The Red Strings Club is a narrative driven adventure game that explores transhumanism, AI and morality against a cyberpunk backdrop. If you asked me to choose three things that I like to talk and think about, there’s a good chance I’d pick out those three - so Deconstruteam would have been hard pressed to not keep my attention even if they’d somehow failed to take their subject matter anywhere interesting.
Oh boy, is the Red Strings Club interesting.
The first thing to know is that this isn't a point and click adventure in the sense you might expect. The second thing to know is that it's also an unusual cyberpunk setting. Corporations have grown in power and audacity, as you'd expect, but one of the first questions asked upon the discovery of a corp’s ‘evil’ plan is still ‘does the government know about this?’ It's not your typical dystopia, with megacorps replacing government entirely.
Most people walk around with their insides jazzed up by cybernetic augmentation, but they’re not dependent on expensive immunosuppressants a la Deus Ex or Observer. If this is a world with abundant and extreme poverty, then we’re not shown it. That sets the stage for a plot that’s about more than underdog heroes attempting to thwart the machinations of a power-hungry organisation - I put the word ‘evil’ in inverted commas just then for a reason. I’ll dig into all that in a minute, but first I better tell you about what you actually spend the game doing.
You spend the bulk of the game tending to The Red Strings bar as Donovan, a blender of soul-warming cocktails who runs a side business as an information broker. Those cocktails are obviously useful in the bar-tending phase of Donovan's life, but they come in very hand in the other phase as well. You see, the drinks you serve up can tap into different parts of a person’s psyche. A blend of tequila and vodka might make a lawyer with some juicy intel become flushed with pride, while absinthe and gin will tip her into temporary madness.
There’s a corporate conspiracy to uncover, and everyone who walks into the club knows something that will help you get to the bottom of things. It plays a little like a smarter, fleshed out version of the persuasion mini-game from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Success is all about reading an individual and trying to work out which avenues of questioning they’ll be most receptive to. With the help of drugs.
Before getting into anymore details of the story, let's talk about those drinks a little more. Like the previous game from this studio, Gods Will Be Watching, The Red Strings Club looks like it might be a retro point and click adventure, but it's something else entirely. Fortunately, it's far less frustrating than its predecessor, although I did find the actual mixing of drinks grating. You need to guide a circle so that it’s over the emotion you want to bring out, with each spirit nudging the circle in a different direction. It was novel the first few times, but by the time I’d poured my 6th or 7th drink it felt like an unnecessary hassle.
I can’t be too critical though, because it's presented beautifully. There’s something about the way the colours from different spirits swirl together that makes me wish I could take a swig from them in the real world, and - importantly - they’ve absolutely nailed the glugging sound effect. It’s a good chance to enjoy the soundtrack, too, which is a stirring blend of piano tinkling and sci-fi synth.
A big part of why I found the drink mixing so laborious is because I was always eager to get back to questioning, with each new cocktail introducing a frustratingly long pause before I got to tease out the next juicy kernel of information.
You’re free to pour your customers another drink whenever you like, which opens up some devious possibilities. My approach to handling that lawyer was to start off by making her remorseful, and then channel that guilt into drawing out a confession concerning her unsavoury activities. Once that line of inquiry dried up, I served up some ambition-enhancing tequila and tricked her into thinking that her boss wasn’t interested in her. Indignant at being ignored, she went on to blab all about the important project she was involved with.
Seeing as you find out pretty early - and it’s even mentioned on the steam page’s blurb - I think it’s ok for me to reveal a little bit about what that project is. Supercontinent Ltd is developing something called Social Psyche Welfare, and the gist is that it will render every human incapable of depression or hate. Donovan and co are quick to brand that brainwashing, but I repeatedly found myself wondering if foiling Supercontinent’s plot might do more harm than good.
It’s a question the game wants you to be asking, with one sequence in particular doing an excellent job at challenging easily made assumptions about what’s right and wrong. The irony of Donovan pumping people full of mind-altering chemicals in order to thwart a plot revolving around neurological manipulation isn’t lost on the characters, either. Between customers you get to chat to an ethical android called Akara, who’ll quiz you on the nature of morality, humanity, technology and the links between them.
I bloody love Akara and that's no surprise: the title of my university dissertation was ‘should we turn to AI for moral guidance?’, and this is a game that asks: ‘well, how 'bout it?’. I love seeing the idea being explored, especially when Akara says stuff like “I’m programmed to make you happy, not to give you everything you want - those are two very different things.” Do we need to experience the depths of negative emotions in order to properly appreciate joy? Could removing prejudice and irrational hate be beneficial enough to society that it’s worth sacrificing that particular expression of liberty?
The dialogue avoids getting sucked down the free will rabbit hole that threatens such conversations and that might be for the best, but I often felt like I was listening to intelligent people having a thought-provoking discussion where I was unable to pipe up and take the conversation exactly where I wanted it to go. That'd be a tall order, obviously, and I’m happy enough that I get to weigh in on whether marketing can ever be truly ethical that I can forgive Red Strings for not allowing me to raise the merits of an alternate political system that might render marketing completely unnecessary.
I should probably pull the brakes on the philosophy wank bus and tell you more about the actual game, because just like its cocktail-dispensing protagonist The Red Strings Club is good at mixing things up. One patron, familiar with Donovan’s ways, sets the rules for our encounter: I have to serve her a new beverage before each question, and I can’t repeat drinks. That put a smart spin on the puzzle
As well as the main action at the bar, there’s a section where you play as Akara, and one as freelance hacker Brandeis. Those are both based on two short, free games that Deconstruteam put out last year (you can find them here and here.) The free versions tell self-contained stories that take place in similar worlds to the Red String Club’s, but here they’ve been reworked so they’re central to the plot. In Akara’s, you choose mind-altering implants to stick into patients seeking a transhuman fix for their problems, then craft those implants using a pottery wheel.
Brandeis’s section involves a different brand of social engineering, using a voice changer to manipulate the staff of Supercontinent into giving you info. It’s a neat idea, though ends up feeling too much like an exercise in trial and error - unlike the smart deductions called for back at the bar.
I don’t often replay games, but the idea of starting again to explore other conversational avenues is tempting. It’s not that the decisions I made had much impact on how things ultimately pan out - the very first scene is a shot of Brandeis falling from a skyscraper, and you spend the rest of the game working back to that point. Some choices will, however, make a big difference to how you get there. At one point you get to install an implant of your choice in an important character, radically changing their motivation and personality. That alone is nearly enough to make me want to go back, especially as it only took me about five hours to play through the first time.
It’s hard for me to get away from the way the game couldn’t be more tailored to my particular interests, though the social deduction and manipulation has a driving force of its own. The dialogue is fascinating, sure, but also funny and tense - I had one moment where a misclick made me say the wrong thing, and I involuntarily gasped.
If you’ve any interest in transhumanist philosophy or even ethics in general, then you owe it to yourself to pick this one up. If you don’t, then The Red Strings Club should still hit the spot - and you might find you have more to say the next time someone asks you about the nature of happiness.