The Red Strings Club starts, and ends, with a character falling out of a high-rise window. There's no indication that you could do anything to stop this from happening, or even that you're supposed to. The game is more interested in how you get to that point -- and the web of lies, manipulation, and tough choices you leave in your wake.
This cyberpunk point-and-click game, out now PC, is by Deconstructeam, the developers behind 2014's Gods Will Be Watching. Gods was a series of scenarios in which the player had to manage characters' needs and unclear emotional states.
The Red Strings Club is set up roughly the same way, but it's not the brutal tightrope walk of life and death its predecessor was. It's more forgiving, but it's also more complicated. Its decisions open up into possibilities, nuances, and outcomes that don't have clear rights and wrongs.
The game mostly takes place in the titular Red Strings Club, a bar in a cyberpunk dystopia owned by a man named Donovan. In this future, people have cybernetic implants, but Donovan has a medical condition that prevents him from getting them. This gives him a fairly anti-implant view, in contrast to Brandeis, an implant-sporting hacker.
In addition to being a bartender, Donovan is also an information broker, luring secrets out of clients through mixing signature cocktails. Brandeis and Donovan stumble upon a plan by megacorporation Supercontinent that involves making secret changes to people's implants -- or rather, the plan stumbles upon them, in the form of an AI who crashes through the bar's door one night.
From there, the game becomes a tangle of hacking, social engineering, and heavy drinking.
You spend most of your time in The Red Strings Club mixing cocktails. When a character comes into the bar, they will have several possible emotions -- pride, depression, lust, euphoria -- represented by icons in different positions on the screen. The player has to mix alcohol to move an indicator over the emotion they want to access.
The labels on the bottles helpfully integrate arrows to remind you what moves where, and you later gain the ability to make the indicator move diagonally or to tilt its orientation. The controls are imprecise and uncomfortable, though it's fun to spill booze everywhere. Nevertheless, it's an unusual, enjoyable minigame, enriched with satisfying sound design. I regularly hurled ice cubes to the floor just to listen to them clatter.
The mixology screen. The bottle design is really great.
Donovan uses these cocktails to manipulate characters into telling him what he wants to know. You have a series of objectives to uncover before taking on Supercontinent. Questions like who their CEO really is, or what role the android you found plays, can be teased out of a prideful inventor or scared out of a depressed marketing executive if you read their starting state right and adjust it accordingly.
Manipulating characters through alcohol might seem deceitful, but everyone who comes into the bar wants to get drunk to change how they feel. I struggled with the idea of forcing patrons to feel unpleasant emotions, but Donovan's intentionality felt less like selfishness and more like acknowledging the truth behind why we drink.
You'll need whatever information you can get for the game's climax, an epic tangle of social engineering done over a landline phone while the evil corporation closes in. It feels like the perfect combination of what you've been doing all along: teasing, lying, considering and exploiting the connections between people.
The Red Strings Club humanizes each of its villains and protagonists, and as I called up one person pretending to be their crush in order to trick them into giving me their computer password, I felt ashamed of how clever I thought I was being, and guilty about how easy it was to get what I needed.
Your choices are tracked by a screen that gets progressively more covered in red lines as the game goes. These "red strings" are another recurring theme: the web of secrets, lies, desires, and dreams that Donovan manipulates to get what he wants.
Things started fairly linear for me, though they soon became an intriguing mess. The Red Strings Club has a Telltale-style indicator for when a choice you've made has an impact, but what that impact would be seldom felt immediately apparent. Unlike Gods Will Be Watching, conversations never felt like they had a hard fail state.
The game would tell me I'd done something impactful and a string would be added to my running tally, but it mostly felt like I was following my natural inclinations. With the exception of one moment, in which Brandeis has to approach another character in a methodical, clearly-laid out dance, The Red Strings Club's choices are open-ended and vague, made in dialogue trees full of lines that run the gamut of options. It feels messy and mysterious in a very human way.
Choices have been blurred out to avoid spoilers.
The Red Strings Club deals with all the heavy issues you'd expect from cyberpunk: free will, humanity, technology, immortality. On occasion it felt a bit sophomoric -- at one point two characters argue about how depression is vital to making good art -- but it was just as quick to disagree with itself and come back down to earth.
It's a deeply emotional game, with a queer love story at its center. It's also unexpectedly diverse, considering issues related to race, gender, and sexuality all as tacit parts of its future. One playthrough took me about three and a half hours, and I'm curious to see the consequences of different choices on another playthrough.
A character will still probably fall out of a window, but it will mean something different depending how I get there.