Red Strings Club review
When you play a short choice-focused narrative game like The Red Strings Club, there are typically two different ways you can take things. You can play through once, make your choices, see their outcomes, then stop there and lock that playthrough in as your personal ‘canon.’ This is what happened when you played the game, and while there were other possibilities, seeing them would upset your idea of personal autonomy over events. There are no do-overs in life, after all, and you don’t want your choices to have meant less by unmaking them.
The other way is to mine a game for all its possibilities, to see just how many ways things can play out. Sometimes this breaks the game a bit as you come to realize how little control you had over events and sequences; other times, it’s the entire point of the game (like the Zero Escape series, which is hyper-focused on going back and trying again). There are wikis, usually, that can answer that niggling ‘what would have happened if I had picked the second option’ question, but sometimes you want to have that experience yourself.
For this review, I played through The Red Strings Club twice, making liberal use of the handy ‘fast forward’ button on the second playthrough to skip through repeated dialog. This is, I think, the minimum number that the developers probably intended, as I came away with enough answers to feel like I was better off waiting until the game came out and talking with other players to find out what I missed. As I write this, though, the temptation is there to dive in a third time and see what else I can dig up, which is rare for me -- I’m usually a one-and-done player.
The Red Strings Club was developed by Deconstructeam, the small independent studio behind Gods Will Be Watching. That was a conceptually fascinating game that punished players a little too hard for many of them to stick with it (although a later patch reportedly addressed this). It was the sort of game that, even if you didn’t like it, hinted at team with a strong sense of creative vision, one capable of something more. Red Strings, happily, is something more.
The game depicts a cyberpunk near-future in which a small band of loosely-connected rebels investigate troubling new programs being developed by a company that specializes in augmentations and AI programs. They find…well, to be honest, how you’d define what they discover depends very much on your perspective on certain issues of technology and human rights, and is not worth spoiling here. There’s very little puzzle-solving here, with most of the gameplay coming down to simply making choices in dialogue.
Your choices will, unless I’m very mistaken, always lead to the same final moment -- something the game is very upfront about. But up until then they can dramatically change both what you know and how various members of the game’s small cast feel about each other.
The game is divided into discrete chunks. Most of the time you’re playing as the mysterious bartender Donovan, serving drinks to customers (most of whom, conveniently enough, work for the massive corporation you’re investigating) that influence how they’ll respond to the questions and statements you make. Your objectives are to uncover information and influence people, but the methods you employ to do so will depend largely on whether you click on box A, B, or C when a certain question is asked of you. Sequences outside the bar are ever-so-slightly more puzzle-focused, but it’s never about figuring out how to solve a puzzle, more about deciding how you want to solve it -- which is to say, it’s the parts of your brain that decide moral imperatives and interpret emotions that will be engaged by the puzzles, rather than your ability to sort matchsticks or slide boxes. In many ways, Deconstructeam is building on its work from Gods Will Be Watching, but the jagged edges have been smoothed off.
This is a game that relies heavily on the strength of its writing, and thankfully the script is excellent.
This is a game that relies heavily on the strength of its writing, and thankfully the script is excellent. The characters are (mostly) likeable and rounded, and the corporate intrigue at the game’s heart is interesting once you get your head around all the acronyms. More importantly, for a game about making choices, the questions it poses require actual effort to answer on the player’s part: there’s not always an immediately obvious ‘good’ or ‘bad’ answer, even when the overarching narrative is about a team of people working to bring down something that they -- and most players -- would consider to be fundamentally bad. Personal autonomy is the game’s central theme, and the nature of humanity -- a theme often explored quite clumsily in science fiction -- is speculated upon in interesting ways. Playing through twice, I got to see the game’s characters reason through their circumstances and beliefs in entirely different ways, uncovering new information and perspectives each time. There are only a handful of sections where the game is transparently leading you in a specific direction, and your influence over the game’s script is significant.
The Red Strings Club is low-key progressive, too, in ways that are still worth pointing out in an industry that often presents futures where straight, white, cisgender men are still the default heroes. At times, the game is quite sly in how it communicates its views to you -- the game will punish you, for instance, if you decide to make Donovan blind to systemic sexism, and while a line about ‘safe spaces’ initially left a bad taste in my mouth, it eventually became clear that the line was actually there to convey something about the sort of person who would complain about safe spaces. If this is the sort of thing that is likely anger you, this game might not be for you; for the rest of us, it’s lovely to see a game flesh out its world with a cast that feels legitimately diverse and real, despite being so small.
The achievement list makes it clear that there are still scenes and secrets that I have not uncovered in The Red Strings Club. There are other questions I have that, I suspect, the game might not have answers for. There is so much hinted at, or touched upon without being fully explored, during the game’s short run time.
The Red Strings Club presents a world that I would desperately like to spend more time in.
After the credits rolled for a second time I felt like I had still only skimmed the surface, but also like I wouldn’t be able to dig too much deeper. The Red Strings Club presents a world that I would desperately like to spend more time in, and ultimately shows very little of it. This is understandable -- the credits reveal that this game is the work of very few people -- but damn, do I hope there’s some sort of follow-up. While the game tells a full, coherent narrative, it also hints at there being so, so much more in the writer’s head than what made it into the game, like we’re only seeing a tiny slice of a fully realized world.
This is a game of realistic scope and ambition (and after writing about games for 10 years I’ve grown to really appreciate indie games that don't reach beyond what a small team is capable of), but after two playthroughs I badly want more stories about these characters and this world. I’ve picked up an itch that I can’t guarantee I’ll ever get to scratch. But that’s fine, because The Red Strings Club is worth the ache. It’s socially conscious science-fiction, a game that asks reasonable questions with obvious answers but difficult, fiddly nuances, and acknowledges the importance of drawing those nuances out. Hell, perhaps I will play it a third time.