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Eliza, a visual novel about algorithms and mental health, is out now

BIG MOOD

Here are two things that are currently a bit rubbish: the standard and availability of mental health care, and the quality of AI doing the job of a human. Would applying an AI bandaid do anything to touch the former problem, or make it worse? And is it a problem bad enough to give up a bunch of personal information to tech valley datacentres? These are some of the questions you’ll be able to ponder while playing Eliza, a visual novel set in a world where an algorithm provides counselling to those in need via a human proxy who reads the script they’re provided. It’s about as creepy as it sounds, as you can see from the trailer below.

The game follows Evelyn Ishino-Aubrey, who has recently returned back to Seattle after a long and mysterious time away, a new proxy for the AI Eliza service. She herself will need to wrestle with the questions of boundaries and privacy and care, while also considering her own history and place in the system.

Though it deviates from Zachtronics’ usual puzzle-programming games (and therefore puts a wrench in the Alice-O-coined “Zachlikes” genre), the visual novel format works well. For example, the fact that the first AI-driven therapy session didn’t give me the option to deviate. Where other conversations had dialogue choices, in speaking with client Darren I could only say what Eliza wanted me to say, simulating the pressure of Evelyn’s job of sticking to the script.

It’s too early for me to say anything about the game’s approach to its big questions, but “levelling up” in the Eliza app after the session with Darren did feel particularly grimy. It stands to reason that the AI would bring gamification to its workers, but I’m not sure I need to be level 2 in reading what the algorithm thinks I should say to desperate people, even if it is truly helping them. And that’s a big if.

I am looking forward to playing more, especially after reading Sin’s thoughts on it as the Unknown Pleasures pick of the week.

Eliza touched on all of the issues in under an hour. The personal story of Evelyn, the problems she had in her old job, her own mental health, the troubles faced by her patients, their concerns with the system, its sinister dystopian possibilities, and, despite my distaste, its potential benefits. That’s not just a good idea, that’s a good idea someone really cares about and understands, and has the talent to write.

Colour me invested enough to dive back in tonight. And somewhat relieved that this has come out while my therapist is on summer break so that I don’t accidentally waste the whole of our next session just asking what they think about it all.

Eliza is out now on Steam, itch.io, Humble, and GOG for £11.39/$15/€12.49.

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Who am I?

Jay Castello

Contributor

Jay writes about video games, falls down endless internet rabbit holes, and takes a lot of pictures of flowers.

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