After I finished Red strings club, I immediately sent a message to Alex and Celia telling them they needed to play it. There was something amazingly captivating about Red Strings Club to me, and portions of it are difficult to put into words.
Part of it was that I really had no idea what I was getting into. Steam describes the game as “a cyberpunk narrative experience about fate and happiness featuring the extensive use of pottery, bartending and impersonating people on the phone to take down a corporate conspiracy.” Which is a pretty good summary all things considered. Red Strings Club is a walking simulator where you don’t walk. A sort of narrative tree based intrigue piece, you switch between conversations where you’re doing detective work via interviews with patrons and discussing morality. All this kept fresh with a series of minigames ranging from shaping pottery to create implants to influence human emotion to pouring drinks that enhance a certain aspect of a person’s soul.
The discussion of morality in games is kind of a mine field, and while I think that Red Strings Club really pushes the envelope on what topics it can get away with, I did think it ended up staying respectful and introspective as opposed to landing too far into preachy or irreverent. It’s a difficult balancing act, where the characters debate morality with the player asking leading questions and while it has a few moments that feel a tad to reminiscent of PHIL 101, it managed to be open ended enough to just pose difficult questions to the player, without actually proposing it had the correct answer.
All in all, I really recommend playing through Red Strings Club. It’s well worth the $15 price tag, and if you’re on the fence it’s an old enough game a sale is never too far away.
Everything beyond this point is potential spoilers, and my thoughts on the game including the ending!
First things first, Red Strings Club really shines due to its characters. The main duo is a gay couple, a mystic (?) bartender named Donovan and his revolutionary cyber boyfriend Brandeis. Their chemistry is great. I was actually surprised when the game made them explicitly a gay couple, I had assumed they were a gay couple and they were coded as a gay couple, but the explicit representation was a nice breath of fresh air. You never know how little explicit representation is given until it smacks you across the face I guess.
The bartender (Donovan) works predominately off of the cyborg Akara-184 in his bar, she observes his interactions with customers (all of whom are entangled in this crazy web of intrigue and cybernetics) and answer her questions about morality as you go in the form of a back and forth debate/discussion. And here is where the game does its most perilous balancing act, the discussions you have are a heavy one and the pure technological limitations of any sort of simulated conversation mean that it’s never *really* going to have the sort of nuance those conversations require. The game doesn’t propose it has the right answer either, no matter what answer you choose your cyborg friend will offer a counterpoint.
The game hops between the two POV characters, Brandeis and Donovan, as the plot moves forward. Generally laid out: the major corporation responsible for providing citizens with their cyberware is releasing an update which would help regulate the emotions of those who use the cyberware and those around them, even if they don’t use cyberware, theoretically decreasing violent crime and depression in the populace without resorting to mind control. I am not going to analyze even a little bit the implications of that decision. I’m just looking at the game, and I think it holds up pretty well.
The plot doesn’t have a huge amount of branching options, Brandeis is adamantly against the use of the mood suppressor and so no matter your dialogue choices you’ll end up acting against the corporation implementing them. I didn’t mind the more linear plot path because the game did provide an rather extensive array of NPC relationships available.
Conversations between Donovan and his customers can effect how dialogue trees with later NPCs occur and even how the final puzzle solving section pans out. It may still not be enough for true “replayability” (I only went through multiple times for the screenshots) but it is enough to give the feeling that your answers really are having an effect on the people around you.
The game culminates in an excellent puzzle solving bit where you as Brandeis use all the contacts and relationships through the game in order to put a stop to the brain wave nonsense. The ending itself feels just a tad ass-pullish to me, Akara-184 was some sort of super omniscient robot who orchestrated the whole thing and is working toward an ultimate humanity? To be honest I couldn’t care less. The real ending for me is the interactions between Brandeis and Donovan during the final sequence, the simple act of calling a loved one for support during a time of strife is something I felt was very poignant.
And here is where the lack of branching pathways becomes a powerful tool in my eyes, as opposed to a simple limitation.
Right at the beginning Brandeis is our narrator. And he is narrating the fact that he is falling to his death. I was beside myself with emotion about this as I finished the game. I didn’t expect to be so attached to the characters, but their relationships with each other were so well written that I found myself looking desperately for any way to work around the fact that the ending was pre-determined. Some sort of post-credits cop-out or secret third option.
But there is no secret “good” ending. You merely take the time to have a final phone call as Brandeis with Donovan, choosing to spend your time either talking about your feelings and love, or to warn him of the threat of Akara-184. It is a final, deeply upsetting choice in a path that I knew I was going down right from the beginning. And having to choose those final dialogue options caused me genuine distress.
I loved it.