Adventure Gamers Awards
Many cultures have wondered about a force that guides us through life; some have considered a thread pulling us down a path of predestined encounters. In Japanese legend, an invisible red string connects the pinky fingers of individuals whose paths will meet, stretching and tangling but never breaking. The Red Strings Club proves to be a title that not only refers to a central theme of fate but also an examination of its own restrictive game design. Though interactivity is minimal, the moral minefield evoked by its particular brand of cyberpunk is ultimately a rewarding experience.
The usual sci-fi tropes make their appearance right from the start: evil corporations, sentient AI, revolutionaries, that one guy who refuses to get cybernetic implants. Thankfully, these are just a foundation for your investigation into Supercontinent Ltd’s devious strategy for creating a utopian society, which verges on brainwashing. Alternating between three different characters, you navigate dialogue options on the way to the truth and, if possible, a means to thwart the company.
Brandeis is a saboteur of sorts, with a precarious sense of justice. Then there’s Akara-184, an android capable of empathy. However, you will spend most of your time with Donovan, an information broker masquerading as a bartender. When Akara-184 inexplicably stumbles into The Red Strings Club, Brandeis and Donovan are pulled into a grand conspiracy, putting their partnership to the test. Beyond the three leads is a robust supporting cast featuring scientists, lawyers, and marketing executives, each containing distinct perspectives along with convincing arguments.
Apart from a few one-off scenarios, the majority of gameplay is relegated to bartending and prying for details through dialogue. Being no ordinary bartender, Donovan is able to read the emotional characteristics of his customers, literally revealed as floating text, then create special cocktails to sway their mood. You might induce sadness for a regretful confession, or vanity to make a scientist eager to talk about his work. After the customer exits the bar, you enter a game of multiple choice questions which test your profiling ability as well as your knowledge of the information gathered. If you answer enough correctly, you will be rewarded with a pill to slip in the drinks of customers that wipes their memory of the conversation, allowing you to reset if you’re unhappy with the results. Don’t worry, you won’t be punished for failure.
The process of mixing drinks begins by selecting from a total of six base alcohols, then left-clicking and dragging to tilt the bottle and pour its contents. Each bottle has a direction associated with it: up, down, left, right. Through different combinations of alcohol you move a circular symbol, representing the resultant beverage, with the intent of aligning it with the emotion you want to affect. Further rules are added to slowly increase the challenge, such as applying ice to adjust the scale of the circle and using a shaker to blend different alcohols. It’s never a difficult task, however, instead serving as an entertaining activity to break up the stretches of reading.
Unfortunately, the game eases too comfortably into a formula – specifically, becoming a chain of interrogations. The script is concise, eliciting plenty of intrigue and expressive dialogue, but the most thrilling moments are the ones that provoke character actions – like tempting death in a game of Russian Roulette or talking a distressed character down from a ledge. Some events take you out of the titular club, but if you’re expecting to see more of this cyberpunk world, such moments amount to merely a taste, not a meal.
One situation does offer something meaty to bite into, when you’re assigned a futuristic pottery wheel. Clicking rapidly spins the wheel while mouse movement guides tools of various shapes. Your objective is to chisel away at a block until it fits the blueprint. Once again there is no penalty for error, as you can correct your mistakes with a rewind feature. Your successfully completed work becomes a cybernetic modification which you then install into a human. One customer is hoping for a mod that can help him persuade investors to dump money into his startup companies. You might give him the appropriate modification only to find out he isn’t yet satisfied; he still wants more money. Do you install a mod to shut down his ambition before it gets out of hand, or do you give him more sex appeal, leading to shameful acts but the money he craves? Do you push the limits, adding so many mods the man becomes a sociopath? Although there is one obvious choice for each customer in order to progress the story, it is still an effective (if a bit exaggerated) ethical lesson.
Stories involving revolution can be heavy-handed but the dialogue is often quite playful here, keeping it from dipping too far into pretension. One occasion where I took issue was when contemplating a hypothetical utopia and being forced to answer questions along the lines of “Should I let people commit murder?” and “Should I let women remain oppressed?” I encourage developers to tackle complex subjects, but devolving them into a binary questionnaire equates to mishandling. That said, the way sexuality and gender are presented is surprisingly mature. Without turning into political discussions, they provide effective world building and characterization, brushed aside as accepted reality.
I almost feel silly bringing up the fact that there’s nudity and blood, since the visuals are pixel-based. In both regards, it’s rather tame – justified even. Besides, one can’t ignore the care put into the retro-styled aesthetic. Backgrounds are lush in color and detail, while character animations are fluid, either when they traverse the flat plane or idle with some simple chore like washing glasses behind the bar.
Screen space is clean too, lending focus to the fictional world without the clutter of icons, which only appear when you slide the mouse to the top or bottom of the screen. There you can find a chart that keeps track of the decisions you’ve made. There are no manual saves and only one save file, but a timer indicates how many minutes have passed since the last recorded checkpoint. At least the auto-saves are frequent.
Information pertinent to the story is regularly added to Donovan’s journal. However, I found no option to bring up the journal during conversation unless choosing “serve another drink” to access the bar where his journal rests. This can be an issue when trying to refresh your memory of the information you’re seeking, since the bar is only available at certain points during dialogue. A minor issue, overall, as I found myself fishing for the most interesting bits of story naturally.
It bears mention that the single method of control is with a mouse. Keyboard is an option when entering phone numbers in a specific scene, otherwise it remains unused. Nor are controllers supported. To be sure, nothing more than the capabilities of a mouse is necessary, and even then you have no influence over character movement anyway (save for a single, brief section).
Ditching puzzles in favor of storytelling, the closest The Red Strings Club comes to relative challenge is in its final segment. Utilizing Brandeis’s cybernetics, he can change his voice to that of the numerous characters you’ve encountered. Calling someone’s phone impersonating another person awards unique interactions and pieces of the solution. The experimentation is enjoyable as you figure out what voices are useful for your objectives.
I used the word “voice,” but let me clarify that there is no voice acting, though I can’t imagine voice-overs adding anything to the atmosphere. What you do hear is the sizzle of Brandeis coolly dragging from a cigarette; the chirping of insects; rainfall and the low growl of thunder behind gentle piano notes. Synth melodies bleed into smooth, thumping rhythms, as Fingerspit has constructed an appropriately appealing soundtrack that makes a relaxing environment for reading – never ceasing, but keeping you fully immersed in sci-fi vibes.
The Red Strings Club covers an impressive breadth of ideas during its 3-4 hour play time, despite a shortage of gameplay diversity. It won’t satisfy anyone looking for deep interaction or puzzle solving, but if you value intricate stories with variable dialogue and sparse yet meaningful player involvement, you will likely find it a worthwhile trip. For a game giving you the tools to manipulate the emotions of its digital personalities, don’t be surprised if, by the end, you’re the one feeling like you’ve had your strings subtly pulled.