Get in the Car, Loser!, the latest game from Ladykiller in a Bind and Analogue: A Hate Story studio Love Conquers All Games, is about a lot of things. A fun queer road trip to kill a god. The thrill of fighting fascists and misogynists and transphobes with your hot friends and magic. And, most surprisingly to me, a subplot about anxiety that felt a bit like being read for filth by someone who really gets it.

Content warning: This piece contains discussions of transphobia as well as spoilers for Get in the Car, Loser!

Sam, the protagonist of Get in the Car, Loser! is anxious from the get-go. Her friend Grace steals the fabled Sword of Fate to send the evil Machine Devil and its edgelord cultists packing. Grace picks up Valentin, her boyfriend, and Sam too, with the title phrase—”Get in the Car, Loser!”—and Sam, unable to resist a pretty girl, joins the group. Angela, a literal angel, joins later on in Act II. But unlike Grace, Val, and Angela, Sam isn’t entirely sure of why she’s there. Sure, she can heal. But the rest of the group is good at fighting, and they’re sexy and self-assured, and Sam doesn’t feel like she’s any of those things. Through dialog options, players can craft a version of Sam that’s maybe a bit rowdier or heroic than how Sam sees herself, but the fundamental Sam-ness of her remains—she’s always at least a little bit intimidated by her friends and their confidence.

A screenshot showing the four main characters of Get in the Car, Loser! at a diner. Sam is speaking, and a dialogue bubble reads, "It's... it's hard not to. Val, worrying about things is my number one skill, and possibly my only skill." Get in the Car, Loser!, Love Conquers All Games, 2021.

Act III of the game is where Sam’s anxiety becomes inescapable. After a battle with Valentin’s ex, a misogynistic Machine Devil cultist who aggressively misgenders Val throughout the fight, Sam realizes that the cultist’s misgendering didn’t stop there. At this point, the party includes the original three friends plus Angela. Val’s ex repeatedly refers to the party as containing three women, meaning to offend Val. But since offense is his intent, the three women would mean Val (who is nonbinary), Grace (a cis woman), and Angela (an angel, but one that appears quite feminine and uses she/her pronouns)—excluding Sam, the sole trans woman in the group.

Her hurt and frustration grow until she’s quite literally isolated from the party. While the car continues driving and her friends show up in battle scenes, all dialog becomes internal. Her friends aren’t able to break through the wall of self-doubt she’s building around herself. Sam grows increasingly frustrated and hurt over not just the misgendering, which is bad enough, but the fact that it feels like she’s wanting to be validated by a misogynist who intentionally caused her friends pain. As her thoughts spiral, she struggles with her reaction to Val asking for her pronouns when they first met and her attraction to her friends—worrying that her attraction makes her a cliché or a misogynist herself. Sam’s insecurities drag her further and further down until the chapter culminates in a fight against an imagined version of herself who never transitioned and who knows how to cut her to the bone with personal insults.

Much of Sam’s story isn’t relatable on a personal level to me. But, as Meg Jayanth wrote in a piece for Polygon, specificity, including specificity that we don’t necessarily identify with, is “the furthest thing from alienating.” Protagonists who inhabit very specific identities—such as Sam being a fat, trans lesbian of color—don’t suddenly become unrelatable. Because they are so specific, they become more real. So while much of Sam’s identity—which influences the thoughts she has, the way people respond to her, the way she moves through the world—isn’t like my identity, I nonetheless found myself relating to her a lot.

Though Sam and I are different in many ways, there is one trait we both share: anxiety.

I’m not shy about my mental health struggles, including on this very website. I’ve had anxiety my entire life, though I was only really, truly diagnosed—insurance code and all—with Generalized Anxiety Disorder recently. The static of worry is omnipresent in my life and has been as long as I’ve been cognitively capable of worrying. But progress happens, too. With my previous therapist, I worked on building up my self-esteem. I repeated those silly mantras, I meditated, I let myself be vulnerable and honest. I learned to cope in positive ways.

