Cyberpunk stories often assume that body upgrades are commonplace in the future, albeit they are typically reserved for the rich, further widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. The Red Strings Club goes one step further and proposes a future where humans can upgrade their minds to remove negativity and emotional pain. One generous corporation plans to spread this “upgrade” to the entire world and the only price to pay is giving up some of the freewill that makes us human.
**Minor spoilers included**
You play as three characters as you decide what to do about the potential mass brainwashing/enhancement of humanity. There’s Donovan, the bartender who specializes in information, his hacker boyfriend Brandeis, and Akara-184, an android with an empathy function that helps it work with humans.
The majority of player interaction in The Red Strings Club is clicking through dialogue, however the conversation options you’re presented with depend on your performance in a series of mini-games. As Donovan, you must mix spirits to align with the desired emotion you want to bring to the forefront of the customer. If you want to know about the chief engineer’s work, it might be a good idea to play on his pride so that he is happy to brag. You can even make customers horny, if that helps. Mixing the wrong drink results in dud conversations and missed opportunities to gain clues. You can’t just try again, either, so if the customer’s mood isn’t proving conducive to leaking information then you’d be best off fixing them a different drink.
Akara’s mini-game has her making upgrades for humans by using pottery skills to craft the right modules or if you prefer, the wrong ones. A customer might want to improve their online social presence so you could build them an upgrade that will enhance their online interactions, or you could fix it so that they no longer care about their online popularity.
Brandeis has a hacking mini-game that has him impersonating other characters to extract information and solve a couple of basic puzzles. The bartending and pottery mini-games are both a little fiddly at times, but there’s something strangely satisfying about mixing drinks that has me wondering whether I missed my calling in life.
On first glance, The Red Strings Club looks like a collection of science-fiction cliches. There’s the typical cyberpunk setting with lots of neon colors and a world run by corporations. Artificial intelligence exists and has been given empathy to appear more human, while humans can be upgraded with new body parts to appear more like androids.
Familiarity can breed contempt, but excellent writing can take stories you think you’ve seen before and make them into something special. Through the conversations, you start to uncover the mystery surrounding Supercontinent Ltd and its plan to remove negativity from the range of human emotions. The moral quandary starts off sounding no more challenging than a psychology 101 exam question, however the supposed villains offer compelling reasons for why you should let them go ahead with their plan. There’s a couple of minor twists and some genuinely heartfelt moments as well.
The Red Strings Club poses challenging questions around freewill that were genuinely tough to answer despite initially appearing obvious. Take one conversation I had concerning what I would like to do about the problem of depression. I was given the opportunity to cure depression for the entire world. Literally making it cease to exist. All I had to do was say yes. Instead, I said no because I felt that depression was an important part of being human. Some people need suffering to inspire them.
I was then asked if I would like depression to be cured when it goes on for more than a month. That way, humans could still experience depression but wouldn’t suffer from it forever. I again answered no, although now my reasoning was on shaky ground. Was I just being stubborn and going with the “right” video game answer? Finally, I was asked if I would like people to be prevented from committing suicide due to depression. This would clearly be a limit on freewill, but would it really be that bad if no one killed themselves due to depression? I don’t want people to go on suffering forever, but if that’s the case, why didn’t I accept the offer to cure depression entirely? Again, I felt confident I had given the “correct” answers, but I also agreed in part with the motivations of the evil corporation. Wouldn’t a world without depression be a better place?
The Red Strings Club is full of moral quandaries like this. You’re tasked with stopping a corporation from playing God and yet, almost without realizing it, you begin to play God yourself. When you pour drinks specifically designed to play on people’s emotions, aren’t you depriving those characters of their freewill? Later in the game, you’re given almost literal God-like powers when you get the opportunity to put a stop to all rape in the world. I had to think about my answer which is a credit to the excellent writing throughout. On a smaller scale, I even found myself debating the ethical nature of Sony updating PS4 firmware.
There’s also a neat subversion of freewill that you may not even notice. The story starts with a character wondering when his fate was sealed as he falls from a tall building. Early in the story, you’re presented with a flowchart that shows the decisions you’ve made to date and the questions you failed to get answered. If you move to the far right of the chart, you’ll find the last thing that happens in the game: the character falling from the building. As far as I can tell, you can’t change this part of the ending. Nothing you do can change that one act at the end. The character’s fate must have already been sealed before you even started playing.
In addition to the three playable characters, you interact with employees of Supercontinent Ltd, such as the ambitious lawyer, arrogant engineer, and party-loving advertising director. Any preconceptions you might have had about Supercontinent’s employees quickly disappear when you start talking to them and realize they aren’t cartoon villains. Thanks to the believable dialogue, all the character motivations feel genuine and it’s hard to truly hate any of them.
My playthrough came in at just under four hours and I’m inclined to do a second run. I failed some of the conversations and there are a few choices I’d like to make differently. Of course, the ending will be the same. We know that already. It’s fixed from the start because, despite all the choices we’re offered along the way, we don’t have quite as much freewill as we like to think.
The Red Strings Club might not be the cyberpunk game you’re waiting for, but it’s well-worth your time. Like any good cyberpunk story, it poses tough questions about our potential future and the extent to which we adapt our own bodies and minds at the cost of corporate control. Like any really good cyberpunk story, you shouldn’t expect to get all the answers.