in games. Last Stop opened the door to this conversation once more when the character Jack is introduced, who works in the game industry. There is a scene after Jack and John, who is a middle-aged single father, swap bodies and John (as Jack) is faced with his first interaction in the world of game development. The "cool" boss comes in using "hip" lingo and trying a little too hard to seem "chill." He comes in and drops the casual, "Pressure from the top is high, so we've got to work through overtime with no benefits and no days off." But don't worry! He offered a pizza party to make being "down in the trenches" more bearable. Because as we all know in the corporate world, pizza parties fix all.

It's those types of interactions that make Last Stop a much deeper tale than I think many might perceive at first glance. The graphics are simplistic, the movement of the game is limited, and the story is linear. But that final choice? Playing through all the options, tempering with different reactions, and choosing empathy over scorn proved to me that Last Stop has a depth that is needed sometimes. Sometimes, you just need a game to unwind and shoot the proverbial s**t, while other times our brains crave something a bit more meaningful. If you find yourself looking for the latter, I can't recommend Last Stop enough. If interested, feel free to check out our full review here

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