One of the frustrating things about healing is that it’s not a straight line upward. It’s sometimes a path of plateaus. This month I no longer hate myself, but I can’t stop worrying about the climate crisis. This week my moods are good, but I keep thinking I might be morally bankrupt. Or, most recently: I understand that I’ve mistreated myself and asked for less than I deserve, but what do I do with that knowledge? How can I know something and also fight so hard against it? What can I do when I recognize that I’m worthy of love but I’ve trained everybody around me that I don’t need it?

Pink text on a black background reads, "Nobody is comforted by covering sincere pain with 'jokes.'" Get in the Car, Loser!, Love Conquers All Games, 2021.

Many of the black images with pink text contain harsh truths or admonishments. Though they might be true, they also sound suspiciously like negative self-talk in the guise of honesty.

Those plateaus are precisely what I saw in Chapter III of Get in the Car, Loser!. Though Sam is grappling with things that are largely outside my realm of experience, the way the truth intrudes on her circling thoughts resonated with me. In this chapter, title cards that begin in black with hot pink accents push at Sam’s boundaries with statements like, “If you can’t hurt your enemies, it’s easier to hurt your friends.” As she keeps running through these thoughts, they begin to change, throwing in snippets of wisdom like, “Seeking out voices who hate you is self-harm,” before eventually shifting to hot pink with white accents and messages like, “You were always worthy of love.” There’s no explanation for these cards—they could be the words of her friends, they could be the fourth-wall breaking interjections of writer Christine Love, they could be Sam’s own knowledge trying to fight against her spiraling thoughts. We don’t need an explanation to see the truth of it; sometimes, anxiety is fighting a battle against your own brain that feels a lot like arguing with a particularly mean-spirited child. You say something true, your brain responds “Well, what if [insert implausible scenario],” and you carry on that way until the adrenaline and cortisol work themselves out and the negative thoughts stop bouncing around your amygdala like an aggressive DVD screensaver.

I like the interpretation that the title cards represent Sam’s own thoughts. She pushes back on them throughout Chapter III, but still gets swallowed up by her insecurities. I identify with this more than I identify with anything else about her. With enough therapy under my belt, I’m more comfortable saying that I’m pretty smart, but there is nothing that makes me feel less intelligent than hearing the truth get drowned out by the chorus of self-doubting voices I’ve let speak for too long.

The title cards aren’t the only way that anxiety manifests, either. In a mechanic that reminds me of Depression Quest, the dialog options narrow from “Rowdy” and “Heroic,” among other choices, to just one option: Sam-like. In this moment, Sam only sees herself as Sam. She doesn’t see the potential for her to be anything else, only the person she is right now. When I’m feeling anxious, especially about how I see myself, there seems to be no escape. I can’t imagine any version of myself that isn’t this version—the one whose mind seems intent on bullying itself into submission. Curbing this view is extremely difficult in the moment, and once you’re out of the immediate anxiety, you’re left with the feeling of failure. How stupid you were being in that moment. How immature. And so the cycle goes on.

Anxiety is often interpreted as excessive worry. We all worry from time to time. We all feel anxious when going into a stressful situation. What doesn’t get talked about as much is when anxiety turns ugly. Sam’s anxious thoughts take her to dark places—in the depths of her cycle of self-hatred and isolation, she gets retrospectively angry at Val for asking her pronouns, even though she knows it wasn’t about her or her appearance so much as it was Val’s indication that their pronouns may not line up with their physical appearance. In embodying Sam, we’re able to see that this is not about Val or their pronouns; this ugly thought is about Sam’s own insecurity, and it manifests as anger. Sam, who loves her friends, who knows she’s insecure, doesn’t let that anger make her lash out. Like a magician, she turns it back into self-hatred. Only a bad friend, only a misogynist, only someone “socialized as a boy” (to parrot a popular phrase) would think such an awful thing about their nonbinary friend. The cycle continues.

A screenshot of the traveling screen of GITCL. Sam appears to be the only person in the car, seated in the back seat. Her portrait is distorted. A dialog bubble reads, "Wouldn't it be more feminist of me if I was more open-minded about who I was sexually attracted to instead of still liking stuff that's functionally identical to male gaze pandering?" Get in the Car, Loser!, Love Conquers All Games, 2021.

