The reason The Red Strings Club had to be a game
Deconstructionteam’s The Red Strings Club launched on Steam last January, and while its incredible pixel art, which was reminiscent of the old Lucasarts point-and-click adventure games I played as a kid, instantly grabbed my attention, the game sat on my wish list for months before I received a free copy from Twitch Prime late last year.
The official Steam page describes it as “ a cyberpunk narrative experience about fate and happiness featuring the extensive use of pottery, bartending and impersonating people on the phone to take down a corporate conspiracy.” Frankly, I didn’t really know what to expect from it, but I couldn’t get past the striking art direction, and I found myself itching for a good cyberpunk story, so I finally gave it a go earlier this month.
In retrospect, very few games have managed to fully describe themselves so succinctly and so accurately, but for a long while, I wondered about the descriptor “narrative experience.” Why not call it a game? It certainly looked and sounded like a run-of-the-mill point-and-click. But then I began navigating dialogue trees and solving rather straightforward puzzles and making seemingly inconsequential choices, and I’d believed I’d found my answer. The Red Strings Club was more a visual novel than the classic adventure games it emulated.
When it comes to telling a story, the medium can matter every bit as much as the narrative itself. Why tell this story this way when maybe it might have been better told in print or on film?
I didn’t make the comparison pejoratively. I’ve played and enjoyed visual novels before, and I believe there’s something magical about combining art with sound and interactivity. But I got it, why the devs or Devolver (the publisher) chose not to just call it a game outright in their Steam description. The Red Strings Club’s focus is shifted ever so slightly from player interactivity and agency towards a constructed narrative in the same way that a visual novel’s or “walking simulator’s” might be.
With that in mind (right or wrong) I continued to play through The Red Strings Club, mixing drinks and shaping cybernetic enhancements on a pottery table and reading dialogue — all the while really grooving to an incredible soundtrack by fingerspit. I continued, too, to ask myself why this story was being told in this format because, when it comes to telling a story, the medium can matter every bit as much as the narrative itself. Maybe this should have been a short story or comic, I thought to myself at one point during the first act of the game.
But about halfway into the 4-hour or so experience, Akara, a super-empathetic android and one of the game’s supporting cast, sat down across from protagonist Donovan and started asking him questions about free will and the human condition and what he — or I — would change in the world if given the chance, and I realized that this story simply could not have worked in any other format. It had to be a game.
Spoilers for The Red Strings Club follow
I don’t want to spoil too much about the game’s story here, but it’s necessary to provide a little bit of additional context. The central plot revolves, in true cyberpunk fashion, around a major corporation called Supercontinent that manufacturers various types of human augmentation. These cybernetic enhancements start off simple enough. They may enhance the attractiveness of their clients, for example, or their charisma, but we soon see them dipping into an even grayer ethical area as they alter their users’ central motivations and beliefs. One character, a journalist and activist, is “enhanced” to simply stop caring so much, effectively ending his career. Another is made into a corporate anarchist, the polar opposite of his former self.
As I met with the various patrons of the bar and learned more about the project, I’ll admit that my own resolve began to falter. But I was interacting with the ethical questions being posed to me from the perspective of an outsider with no skin in the game
You learn early on that the same corporation is developing technology that will allow them to control human behavior on a global scale, even those individuals who may not have installed any cybernetics themselves. It’s pretty black and white, ethically speaking, unless you fancy the idea of a for-profit corporation controlling your thoughts and free will. As a bartender and information broker, it’s your responsibility to learn as much about the project as you can so that you can foil the corporation’s plans and bring it down.
But almost as soon as the idea is introduced, The Red Strings Club starts to subvert its cyberpunk tropes. People are super-depressed, one character argues, and this tech could prevent people from hitting their lowest lows without eliminating human sadness altogether. People are violent, too, and it could put an end to that.
Donovan and I didn’t want to hear it. People have a right to make mistakes, we responded. We grow from conflict, and the greatest joys in life can only be experienced within the context of our lowest lows.
Yet as I met with the various patrons of the bar and learned more about the project, I’ll admit that my own resolve began to falter, but I was interacting with the ethical questions being posed to me from the perspective of an outsider. I had no skin in the game. These were mere thought experiments, the kind of thing my philosophy professors posed to me as an undergrad. Sure, the game’s text was philosophical; it got me thinking. But I remained cognitively distanced from it.
For the bulk of the game, you’re the one asking the questions as you interact with the its other characters, but the tables get turned on you from time to time, the most poignant and memorable of which is when, as I alluded to earlier, Akara-184 starts asking Donovan for advice on how they should approach various ethical dilemmas if and when Supercontinent’s plans come to fruition, leaving Akara to pull the strings on human behavior.
No book or movie or any other narrative medium could have forced me to reconcile with my own beliefs so intimately.
“How should I regulate depression and anxiety?” they ask Donovan.
You shouldn’t, I answer, still mostly in Donovan’s head. Depression’s a part of being human. But now the game’s struck a chord, and the wheels are starting to turn in my head. I think about my loved ones who have struggled with depression and about my own struggles. I remember my younger, naiver self promising my mother that I’d one day grow up and develop a cure for depression. I understand as an adult that it doesn’t work that way, but what if it could?
“Should I let people commit suicide?” they ask Donovan. It’s a yes-or-no question, but the choice is left up to the player, and all of a sudden, I’m engaging with the game and its philosophical ponderings actively and directly, and again it’s hitting close to home. I consider it for a moment and answer that, yes, people should have the right to decide when and how they die, even if it means hurting those who care about them.
“Should I allow rape to occur?” Akara asks bluntly.
It was an epiphany for me. I no longer wondered why Deconstructionteam chose to tell their story in this format because no book or movie or any other narrative medium could have forced me to reconcile with my own beliefs so intimately, so directly.
As much as I wanted to buy into the punk part of this cyberpunk adventure, as much as I wanted to bring down the evil megacorp, I found myself in turmoil, as though I were facing an actual, real-world dilemma. Violence may be a part of human nature, but if I had the chance to rectify it — to end rape and murder — could I choose to forgo that out of some misplaced notion for preserving an idealized definition of Humanity.
“No,” I answered.
The android pointed out my hypocrisy.
The Red Strings Club moves into its third and final act shortly after the conversation with Akara. It’s closing scene is poignant and touching, even if the game’s final plot twist didn’t quite resonate with me. But as the credits rolled, I was still thinking about the questions I had been confronted with, a little less sure of the answers I’d given. A little less sure of myself, maybe.
But for all the uncertainty it left me with, one idea was cemented for me: The Red Strings Club couldn’t have worked as well it does in any other medium.