Red Strings Club provides a fresh spin on old cyberpunk cliches
The conversation surrounding Deconstructeam’s 2014 point-and-click effort, Gods Will Be Watching, was mostly centered around one thing: how incredibly punishing the game could be. Players were forced to make impossible moral decisions while managing finite resources, and these situations often resulted in the same thing: crushing failure. Though the game was marketed as a “point-and-click thriller,” Gods Will Be Watching is remembered mainly for its difficulty.
The Red Strings Club, the studio’s latest game set to release this coming January, contains no fail states. In other words, it’s impossible for players to lose.
"A lot of people weren't able to enjoy Gods Will Be Watching because it was super punishing,” explained Deconstructeam’s creative director and writer, Jordi De Paco. “So I wanted to create a narrative experience that wasn't punishing at all, but still possesses some kind of challenge, even if it's only emotional."
Set in a pixelated, cyberpunk future, “emotional” might be the best way to sum up The Red Strings Club. Born from the fruits of three different game jams about bartending, pottery, and impersonating others on the phone, the game impressively weaves these mechanics into a story about the manipulation of emotion. While my 80-or-so minutes with the game only saw me mixing drinks to elicit specific emotional responses from bar patrons and crafting neural modifications via pottery wheel, one can see how impersonation might also suit the adventure’s emotion-centric, corporate espionage narrative.
In this particular neon dystopia, Supercontinent Ltd. manufactures popular implants which modify how customers think and see the world. Someone suffering from anxiety might procure a modification to put their mind at ease, while someone looking for more social media followers might purchase an implant to help them charm their online peers. From the perspective of an innocent android, players are guided in molding these modifications atop a cyberpunk pottery wheel within the Supercontinent headquarters. Accompanied by Red Strings’ relaxing synth soundtrack --with multiple selectable tracks, in this sequence-- shaping these “helpful” biological additions is wonderfully meditative.
Soon after our mechanical main character (one of at least three protagonists) learns to craft and implant modifications that are, shall we say, outside the parameters of some customers’ orders, things take a turn for the violent, and we’re shoved back into the lives of human heroes Brandeis and Donovan. Brandeis is a freelance hacker and revolutionary, while Donovan is the wary, augment-free bartender and information broker in charge of the titular club. It’s through Donovan’s perspective that drinks are mixed and patrons are interrogated, while Brandeis pledges to handle the more hands-on side of the aforementioned espionage. Supercontinent Ltd. is rumored to soon enact its “Social Psyche Welfare” program, which amounts to (you guessed it) mind control via the emotion modification implants.
If you saw that “twist” coming, well, of course you did. As the demo went on, Red Strings’ themes only felt more by-the-book cyberpunk. Body augmentations? Check. Technocratic dystopia? Check. Neon-friendly color palette? Definitely, check. But what made the experience special was the mechanical novelty by which Red Strings explores these somewhat tired themes. Cocktail-mixing and calming pottery sessions are not things I associate with, say, Blade Runner or Deus Ex, and they immediately succeed in recontextualizing something I was sure I already understood.
Of course, the game erases certain immediate stakes when it removes fail states. You’ll never have to worry about installing the objectively wrong mod in a patient’s belly, or fear that a badly-mixed drink might result in a ‘game over’ screen.
Instead, Deconstructeam does what it can to add weight to the player’s actions. The Red Strings Club makes clear that choices are not without consequence by notifying the player of important story decisions only after they’ve been made. Clicking on these notifications opens a red, thread-like web representing all in-game choices. If you’re after a more direct form of stakes-setting, the game’s opening also depicts a flash-forward of protagonist Brandeis falling from an impossibly high skyscraper, wondering where things went wrong. Some might take this scene as suggesting that player choice “doesn’t matter;” while the scene is stylish and attention-grabbing enough to pique my own interest, I can’t blame players who might interpret it that way.
A few additional typos and grammatical errors aside (the team is based out of Spain and its members are not native English speakers), it’s hard to turn away from such a novel interpretation of the cyberpunk genre. Even if the rest of the plot is awash with genre cliches, assuming the price tag is small enough, I can imagine few reasons not to breeze through Deconstructeam and Devolver Digital’s visually striking and mechanically distinct -- if still thematically derivative -- adventure when it arrives on Steam next month.