Cocktails with Red Strings attached

It’s usually obvious who the antagonist is when you play a video game. Even when there’s a plot twist at the end, they tend to make themselves known. With The Red Strings Club however, I was kept guessing every step of the way and even now am questioning who the real villain was.

The following post contains some minor spoilers for the game. If you haven’t yet played it, I’d highly recommend doing so before reading on – going in with limited information will make for an even better experience.

This title takes place in a cyberpunk future, where the Supercontinent Ltd corporation is on the verge of releasing Social Psyche Welfare (SPW) to the population: a system that will eliminate depression, anger and fear from society enabling everyone to be their ‘better selves’. But the bartender of a clandestine club and a freelance hacker don’t regard this evolution as an improvement and instead see it as brainwashing, so together with a rogue empathy android and company employees they will pull all the strings they can bring down the scheme.

However, it’s so much more than pretty pixels on a screen and what at first appears as a typical dystopian science-fiction storyline. The Red Strings Club excels at taking a subject which seems to be crystal clear and then twisting it back on itself until you’re questioning your own beliefs and motivations. It asks difficult questions to which there are no right or wrong answers, and you’ll be left thinking about the choices you’ve made long after the credits have rolled.

Players step into the shoes of a protagonist and take on a mini-game in between dialogue trees. The first is advanced android Akara-184 who manufactures personality-changing implants to meet her clients’ needs, many of which relate to influence or power. The solution isn’t always straight-forward however; for example, for the cosplayer who wants to be more popular online, do you increase their social network charisma or remove their need to be socially-accepted altogether?

Akara is presented with characters who will go as far as installing a behaviour modifier chosen by a robot into their bodies because they’re so scared of their weaknesses, despite not knowing what effect this will have or whether it will make them happier in the long-run. There are parallels here to the products and technology we’re confronted with every day which tell us we’d be fulfilled if we were prettier, skinnier or more popular. Is it our flaws who make us who we are and are we fundamentally changing ourselves by removing them?

Next up is Donovan, the bartender and owner of The Red Strings Club itself. His speciality is mixing cocktails but they’re no ordinary drinks; they tap into the hidden parts of a patron’s psyche once consumed and allow you to subtly influence them to get the information you require. For example, a blend of absinthe and bourbon will make the madness in one character’s personality more prominent while a mix of tequila and vodka will make them lustful and forward-speaking.

The Red Strings Club, video game, bar, woman, Larissa, bartender, Donovan, android, Akara

One character here is worthy of an individual mention for several reasons. Marketing Director Larissa may appear confident, glamourous and unashamed but a deeper look into her soul reveals an awful lot of depression, showing that a bold exterior can sometimes be a mask for other emotions. Later during the title when a secret is revealed it becomes clear that there’s more to how she’s feeling. It’s worth pointing out that this is a point which gained negative criticism from some players.

While the Supercontinent supporters interviewed by Donovan at the bar say its SPW technology is no different from the mood-controlling medication taken by a lot of the population, we’re left with the question of whether his cocktails are just another form of control. The irony of him giving his customers mind-altering drinks in order to bring down a neurological manipulation scheme isn’t lost on them either. Each question you ask branches off into a different part of the story and you constantly wonder whether you’d made the right choices.

You can to chat to Akara between customers and she’ll question you on morality, humanity, technology and the relationships between them. It’s during one of these sessions that she presents you with hypothetical situations that seem almost obvious; for example, it’s hard to dispute the fact that using SPW to remove homophobia or racism from society could be a good thing. But she’s then quick to poke holes in your logic and asks who gets to make those kinds of choices.

The Red Strings Club, video game, office, telephone, man, Brandeis

This paves the way for Brandeis’s section of the game where he must sneak into Supercontinent’s headquarters undetected and bring down the technology designed to deploy SPW to the masses. As communications and access to critical systems are handled through an old-fashioned landline network, he does so using an implant which enables him to impersonate anyone’s voice providing he has enough biometric data. The hacker must use clues found in an empty office and information obtained from those he calls to sabotage the network.

