Behind a bar, the world has no secrets. Whether personal anguish or corporate secrets, it all comes spilling out when the booze flows. But can those with a special touch not just learn the truth, but change the course of human history?
The Red Strings Club is a noir cyberpunk puzzle game. It opens with seconds left for one of the characters, Brandeis, to live. Time flashes back, and the player is thrust into a narrative journey about the human condition, destiny and choices. Prepare to have your biases probed and your beliefs questioned.
For the bulk of the time the player controls Donovan; mysterious bartender and information broker. Donovan is possessed of a unique skill, where he can mix drinks to influence peoples moods. This allows him to gain information from even the most guarded of individuals. He is also one of the few people left who is not augmented or enhanced in some way.
This drink mixing skill plays a large part in the game. Players select from various bottles of alcohol and pour them into a glass during a physics mini-game. The subject sitting at the bar has various nodes on them which represent emotions that can be influenced. Pouring various types of alcohol moves a target, with the aim being to mix a drink which hits one of the emotion nodes.
Some emotions are harder to hit, or outside the capacity of a single glass. The target can be decreased in size, and able to hit smaller nodes, by adding ice cubes to the drink. Nodes further out can be reached by combining drinks in a shaker and then adding the resulting concoction to the mix.
Once a patron has had their drink served, Donovan will go about asking them a series of questions. This portion is very much in the vein of most game dialogue sequences, where the player chooses questions to ask from a list of them. Depending on the mood of the patron they may, or may not, answer these questions in a useful way. Whatever Donovan discovers is recorded in his notebook.
Other mini-games crop up from time to time. Early in the game the player recalls the memories of a damaged android, and gets to spin a pottery wheel as they sculpt implants for customers from biomass. Another sees Donovan’s assistant, Akara, posing quiz questions which are answered to gain benefits during the bar-tending sections.
While the mini-games provide challenges to the player, the narrative is at the very core of the game. Everything presented is in service of telling a fascinating tale, which centres on the human condition while also exploring the motivations of corporations. This isn’t a game where player interaction is interrupted intermittently by story. The game is the story.
As key events or information are revealed, at the top of the screen, a red string winds its way between nodes. Each completed node can be moused over to reveal the event which added it. All unrevealed nodes provide no information, save for the very last, which portents Brandeis’ death.
Everything about The Red Strings Club which makes it great also makes it awful. Characters reflect on the fragility of life. They discuss the existential nature of existence. They question what it means to be human, and whether we have a say in our own futures.
It is simultaneously dark and hopeful. The characters are complex and nuanced, just like real people. Even with all their technology and augments they still feel pain, suffering, depression and love. They struggle to do the right thing, or even to agree on what the right thing is. It is a world which seems wholly fantastical, but at the same time, uncomfortably familiar.
And I like this. It is a bold move to create a game which relies so heavily on narrative. A game which asks the audience to question not just the characters of the game, but themselves as well. Beware, this isn’t a light time filler. Even though it only takes a few hours to complete, it is heavy. It weighs on you, even when you aren’t playing it. It sits in your mind, causing introspection and reflection.
The Red Strings Club is narrative-based game play at its very best. You will be challenged emotionally, and asked to consider questions of moral ambiguity which you had never even conceived. Some of the game is quite confronting, but even so, get ready to take one in the feels.
The Red Strings Club is developed by Deconstructeam and published by Devolver Digital. It is available right now on Steam.
Reviewed On: PC
Review System: nVidiaN9600C, G1 Sniper M7 S1151, 16GB RAM
Playtime: 6 hours