Where Everybody Knows Your Name
You remember that 80’s TV show Cheers, right? You know, the one about the bar “where the people go and everybody knows your name?” Well, The Red Strings Club is not at all like that bar, except for the fact that the bartender most certainly does know your name, among other things. In an unstable, rapidly changing Cyberpunk world, knowledge is the most important currency to those who need it. Walking into that bar, you never know what kind of things you will hear, but you do know that the cost is always the same: information.
…all worldbuilding occurs through conversation.
In The Red Strings Club, you play as three different characters: Donovan (an information broker owner/bartender of The Red Strings Club bar), Brandeis (Donovan’s partner-in-crime (and in life)), and Akara-184 (an Android responsible for creating and installing cybernetic implants). Without getting too deep into the narrative for spoilers sake, the basic setup is something very similar to the Blade Runner films. There are large corporations, androids, cybernetic modifications, discrimination, oppression, and of course a secret resistance. While some of the setup may seem derivative of other cyberpunk tales, I actually found the premise to be quite unique. By choosing to limit the game to a few specific locations and characters, all worldbuilding occurs through conversation. There isn’t an epic chase scene or a intense gunfight once, but to me, that’s what makes it special.
I want to take a quick moment here to say this right off the bat: this game will not be for everyone. While it may be pixel art, this is easily one of the most “Mature” rated games you can play, laden with violence, nudity, substance abuse, and quite a bit of language. More importantly, however, are the themes covered in the dialogue and narrative: sexuality, human rights, corporate corruption, ethics, and many more things that are not at all “light reading.” I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it should be known that this is not a “feel-good, happy” game. This is a conversation starter, a story that makes you think, and a game that does not pull any punches with its content to deliver its message.
A game that does not pull any punches with its content to deliver its message.
Each character has a significant role to play in the narrative, and you spend an equal amount of time with each of them through the 4 hour story. As Donovan, you are trying to figure out information about what is going on by asking questions to various people involved, one at a time. By mixing different drinks, you are able to target different emotions of the customer and ask them questions based on their new mood. For example, you may mix up a cocktail that targets their pride, and ask them about their project, hoping to get them to slip up and spill some details on what they have been working on because they are so excited to tell someone about it. Or, you may target their fear and use careful word choice to slightly threaten the customer into telling you something. The choice is up to you on how you approach each situation and which questions to ask when, and not all approaches will work out as well as you would hope.
Akara-184 is an android created to listen to the requests of humans and install modifications that she deems best to help them. These modifications start off as clay cylinders that she spins on a pottery wheel and shapes with different tools to meet certain specifications, thus creating the implant. For example, a client could request an implant to help boost her popularity online, so you could potentially have Akara-184 make an implant that increases self-confidence in the hope that it is what she wants, or you could remove her need for social approval entirely, if you think that is what is best.
…three characters all offer extremely unique forms of gameplay.
Lastly, Brandeis is a character that isn’t explored fully until the end of the game. I won’t say why he is doing it or where, but it involves him taking over email and phone communications and trying to get information out of people. In stark comparison to Donovan, who relies on good ol’ mixed drinks for his tool, Brandeis uses his implants to hack into servers, pretend to be other people, and access things a normal person would not be able to. While he may seems sidelined at first, his contribution is crucial is is certainly worth the wait.
These three characters all offer extremely unique forms of gameplay, and really help keep the game from ever getting stale. If I had to critique it at all, it would be that I wish there were more opportunities to go deeper with their abilities and see the full ramifications of their choices. As this is a short game, there really isn’t enough time to go deep into the different aspects of the game and they feel like they end just as you start to get the hang of them. I really would have liked to have an experience where I could fully see the effects of the implants I chose for clients, or how getting certain information out of people in creative ways creates new opportunities or storylines. As it is, it really is not a big problem and it works quite well, but I can just see the potential for a Telltale Games-like story that has multiple endings with heavy emphasis on consequences for certain actions.
…fans of the cyberpunk genre or unique experiences are in for one heck of a treat.
What did live up to their potential, however are the visuals and soundtrack, especially the visuals. Being a sucker for some quality pixel-art, The Red Strings Club has some of the finest I have ever seen. Character sprites are incredibly detailed and unique, and the background art is honestly mind-melting at times. The vibrant, neon colors used in contrast of the dark skylines and buildings are absolutely gorgeous to look at, and made me want to be able to step into that world and see it myself. Building on this atmosphere is the synth-heavy soundtrack that knows when to play it safe and when to pull out all the stops with unsettling distortion.
In conclusion, to me The Red Strings Club really is something truly memorable. While by no means a happy or lighthearted game, the narrative and dialogue explore some very interesting ideas and pose questions often brought up in other Cyberpunk inspired media. In addition to the dark and intriguing story, the gameplay offers some unique mechanics that I personally have never experienced before. Finally, the icing on the well-baked cake: the gorgeous visual and sound design that complete the list of requirements to make a game “certified indie goodness.” While it may not be a game for everyone, fans of the cyberpunk genre or unique experiences are in for one heck of a treat.
Yes, if you:
- Like dark, thought provoking stories like Blade Runner or Black Mirror
- Love vibrant, cyberpunk visuals and soundtracks
- Are looking for a short, narrative focused game experience
No, if you:
- Do not enjoy mature content or themes in games
- Prefer light-hearted stories and characters
- Want a game that focuses on gameplay over story
The Red Strings Club is available on PC (Released January 22, 2018) and Nintendo Switch (Released March 14, 2019) at an MSRP of $14.99
Note: Cannonicity received a copy of the Red Strings Club on the Nintendo Switch in exchange for a fair and honest review.