The Red Strings Club (PC Review)
What is the nature of existence? What is the price happiness and the cost of freedom? These are the fundamental questions that drive much of the cyberpunk literature out there: examining the nature of life and human interaction through a lens of transhumanist separation. It’s into this sphere that Deconstructeam’s latest title The Red Strings Club inserts itself,spinning a curious noir-ish yarn in a neon-dappled world of cyborgs, giant corporations and of course, people drinking and smoking in dingy bars.
The game finds us in the titular Red Strings Club; a slightly dodgy establishment that seems to be frequented by one customer at a time. This is unsurprising, as the owner-bartender Donovan is a broker of information, and few people wish to be seen entering or leaving. In this strange future world, Donovan is something of an outcast. He’s got a gammy leg and his body rejects all forms of implant, the result of some previously hinted at misadventure with the anti-establishment hacker group PROXYMA. There also may well be something strange and possibly supernatural about the Red Strings Club.
The story kicks off with a broken and fizzing cyborg bursting through the door of the club. Through the memory circuits of which, Donovan and his boyfriend Brandeis learn of a terrifying mind-control plan about to be rolled out by the global corporation, Supercontinent LTD. But details are sketchy, so Donovan must employ his wits and his drink-making skills to cajole the truth out of various patrons who pop into the bar, and uncover the truth behind this conspiracy.
There’s a lot to like in The Red Strings Club. It’s an interestingly conceived universe, and a tale told through unusual means. It’s also a game that manages to be both more and less than it appears to be on almost every level. The graphics are resolutely old school 16-bit and the game cheerfully wears the look of a classic 90s Lucasarts-esque adventure game. But it isn’t actually that at all. It’s more akin to a visual novel, or a text adventure, but with some mini-games peppered throughout to mix up the enjoyment.
In fact in some ways, it’s three games in one, each making up a third of the story. A curious aspect of which is that great chunks of the game itself already exist in the wild. The opening and closing chapters of the game were released in 2016 and 2017 by Deconstructeam as separate, freely downloadable mini-games, under the names Zen and the Art of Transhumanism and Supercontinent LTD. Although these chapters have been somewhat reworked in the final release, with improved controls and a little tinkering, they’re essentially the same. Meaning that the only part of the game that is new and unique is the middle chapter set in the club itself. Now, this is no deal breaker, but it means that anyone who is a fan of the developer will likely find these sections repetitive and a little dull.
The first section of game is the story of the AKARA-184 android, and is a quaint and fun little segment where the player has to spin a pottery wheel and carve implants out of biomimetic gel, then match the implants to the customer’s needs. So that, say a customer wishes more followers on social media, you could choose to implant them with Enchantress Implant to increase their social media popularity. Or you could choose another to eliminate their need for social acceptance entirely. It’s a diverting and intriguing idea, while you mess with the lives of people through artificial enhancements. Of course, matters take a turn from left-field here, and set off the events that lead to AKARA meeting Donovan and Brandeis.
The mainstay of the game, is set within the bar itself, where Donovan pours drinks for patrons and then questions them about life, the universe and the current conspiracy at large. This is where Red Strings Club really shines. You’re an information broker, and your skill at choosing the correct conversational tact will dictate how much salient knowledge you can get out of the various patrons. Adding to this ultra-light sort of LA Noire-esque interrogation system, there is the option to pour each patron drinks. These drinks can alter the mood of the customer, and put them potentially off balance enough for them to spill the beans a little more. However, some combinations won’t work, for example, enhancing someone’s fear might get them to talk about their paranoid worries of being followed, but prying into corporate secrets won’t work, as they’ll clam up about it. Whereas serving up a little overconfidence can get a little bit more out of an arrogant blowhard.
The drinks mixing mini-games is also luckily a simple yet fun diversion, as you pour different drinks to move and resize a target around the body of the customer to land on the right target. The game adds in some additional complications later on but also affords you the chance to “win” some memory resetting pills, just in case you make a complete balls-up of a conversation. Although it never addressed the somewhat uncomfortable notion that you’re literally dropping an amnesia inducing pill into a drink at a bar, which itself is a little myopic at best.
The final act of the game, involves a lengthy deductive bit of phone-chat with a voice modulator, which as previously mentioned was released in a similar form as Supercontinent LTD. Allowing you to solve a series of puzzles by masquerading as different people. Although this is easily the least entertaining part of the game.
It’s worth pointing out that while the mini-games and scene changes do make up a chunk of The Red Strings Club, it’s a very dialogue-heavy game. This manages to be both blessing and curse, as the writing in the game can be of variable quality. The characters throughout the game are nicely differentiated from each other, and manage to stand out in both tone and personality. You will grow to feel like you know, and understand Donovan, and Brandeis, and to an extent some of the Supercontinent LTD staff who wander through the door of the club. In that sense, I applaud the developer team for their work, however the world building leaves far more to be desired.
There’s not nearly enough about the game universe explained for a player to reasonably grasp the ins and outs of this story in its wider context. What’s more, it’s a game story riddled with contradiction. Case in point: Donovan’s odd predicament, his being trapped in the bar is at various times hinted at being supernatural somehow, and at others is vaguely hinted at being a side-effect of not being able to take on cybernetic implants. Yet we meet other characters who lack the same who function perfectly well in the world. Similarly the game is supposedly set at some far flung point in the 21st century, and yet it name-drops YouTube, Twitter, Bitcoin and other modern day references with a disregard that pulls you out of the setting entirely.
There’s also a strange moment where the game breaks its internal logic to hammer home a moral message. While during a conversation about free-will, Donovan is asked a series of questions about whether it would be moral to prevent people from such things as committing suicide, rape, murder and the like; each question allowing a yes/no binary answer, with Donovan justifying his position plausibly. Then comes a question of “should the oppression of women be stopped” at which the game gives a further option of “women aren’t oppressed”. Now this third option is clearly a setup for Donovan to be told off for being stupid, but it gave me pause, as the game world at no point makes any mention of female oppression. Moreover, the game’s clear commitment to diversity of characters means that most of the high level corporate execs in the game are women. This dissonance between the game’s show and tell heavily underlines how little we actually are told of the game world, and in itself adds to the minor PR disaster surrounding a trans character being “deadnamed” as part of an ingame puzzle. However, in context this isn’t so much a problem in my eyes, as much as a rare occasion of the game telling you something about the society in this universe, but with clearly too much subtlety.
Ultimately The Red Strings Club is an eager but flawed game. There’s at best about 4 hours of gameplay to it, and only on a very relaxed first playthrough. Subsequent plays are potentially worth it to uncover alternate events in the plot and different ways of solving some of the puzzles, but they’ll be unlikely to afford even half that time commitment. It’s a game for diehard cyberpunk fans, and has the benefit of being a complete story that still leaves itself open for the possibility of a sequel. Most players however would be advised to wait for it to grace a Steam sale or a Humble Bundle.
Editors Note: We convinced that grumpy old git Graeme to help us on this one, covering The Red Strings Club, and we are eternally grateful for his words.