But surely this is him imposing his view of the best outcome on humanity? How is that different from the corporation forcing theirs upon us? Is it moral to make a choice if it’s for the greater good; and what if your idea of ‘good’ is vastly different from somebody else’s? The Red Strings Club argues that bending society’s rules and changing the future based on the opinions of one group is hypocritical, and it calls you out for making the decisions you have.

Akara, Donovan and Brandeis all begin to doubt their motivations and purpose as the game progresses and this cleverly mimics how the player is feeling. You’ll eventually realise the consequences of your actions on the title’s world and, while you might be confident about some of the choices you took, the delayed cause-and-effect gives rise to internal questions about how you could have formed certain opinions in the first place. It makes for a uniquely personal experience which isn’t entirely a comfortable one.

The Red Strings Club, video game, photograph, selfie, men, Brandeis, Donovan, notebook, bar, drinks

The Red Strings Club is a release that asks us how far we’re willing to go to suppress the worst aspects of our personalities for the good of the population, and whether it’s worth sacrificing negative emotions such as sadness and anger. Do our feelings make us who we are, are we shaped by our suffering, and is happiness at the cost of free will ultimately worth it? Deconstructeam have managed to give us a game which makes the player consider who the real villain is.

As Akara says: “I’m programmed to make you happy, not to give you everything you want – those are two very different things.”

Stories Untold and the joy of text

I loved text adventures when I was young. It started with the Ghost Hunter choose-your-own-adventure by Edward Packard then progressed to games such as Zork. I used to scour our local library for the Usborne type-in books and I pored through the pages of code for story snippets.

There are a number of text adventures available on Steam nowadays but sadly, they’re not the same. I remember the excitement I used to feel as a kid when rolling the dice for a new page-number or typing in the next command and not knowing whether the result would be good or bad; and that just isn’t there any longer. Maybe it’s nostalgia talking or perhaps I’m becoming jaded in my old age, but it seems as though current text adventures are missing the thing that used to make them so special.

At least, that’s what I thought until I completed Stories Untold by No Code earlier this month. Let’s say that my opinion may have recently changed.

It was added to my wishlist in April where it sat for a few months before being purchased in the summer sale. But as is common with plenty of titles picked up in this way, it languished in my backlog until a couple of weeks ago when I had a conversation with Bradley over at Cheap Boss Attack. He referred to Stories Untold as one of his favourite games of the year and gave it a recommendation; so during a break between arguments with the other-half over whether Destiny 2 or The Elder Scrolls Online would be going on the PlayStation 4 that evening, I hit the ‘install’ button and roped Pete into playing with me.

Advertised as ‘four stories, one nightmare’, this experimental title manages to bend the genre into something new and unique. It cleverly combines text-adventures, point-and-clicks and psychological horrors into a rather remarkable experience which is likely to stay with me for some time to come. If you’re a fan of series such as The Twilight Zone and Stranger Things, of 80s nostalgia and retro games, or text adventures in general, you need to play it – I couldn’t agree more with Bradley’s recommendation.

The ending, when it arrives, is like an oncoming train. You can’t deviate from the path that fate has set out for you: as much as you want to tear yourself away from the inevitable conclusion, it’s simply impossible and you must see it through. The fear slowly rises as you make your way through the four episodes and see connections, until the hairs on the back on your neck stand up each time you’re asked to enter a new command.

I think that’s exactly what’s missing from other text-adventures. The items I mentioned at the start of this post used to invoke such fear in me as a kid but it was addictive: as much as I was scared by the spooks in Ghost Hunter or the Grue in Zork, I wanted to see them through to the end. The fact that there were no visuals meant it was up to the player to use the text to see the story in their own minds and that somehow made those worlds all the more frightening.

There was always the feeling that if you looked up from the screen, you’d start to see elements of the title in the real world; and that’s what Stories Untold successfully manages to recreate. It’s extremely hard to resist the urge to look over your shoulder as you play through The House Abandon episode or not to expect your phone to ring when the handset does in-game. It’s difficult to say more without spoiling it for future players except that No Code have crafted some very clever moments.

So say no more I will, and I’ll just encourage you to give it a go for yourself if you have the opportunity. I really hope the developer considers making a second season because I can’t wait to see where they take us next.