Trailers of The Red Strings Club show robots controlling happiness, a bartending theme that screams VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action and…was that a pottery class? It’s safe to say that I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this game. Although, being developed by Deconstructeam, who brought us Gods Will Be Watching, suggested a rather emotional ride. And sure enough, everything starts with a man falling to his death.
The story follows the events that lead to said man, Brandeis, being pushed out of a building. It all begins with a seemingly quiet drink in a bar, when a robot suddenly crashes through the door. Bartender Donovan immediately recognises it as an Akara android – an AI who can judge and give out ‘happiness implants’. (Tell it you want more online followers, and they’ll make you appear sexier, boost your charisma, or take away your need for social acceptance. Problem solved.)
By hacking the android, the pair discovers that the company behind them plan to upgrade the entire human population. Social Psyche Welfare will eradicate sadness, hatred and all other negative emotions, replacing it with a constant state of happiness. So there would be no depression, suicide, or oppression. But does that also mean no questions, and brainless acceptance? Not wanting to turn into mindless happy slaves, Brandeis and Donovan set out to protect their future emotions.
Despite the pixilated art style suggesting a point-and-click adventure, The Red Strings Club is probably best described as a visual novel. For the most part you play as Donovan, who deals in drinks and information. So the majority of the game is spent serving alcohol behind the bar. Before you write it off as boring, listen to this: Donovan can read people’s emotions and draw out whichever one he likes. Blimey, that would be useful wouldn’t it? Think of what people would blab about if you could harness their sympathy, fear, vanity, or lust? Maybe fear would make them spill facts on a missing colleague, while pride could get them to discuss a current work project.
Watching characters change based off which emotion is being forced to dominate never gets old. It’s kept realistic, so people don’t just break down if they’re sad, choosing instead to question themselves and what’s going on around them. I naturally believed in the different emotions and stresses they were holding onto. And what worked even more was how it quickly became clear that the happiness project wasn’t necessarily something ‘intrinsically evil’. I was encouraged to talk to people and come up with my own opinion – which would actually affect certain things in the game. It was refreshing to find a title that was actually making me think and choose rather than simply slamming the ‘correct moral choice’ in my face.
We’re still playing a game here, though, so it’s not as simple as picking random emotions and seeing what happens. Firstly, you have to mix the drinks yourself. A character’s possible emotions will appear on their body in the form of different shaped rings and you have to create the cocktail that will ‘hit the spot’. I found that the only real challenge in this was getting more alcohol in the glass than the floor, but hey it was a fun novelty that helped me feel a bit more involved than simply clicking on a text box.
There’s also only a certain amount of questions that can be asked of each character, and you only get one shot with each one. Get the wrong emotion for the job, and it could mean losing out on vital information. Hell, someone could even get offended and walk out of a conversation early. The most interesting moments here were with people like Larissa, who insists you give her a different drink in-between each question, with no repeating cocktails. And I found myself really having to take my time to consider which emotion should go with each question, to gain the best information.
It’s not all about the bartending in The Red Strings Club, though. There’s pottery making with Akara, and sneaky phone calls in an office with Brandeis. My time with Akara was about choosing and making people’s implants – so they’d say what’s getting them down in life and I got to try and help. Playing God was kind of fun here – I guess I’ll give this guy more charisma, and this one can stop seeing negative internet comments, or how about making that corporate superior give a big middle finger to rules and management. Fun times.
Similar to the bartending though, being made to craft the implants before giving them out was only really entertaining the first time. Pacing became very slow and stinted, particularly in future playthroughs. Like, you literally have to sculpt the clay with different shaped tools a number of times, and I just wanted to get back to the story already.
Time with Brandeis is more fun, as you get to use his cyber implants to impersonate people on the phone. I really enjoyed this little puzzle, thinking about the relationships between the characters I’d spent time with and how they’d react to each other. Again, some decent social commentary going on there about how we handle information based on who is asking the questions.
Instead of saying that The Red Strings Club has multiple endings, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that there are different ways to experience the journey. Characters always know the same things, but what information you squeeze out of them, and how that affects them is up to you. Playing again a few times, I did enjoy dishing out different drinks and discovering alternative sides to people. Yet I was a little disappointed in how little change there is in overall events, and might have been more eager to play multiple times with a touch more diversity.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the art and music, which really acts to tie everything together. While I know pixelated art isn’t for everyone, trust that it actually works really well with The Red Strings Club‘s heavy dialogue and thoughtful themes. Instead of asking you to take in a lot of text and deal with an overload of images, everything is kept simple and effective, with the mood being handled at all times by the choice of color pallet and background music.
The Red Strings Club asks you to be quiet and just think for a bit. I can’t say that I was blown away emotionally; indeed very little actually happens when it comes down to it. Yet everything clearly matters to the characters involved. Their realism, and the ability to see how their emotions change them, all while questioning the concept of happiness makes it a title worth experiencing. Some may wish for a little more variety in later playthroughs, but hey, it only takes three hours, so there’s no real excuse for not giving it a go.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A review copy was provided to us by Devolver Digital.
A short but thought-provoking story with interesting moral choices to make and enough player engagement to keep you involved.