Investigate a corporation’s scheme to transform humanity.
PC Release: January 22, 2018
By Ian Coppock
Imagining what technology will be like 20 years from now is both inspiring and terrifying. It’s inspiring to imagine things like smart cars and cures for terminal illnesses… just as it’s terrifying to picture an AI creating its own language (oh wait, that happened last year). Media are quick to imagine how technology can shape mankind’s future, but often get bogged down in cool gadgets instead of addressing how tech shapes something deeper: the soul of mankind. The Red Strings Club is all about that question.
The Red Strings Club is a cyberpunk-noir title created by Deconstructeam, the studio behind Gods Will Be Watching. The game is set in a dystopian, futuristic metropolis whose citizens are all about upgrading their bodies with emotional implants. Whether it’s the desire to detach from social conscience or jack up that sex appeal, the Supercontinent Corporation has an upgrade for every desire. The game begins when one of the androids responsible for fashioning those implants shows up at the game’s titular Red Strings Club.
Bar owner Donovan and his hacker boyfriend Brandeis learn that the android was busted out by a group of hacktivists who are convinced that Supercontinent is up to no good. Indeed, the firm seems intent on using its implants to regulate human emotion, and has even figured out how to inflict that regulation upon people who have no implants at all. As these three characters, it’s up to players to investigate what Supercontinent is up to and stop the firm from reshaping mankind.
Stopping a giant conspiracy may sound like a tall order for three barflies, but there’s much more to this unlikely team than meets the eye. Akara-184 may have been shot up during their breakout, but is now free to put their insanely powerful android brain to the task of stopping Supercontinent. Their abilities pair well with those of Brandeis, who is one of the best hackers in the city whenever he’s not too busy loitering near the harbor or firing off corny one-liners.
Then… there’s Donovan, who uses his drinks to manipulate his customers’ emotions. Donovan’s ability goes beyond simply getting someone drunk; he can read a person in a matter of moments and craft a cocktail that can lift (or crush) their spirits. This manipulation works wonders for getting customers to spill valuable information… and it just so happens that most of The Red Strings Club’s regulars are Supercontinent employees.
Mixing drinks is the most pivotal component of The Red Strings Club‘s gameplay. The mechanic is presented as a minigame in which each client has his or her own emotions for Donovan to draw out with booze. Players have to use Donovan’s four liquors to push a cursor over the emotion they want to elicit from the customer. Most emotions require a cocktail of two or more boozes, plus an ice cube for good measure. Additional mechanics, like a shaker, are added later on in the story.
Once Donovan’s boozed up the customer a bit, it’s time for questioning. Donovan can ask virtually anything of his clientele, but whether he’ll get a straight answer depends on the mood they’ve been put in by that drink. A client who drank something confidence-empowering, for example, might feel much chattier about a sensitive company matter than if they’d been fed something that makes them depressed. Donovan only has one shot to ask a question, so players have to pick a customer’s mood carefully if they hope to learn anything.
The Red Strings Club‘s mixology is a stylish twist on adventure game conversations. It adds another dimension to the challenge of interrogating an NPC for answers. Players have to consider not only which questions to ask, but also which cocktail will get them the best answers to those questions. This booze-sleuthing makes for a delectable gameplay challenge that opens up conversations for many more possible outcomes. In The Red Strings Club, there isn’t a right or wrong booze; only a best booze.
The Red Strings Club‘s other protagonists have minigames of their own. Players get to spend a bit of time sculpting implants as Akara, using nothing more than a pottery wheel and a few different tools. It’s a fun minigame that, sadly, doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. Meanwhile, Brandeis is out in the city chatting to contacts and impersonating Supercontinent execs to get valuable info. This part of the game is where The Red Strings Club‘s adventure game roots really shine: talk to people, gather info, try that obstacle again.
The Red Strings Club‘s story is less fixated on the details of its cyberpunk universe than technology’s impact on the human condition. The game’s dialogue is written decently well, but most characters don’t change measurably as the story progresses. Akara-184 offers up the usual “why do you humans do this?” observations that robot characters do in many stories, while Brandeis is a composite of every 80’s comic relief character ever.
No, the most compelling character in The Red Strings Club is Donovan, who frequently opines about the danger of using technology to control human emotion. Donovan frequently defends “negative” emotions, arguing that people can only know what happiness is by also experiencing sadness. His defense of sorrow is both an eloquent epithet about the human experience and some of the year’s best video game writing. It certainly gives players cause to oppose a corporation with such a seemingly benevolent vision.
The Red Strings Club‘s dialogue is pretty well-written, but it’s brought unnecessarily low by a single, juvenile flaw: spelling errors. The Red Strings Club has an unfortunate proliferation of typos; they’re not exactly jumping out of every sentence but they crop up often enough to break the game’s immersion. With all the spelling and writing resources available online these days, there’s no excuse for having this many typos in a game. They’re the visual equivalent of Donovan belching mid-speech.
The other writing problem The Red Strings Club suffers from is exposition… as in burying players in an avalanche of it. This game is JRPG-like in its zeal to drown players in names, acronyms, and other details, making it difficult to keep track of who Donovan is asking about what. Thankfully, this flood slows to a trickle as the game’s story progresses, but that first hour or so of gameplay makes for a LOT of reading and re-reading.
Fortunately, Deconstructeam was more consistent with The Red Strings Club‘s visual design. The entire game is built out of crunchy pixels, strengthening its retro adventure vibe. Despite being made of pixels, The Red Strings Club‘s visuals are strongly colored and sharply defined. Moody colors and lighting effects are put to great use creating its dystopian, Deus Ex-esque cyberpunk atmosphere. The character animations are also damn good for a pixel-y game.
As with many great games, The Red Strings Club‘s world comes alive most through sound design. This world is replete with organic, satisfying sounds; everything from liquor pouring into a glass to shoes on wooden floors sounds oh so crisp. Players will enjoy the mixology minigame as much for that delectable clink of ice in a glass as the chance to make a drink. This sound design, when mixed with a soundtrack of lounge music and low synths, makes for quite the audio cocktail.
The Red Strings Club is a gift for players who enjoy story-driven games. It’s a title that keeps players guessing with its various methods of investigation, which are strung together with vivid (albeit occasionally misspelled) dialogue. The game is less concerned with the gadgetry and neon of the future than what all of that glitz means for humanity’s collective spirit. It questions, aggressively, whether humanity’s ability to think should supersede the species’ ability to feel. It’s a good sci-fi narrative, make no mistake, but it’s a sci-fi narrative whose main point is the human condition.
Few games address that question of the human condition as passionately as The Red Strings Club, which is why it deserves a shot from players of every stripe. The game is a smoothly built glimpse at a world in which humanity’s brilliance is its own worst enemy. It treads that philosophical minefield with a soft but firm touch. Give it a try; if not for its heartfelt dialogue, then at least for the chance to serve drinks to cyborgs.
You can buy The Red Strings Club here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at email@example.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.