Anxiety’s ugliness isn’t just sweaty palms or waves of nausea. Get in the Car, Loser!‘s willingness to engage with this side of mental illness is affirming. When anxiety convinces you of your own cruelty, every knee-jerk mean thought you have gets filed into an evidence locker to be revisited at your lowest moments. Anxiety isn’t an excuse for cruel behavior, but a mean thought isn’t concrete proof of innate evil, either. We can see why Sam feels the way she does, even if we disagree with her conclusions (maybe Val could have introduced themself with their pronouns rather than asking for Sam’s, but the fact that they didn’t has nothing to do with Sam’s appearance). Nobody knows how to hurt us better than we know how to hurt ourselves.

Playing Get in the Car, Loser! as Sam, not myself, means I want to cup her face in my hands and say all the affirmations she can’t say to herself. Sam, of course you’re beautiful and funny and likable. Of course being attracted to women doesn’t make you a misogynist. Of course your friends love you and they’re right to do so. It’s so easy to say those things about somebody else—making the title cards, which work something like positive intrusive thoughts, all the more effective. I’ve had many of those thoughts. Sam’s self-consciousness, at times self-hate, resonates with me. Shouldn’t that mean I should be grabbing my own face, saying kind things about me? Shouldn’t it be that easy?

It isn’t. When your brain is conditioned to rage against you, it’s easier, more familiar, to let it keep going. Sam sits alone in the driverless car, isolated from her friends and slaying monsters between bouts of stewing on all the things she hates about herself. Life goes on, despite the anxiety. Dishes need to be washed. The bed needs to be made. Work must be done. It’s easy to pretend that everything is fine because you’re capable enough of doing those things; how bad can your struggle be if you can still get by? This is harmful thinking, too; one person’s struggle is not invalidated simply because other people also struggle.

It’s not enough to say that Get in the Car, Loser! is a metaphor for anxiety. It’s also not a pure metaphor for fighting fascism or transphobia or any other single thing; all of that is rolled up inside the story, sure, but it’s not the sum total of what it is. It’s the story of Sam, and the story of her friends, and the story of how a group of them overthrow the Machine Devil by refusing to sit around waiting for an ill-defined right time to end hatred. The strength of Get in the Car, Loser!‘s writing is that it manages to center its story on a well-defined character who is unlike me in most ways, in a story about killing god and having a fun, sexy road trip with friends, and still manages to strike such a resonant emotional chord. It does this, as Jayanth writes, not with a blank-slate protagonist, but precisely because she is so specific.

The story doesn’t end with Sam alone and anxious. There’s a whole act to go after Chapter III. Once they vanquish the specter of Sam’s alternate self, the cruel one who never transitioned, they chat over diner food. Of course, Sam’s friends assure her that none of her negative thoughts are true. But more than that, Angela makes a great point—she says that Sam’s confidence impresses her, to which Sam replies that that doesn’t make any sense at all, because she’s not confident. Angela replies that that only makes it more impressive, because she seems confident. And further, in a later one-on-one discussion, she says, “I know thou thinkest thine anxiety makes thee weak, but hast thou considered that none of us have nearly the same amount of experience fighting our own self-doubts?”

Sam doesn’t think of herself as strong. But Angela and the rest of her friends are quick to point out that what she feels isn’t necessarily what’s true. They all think of her as strong, because she is. Just because her strength looks different from theirs doesn’t magically turn it into weakness.

This is the kind of thing that can become an affirmation. At first, you feel silly saying it. You feel like you shouldn’t have to, like everybody else on earth is getting by without this and the fact that you aren’t is evidence of your weakness. But you keep trying, you keep saying it, and someday it becomes a little bit easier. As Avery Alder writes in Variations On Your Body, “Eventually, the spell always works.”

Get in the Car, Loser! won’t cure my anxiety. But when I look at Sam as someone who is cute and funny and cool and brave, and also as someone I identify with—however starkly different we may be from one another—it’s easier to deal with. Because if I like her, if I don’t inhabit her mind and feel her insecurities, I can see how much of my internal dialogue may be lying to me, too—and hopefully, I can fight back against that dialogue with the same tools that her friends give her.