Welcome To The Club
It may only be January, but Deconstructeam’s The Red Strings Club is already on my list of top games I’ve played this year. More importantly, I’m confident that it will be on your top games list too once the credits begin to role and you’re left wondering if you’ve made all the right (or wrong) decisions for humanity.
To put it simply, The Red Strings Club hit me like one of Donovan’s perfectly engineered cocktails: all the right spots hit to create an absorbing and tantalizing experience that awakened all of my emotions.
In essence, the storytelling alone is used as a powerful tool to catapult the player into a medley of self questioning, not only about the themes The Red Strings Club presents in its own narrative, but also what it means for our reality. Tackling controversial topics like the responsibilities of technology and those that engineer it, the unethical use of marketing, and the often inappropriate way society tackles human emotions like depression, fear, anxiety, and more, The Red Strings Club promises to enforce all of your maybe not so paranoid delusions about the world while wanting to turn you into freedom fighter and a recluse all at the same time.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Regardless, the clever yet subtle way these concepts are delivered are what make The Red Strings Club quite brilliant, and definitely something worthy of your time when released later this month.
Trouble On Tap
The game opens on a classic scene: two men – one playing a piano (Brandeis), another at a bar (Donovan) – deep in conversation. Thankfully, there’s no “Play it again, Sam” joke here. There isn’t time for one, because a half naked, half dead android literally falls through the doorway.
Since this is a world where almost 50% of the population has biomechanical implants, Brandeis is able to plug into the android’s neural network and find out what happened. Turns out, it was present when a freedom fighter infiltrated the headquarters of said android’s creators to make some interesting adjustments to the people waiting for upgrades.
This scenario plays out to familiarize players with how human biomechanical upgrades work and what their purposes are. Players get to sculpt and decide what upgrades go into who based on requests in their files. This isn’t important at first, but eventually some decisions are made that can affect the end of the game.
In this flashback, both Brandeis, Donovan, and the audience find out what this corporation, called Supercontinent, is intending to do with some new software; Social Psyche Welfare and the Mirror Neuron Algorithm. These two programs will become the catalyst for the story at large, as both will regulate everyone’s emotions after a global installation taking place in just a few days. Supercontinent claims they will only eliminate depression, anxiety, and other unproductive emotions to ensure that humanity is always capable of operating at pique performance: ensuring that you are always your best you, but can they be trusted?
Naturally this doesn’t settle too well with Brandeis or Donovan, and they take it upon themselves – with the help of the android, Akara 184 – to make sure SPW and MNA never see the light of day.
Danger On The Rocks
From here, players will be responsible for gathering information on various Supercontinent employees that make their way into The Red Strings Club. Fortunately, Donovan is a master manipulator and a highly skilled bartender. While unable to get implants himself, his talents serve him almost as well: he can infuse a drink to sync directly with a specific mood of the drinker. This helps him gain information out of witless drunks as he “pulls strings” to get the best answer.
It’s here where the game’s mechanics really comes into play – no pun intended. Knowing the questions that need to be answered beforehand, it is up to the player to determine what emotions will garner the most honest and informative answers from patrons. It’s best to pay close attention during these casual interrogations, because in most cases you won’t get to ask again. What’s interesting in these cases is that just when you think you’ve formed an opinion on something, the person you’re questioning will shoot back questions of their own, throwing you the player into doubt about your own convictions. Is SPW and MNA really all that bad? How do you know? Is it fair to doom others to anxiety and depression for your own convictions? If yes, why?
Once you’ve spoken with everyone and gained all of your information, it’s infiltration time. Only now the player will be using Brandeis to access the Supercontinent mainframe and navigate the upper echelons of corporate management (it’s more interesting than it sounds) to make sure SPW and the MNA never make it to the world. It’s here where all of your work shows through. The amount of intel you have before this moment can make for an easy or difficult time for Brandeis as he disguises himself to gain information out of employees so as to hack the system and bring everything crashing down.
Things don’t play out exactly how you might expect towards the end though. Make your decisions carefully.
A Sobering Experience
Whether you succeed or fail in ceasing SPW and MNA, important questions are asked of the characters, but mostly of you the player, and it is here where the game is its most impactful. The Red Strings Club deals with a variety of themes, as stated before. The foremost being technology and the changes it implements on all of our lives both collectively and as individuals.
These aren’t always things we think about, even with the advent of self-driving cars, smart homes, and echo devices. Yet whose responsibility is it to regulate these things? When they go awry, or are used unethically, who is responsible? Ideally it would be the ones who create these items. But when a new User Acknowledgement is emailed to you in all it’s five hundred pages of glory, warning you about how they’ll be used to spy on you, and you simply scroll right to the bottom and click “I Accept These Terms and Conditions” is the onus still on corporations, or on us? And what happens if something can affect our “neural network”? Is mind control all that bad even under the auspices of self improvement? What if it can be used to stop rape, or murder? Isn’t that worth taking away a broad spectrum of feelings, many of which are negative?
The Red Strings Club asks all of this of the player and more. The paradox of modern life permeates every particle of the story, and players will be left questioning things they weren’t ready to towards the end.
You’ll Be Shaken, And Stirred
This clever presentation of moral dilemmas coupled with oddly human characters (despite their inhumanness in some cases) made The Red Strings Club a very powerful experience for me, especially given my own experiences with anxiety and depression. It left me asking questions I’d never really considered before.
Should we take these emotions away? Do we have the right to make these choices for others? Are we capable of making them for ourselves even? Would ridding ourselves of these feelings affect our identity? Creativity? Evolution? Would getting rid of them make the world better, or worse? Can you trust that power being in the hands of anyone, even yourself?
Obviously there’s no truly right answer to these questions, but The Red Strings Club will leave you wondering long after you’ve wrapped your first playthrough. And because there are multiple endings, coming back to try again and do better isn’t out of the question, and in fact is encouraged by the developers and myself – because the more you know ahead of time, the better you do.
The Red Strings Club is one of those cerebral experiences that simply can’t be replicated by playing another game of its genre. Deconstructeam has a very special title on their hands, one that I can’t praise highly enough. If you’re looking for an indie adventure title with cyberpunk themes reminiscent of Bladerunner while gripping all the anti-corporate jargon of Fight Club, this game is going to be one for the ages.
Final Verdict: 5 / 5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Devolver Digital ; Developer: Deconstructeam; Players: 1 ; Released: January 22, 2018 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a PC review copy of The Red Strings Club given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.