The Red Strings Club Review – Many Strings, One Result
Platform: PC (reviewed)
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release: 22nd January 2018
Deconstructeam´s previous game Gods Will Be Watching was one of the most unique and also favourite indie games of mine at the time, smartly using difficulty and story to fuse a truly unique game. Instead of making a straight sequel though, their latest game The Red Strings Club explores yet another form of gameplay and story symbiosis.
In the hopefully not so near future, the giant mega-corporation Supercontinent enables every human to enhance themselves with biological implants, resulting in an augmented society similar to Deus Ex. Naturally, there are still people against this worrying development and when they find out about plans to remove every negative emotion through these implants they have stop Supercontinent, it´s bad after all … isn´t it?
This question is the exact core of the game, is the removal of every negative emotion that bad? Throughout the playtime of 6 hours, The Red Strings Club explores this problem with the help of three characters, the bartender Donovan without any implants, his heavily modified companion Brandeis and the android Kara. All of them have a different position in this world, Donovan, the character we´ll spend the most time with, is strictly against Supercontintent´s Social Psyche Welfare for the same reasons he stayed “clean” all this time. Doesn´t every evolution or change happen because people felt unhappy?
On the other hand, Brandeis, as augmented he might be, regards it as a simple attack on humanity´s free will, taking even the possibility to feel sad for them. However, in contrast to Donovan, he doesn´t feel the sheer hate towards change and technological progression itself.
Yet, the most interesting character of all might be Kara, an android programmed to make people happy, which in itself is a two-sided coin. If I want to gain new investors through genetic implants, will it make me happy at the end or just thirstier for power? In Kara´s eyes, suppressing the distorted desires of humans leads to their ultimate happiness, not granting them every wish.
The initial characters alone already burst with philosophical questions, contrary or in union with modern views. Now The Red Strings Club puts all these components together to explore its core previously established core question, by showing the story and world through the eyes of every cast member. Nonetheless, it´s not a game that judges the world or dystopian society, it rather observes how such people and humanity as a whole would react.
If the Social Psyche Welfare program really is that bad may look like a simple question at first, especially when the whole cast is against it but due to the fact a big chunk of the game is spent talking to Supercontinent´s employees to gather intel, the game begins to impose more and more questions and doubts about the beliefs of both player and characters. It´s not a game about the misfortune the future might hold but a mind experiment, an exploration if you will without any real answers, just questions.
Some may find it too open but for me, a good dystopia never answers itself, instead, it should present the reader or player with a world between black and white, where nothing is good or bad. Nothing about The Red Strings Club is clear or can be divided into two worlds, everything is just one side of a coin and the game just waits to flip it around, invoking both doubts in you and the game. That´s what makes it so great.
Unfortunately, I didn´t quite enjoy the gameplay as much as the plot. Consisting of basically three mini-games The Red Strings Club is certainly not the most innovative game in this department. The most part will be spent in the name giving club itself as Donovan, in search of information through conversations with all kinds of people. In order to get the most out of each one, it´s necessary to mix them drinks, pretty obvious. However, every drink is able to bring forth a different emotion, a character dwelling in sadness will be more likely to reveal something about the controversial program for example.
To appeal to those emotions the game presents us with a mixing game, where a so-called spirit disk has to be moved over the desired emotion by mixing the right liquors together. Tequila will move the disk to another direction as vodka, mixed drinks will have another effect on its movement than normal ones etc.
Throughout the game, this mini-game actually becomes quite deep and entertaining and since you can mix the guests as many drinks as you like, toying with their emotions becomes a very interesting part of it. Additionally, it also works pretty damn great, when you get a hold of the liquid system and which amount does what.
The other two games though suffer from quite big problems due to the rarity of them and lack of depth. Kara´s follows her in manufacturing the implants for every human, determined by their desires. Her job is to make people truly happy, at least in her understanding. So choosing the right one for each human passing by is the actual core of her game, someone who wants more charisma may be happier if he stops caring about others at all. Sadly, mixed with a repetitive sculpting game clearly not made to last longer than a few minutes and the obvious focus on showing how rotten this system just seems too much at many moments.
Brandeis’ one isn´t much better, consisting of pretty much the same ingredients as Donovans’ with the only difference being that instead of drinks he mixes different characters and voices to retrieve the answers he needs.
Luckily, The Red Strings Club is capable of carrying a lot of these flaws with its great pixel art, no matter how mediocre the mini-games may be, they look great. The mixture between the rough but somehow detailed look and the dystopian theme really helps to let it shine as a uniquely beautiful game. In addition, the soundtrack does a very good job at enforcing the themes and getting its mood and message across.
Deconstructeam crafted something truly unique here, not only did the create a dystopian world where nothing is right or wrong and everyone is free to make their own decision but were also able to pair it with interesting yet flawed mini-games. It shows like only a few other games how linear yet diverse life can be, how nothing is as it seems and explores what true happiness may mean. I honestly love it for everything it tries and does.
[A Review Code was provided by Devolver Digital]