Over three years ago, Gods Will Be Watching made a release and even now I’m still not entirely confident what it was about. You were mercenaries trapped in six moral-riddled scenarios that could see your crew being splattered, and yet somehow come back in the following one like a children’s cartoon. Yet this was then explained away in an ending that… Uh… Things happened in? I could just have air between my ears though. It looks like the same developers are back with a game that while I understand and dig, feels less open to your own choices.
The Red Strings Club is a point-n-click adventure by Deconstructeam, whose only prior game (in case you skipped the fluff above) is Gods Will Be Watching. You play as an information broker bartender for most of the scenes and a hacker for most of the rest, as a robot reveals a corporate conspiracy that seeks to bring a new bleak age to society.
So, what does it mean to be an information broker bartender? It means pouring drinks and having a quick chat. Each drink you serve offers a different emotion. Which by that I mean you pour different alcohols to make a gauge go up, down, left and right, to connect to an icon specific to who you’re talking to. You then can ask them as many pre-determined questions in that mood as you’d like, with the mood influencing if you may get an extra nugget of information. For example, if you question about someone’s disappearance, you may have better luck if your customer is remorseful rather than sky high ecstatic.
This side of the game feels tactical, yet suave. There is a definite atmosphere of being a face, manipulating people to spill the beans on what you need to know, without the drab “pick the right text option” style most games roll with. In addition, any information you reap can be used later.
All except one of the remaining scenes delve into your hacking companion, as they pick up the pieces of a dead ally and then infiltrate a place with the information your bartender buddy has picked up. Without spoiling much, while I found the rest of his scenes a bit drab gameplay wise, it was the infiltration that felt gripping in an unusual unique manner. It still will feel simple for fans of titles like Hacknet, but simple works for rather than against The Red String Club as it stops people from being locked out for lacking skills the game never prepared for.
There is also a single “pottery” scene at the start staring a robot. While the UI is a bother at times, especially switching what tool to use, and it felt narrow how to solve the problem ahead (yes, this is me ducking and diving around spoiling like a low budget John Woo film), it was unique enough to still engage.
What I am driving at is there is a rather diverse amount of mini-games, but The Red Strings Club is heavily dominated by bartending. While not a bad thing (and I still high five VA-11 Hall-A every chance I get), it does feel more limited and less varied next to Gods Will Be Watching and with less repercussions and choice for your actions. There is still some sway, but there isn’t a failure state as far as I can tell. This lack of a failure state isn’t a complaint necessarily, especially next to how harsh Gods Will Be Watching was at times, but something to consider if you’re looking for a challenge.
Similarly, those looking for a long game will be left thirsting for more as it has a 3 hour play time. There is the option for replayability due to choices, but outside of narrative differences there isn’t much of a variance between one pathway through the game and another.
However, let’s be honest, you’re not raring to jump into this cyberpunk misadventure to challenge your wits, but for the writing within. Well, I’ve got some good news for you: The Red Strings Club is a journey within a colourful setting.
Part of this colour comes in the form of the characters. You may have heard the controversy around a character being “dead named” (i.e. a trans person’s prior name before transitioning being used). I will say that while it does happen, the context revolves around a jerkish character using obscure information as a password and does act hostile if you ask the character flat out what the trans character’s dead name is.
I bring this up as a source of frustration. No no no, not with The Red Strings Club, but did anyone high-five the development team for having a gay couple as the protagonist? Yep, Donovan the bartender and Brandeis the hacker are dating, and it is actually done really well. I honestly don’t get a chance to experience a good non-straight non-created protagonist enough and I get two well-rounded and developed gay/bi characters at once? Needless to say, it feels like a delightful treat.
It isn’t as though the rest of the cast are bad at all. The other characters are diverse in views, attitudes and roles, and each one adds colour to the setting; especially when you’re trying to wheedle information out of them as the bartender. You have to decide if to appeal to their bold sexuality, their arrogance, their misery or other options to get information, which the mere offerings of moods speaks to who they are at their core.
Then there’s the pondering the game performs on authoritarianism, the nature of brainwashing and perhaps even the ethics of therapy. That said, The Red Strings Club always refuses to take a stance on anything, always asking you to pick your position. You may be criticised for what you say, but never judged, as the game always lets your opinion speak for itself.
The base-level narrative, the characterisation aside, is probably the weak link in the writing. It functions to string one-interaction-with-another and to carry the philosophising. There is enough unusual things going on to not feel like a 9-to-5 office job in a cyberpunk world, but I never felt captivated or hooked on where the game was going to lead me next. The world only feels effective due to the people who populate it, rather than being intricately thought-provoking. It just leaves an empty dull feeling and I can feel myself forgetting elements of the plot as I write this.
So what does that leave us with? Well, with a game that invokes the feeling of being a sly face and a savvy hacker in a cyberpunk world, each customer and ally offering colour to a drab landscape. It has gameplay mechanics that never challenge but lend enough of a ludonarrative interest to still hook you along. While it has a dead name controversy, it also has a gay couple who are faithfully and expertly written (and aren’t just walking stereotypes or just incidentally gay). It is short, but does offer a little replayability via the choices, although the choices in the end wouldn’t amount to much beyond some narrative differences. So I recommend The Red Strings Club with heavy caution.
It is significantly more narrative focused than gameplay focused, but the narrative inside holds a rich and distinct cast and some relevant philosophy in an age where we are increasingly locking our doors to immigrants, criminals and anyone who looks at us funny.
This game was paid by myself.
Kailan “Riobux” May has given The Red Strings Club the Indie Gamer Team Seal of Approval.