There is a bit of Buddhist wisdom that cautions against the folly of trying to “use the mind to free oneself from the prison of the mind.” I thought of this when I played Eliza, a visual novel that in part asks the question: can we use technology to free ourselves from the psychological effects of technology? It’s an intriguing question and Eliza is an intriguing exploration of the answer.
Anyone coming to Eliza expecting a game will be disappointed. Rather, Eliza is a visual novel that at certain points allows the player to make choices in the narrative.Eliza is the story of a young woman named Evelyn, who is partly responsible for creating a software program called Eliza, which is used to diagnose and treat psychological issues and provide mental health counselling. After returning to the project after a time away, Evelyn is employed as a proxy, a human being that provides a human interface between the patient/client and the software. Although they provide the illusion of human connection, they are simply reading scripts provided by Eliza, based on the software’s analysis of key words and biometric data from the client. In the world of Eliza’s trendy and lucrative “therapy cafes,” the worst thing a proxy can do is go off script and provide actual, spontaneous and thoughtful responses. It isn’t a spoiler to suggest that in Eliza, this is just what will eventually happen. One delightful — and chilling — little touch is that a proxy’s success is measured like a video game and they level up through their day based on the responses and evaluation by their human patients.
Partly an examination of the specific limits and usefulness of technology diagnosing and treating mental and emotional illness, partly a broader examination of the technology of culture, and partly the story of Evelyn’s own life and mental health challenges, Eliza is told through a series of static but effective, painterly images and text which is fully voiced and extremely well acted. Although as a work of fiction Eliza might not win awards for stylistic beauty, the quality of the performances and spot-on characters elevate the novel and player experience. I was hooked immediately by the first patient, a young man feeling the commonplace, existential burden of living in our current political climate and culture of dishonesty and division, and Eliza’s impotent, boilerplate recommendation of breathing exercises and medication. Presented with a client crying out for connection with a reasonable human being, the software — and Evelyn the proxy — can only dispense cookie-cutter solutions.
It is not unreasonable to assume that the software suggested in Eliza already exists, though it has not yet been exploited and marketed. Our culture certainly believes that technology is the solution to what ails us, even when what ails us is technology, and Eliza the visual novel is an interesting and engaging exploration of that thesis.