All the best cyberpunk stories tell about our world, no matter how far in the future they’re set. Some take these just as a sci-fi entertainment, and that’s perfectly fine. But I have always liked how social commentary is realized through this specialized genre. For those willing to look further past the story's face value, there’s a deeper layer telling about contemporary issues. Cyberpunk thriller The Red Stings Club does exactly that. Also, as an European indie title, it has no prudish shackles. If the story needs nudity or gay relationship between its protagonists, it’s just as natural as bread and butter.
On a late evening in The Red Strings Club, bartender Donovan, information broker and drink mixer extraordinaire, listens to his lover playing piano. The cool man at the keyboard is self-acclaimed hero Brandeis, neural hacker specialized in social engineering. Suddenly, in bursts a wounded empathy android, a rogue Akara-unit by the number 184. Brandeis plugs his neural interface into the android’s mind and finds out there are some sinister plans brewing. The seemingly altruistic corporation Supercontinent is about to launch the Social Psyche Welfare program, with the mirror neural algorithm hidden in its code. Activated through implants, its purpose is to eradicate people’s negative feelings and grant unlimited happiness. Donovan and Brandeis are not keen of everyone turning into joyous puppets. With the help of Akara-184 (beautiful but creepy, as Brandeis points out), they set on a mission to put an end to Supercontinent’s plans.
The Red Stings Club may look like a point-and-click adventure with its beautiful retro pixel art, but it’s not exactly that. Although the game is story-driven, it’s not a narrative experience (formerly known as “walking simulators”) either. It nests somewhere in-between. The game is a mix of an interactive cyberpunk thriller and detective story told in three acts. It plays foremost with information; how you obtain it and how you use it to serve your needs.
Most of the play takes place at Donovan’s titular club. It’s frequently visited by Supercontinent executives, whom Donovan milks for information. His secret is how he can mix drinks to hit different emotional sweet spots. This takes the form of a minigame where you blend several beverages to obtain desired results. For example, you can stir a drink to appeal to a customer’s vanity, or perhaps depression, making them spill their beans. As an information broker, Donovan’s intention is to gather as much intelligence as possible without the customers even realizing it.
All the while, Akara-184 monitors the situation, with her lanky, androgynous figure stuffed in a porter’s uniform. Whenever Donovan has had a conversation with his customers, Akara-184 questions whether he (or rather, the player) has understood what they were really saying. In this way, the game requires persistent attention and the ability to read between the lines. The obtained information must be truly understood, and more so, played within the ensuing events.
Before Akara meets Donovan and Brandeis, we see her at her workplace, rendering emotional implants to patients. Someone may need an implant to boost social acceptance, and you can shape an appropriate upgrade - taking form as a minigame too, this time at a digital lathe. Or, you can craft an upgrade to nullify the need for excessive attention, perhaps making the patient happier that way. After all, Akaras are empathy androids, built to make people happy. Of course, there’s more than meets the eye to Akara-184.
Without spoiling too much, the third act of the game takes us to Supercontinent’s executive office, where Brandeis makes use of his social engineering skills. Adopting different people’s voices and roles, he calls the executives through a landline phone network. Again, it’s all to gather viable information for the heroic trio’s cause. The play with landline phones is a fun tribute to the now-gone analogue era.
The story is told through well-written characters. These are not typical adventure game heroes, who go about asking every random person they meet about everything. The dialogue is constantly sharp without making a fuss about it, as many important lines and realizations come off matter-of-factly. Everyone participating in discussions are evenly present, challenging each other. Also, the game directly tests the player's wits, not only through the writing but the interaction it requires. There’s at least an illusion that you drive the story by your choices. I applaud the developers for sticking to only one ending, true to their vision. The road there might be nuanced with different emphases, but even at the very last choice, you can make it personal.
Moreover, The Red Strings Club presents some heavy duty moral and ethical questions without hammering them into your head, as everything’s within context. The game subtly forces you to weigh your own takes on issues like transhumanism and what really defines us as humans. You’ll realize you’re actually rationalizing the answers to yourself. When your choices and opinions are eventually thrown back at you, you should be both proud and ashamed of them. Donovan may be the moral conscious for us all, but when the ever-so-cunning Akara-184 says I’m stupid, I can’t be offended by it, because I fully deserved it.
The Red Strings Club tells a tight story with no extra baggage or padding. The initial playthrough takes some four to five hours. It pretty much depends how fast you can mix drinks, as it can be a bit fidgety. I certainly fumbled many times with it. I could also say there are some typos in the script (three people who made this game are Spanish), but something like The Red Strings Club goes beyond video game technicalities.
The presentation supports the narrative perfectly. Sublime animation of the pixel art brings characters into life, and the lingering electronic soundtrack with its throbbing bass and delicate keyboards soothes escalating tensions. The Red Strings Club is provocative but not preachy, smart but not smug, and poignant but not pretentious. And it’s just that extra bit self-assertive like all the great stories need to be. Most of all, if you play the game true to your own conscious, it gives us hope. The Red Strings Club makes perfect use of its medium as an interactive thriller, challenging you inside out. Maybe I’m getting old, but when a game makes me cry at the end, it must be something special.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.