Though the language and design principles of games often rely on humanity’s biggest concepts (life, death, determinism, and free will), such subjects are rarely treated with the seriousness and gravitas they deserve. Death is shorthand for failure, and freedom is a box to be checked off among other crowd-pleasing features. The Red Strings Club does not deconstruct such time-worn traditions in the same way as 2007’s BioShock did, but instead examines them with intense maturity throughout its brief, narrative-led campaign. The themes are heavy and the gameplay light, but few titles can claim to be so rewarding and satisfying.
The Red Strings Club is a testament to the idea that simplicity can breed greatness. At a glance, the game offers minimal complexity: the limited locals are rendered in pixel art, the melancholic music comprises of straightforward chords, and the tale of rebellion against a megalithic entity is drawn from age-old tropes. However, the developers at Deconstructeam use these basic building blocks to create an experience that stands out with unforeseen depth. The power of The Red Strings Club stems not from the shining quality of any one factor, but, as with Gone Home and Firewatch before it, a perfectly pitched convergence of its disparate pieces. Altering even a single aspect could upset this Jenga tower, sending it toppling into an overwrought pile of philosophical mumbo-jumbo. At points, the story threatens to touch on topics outside its remit, but the developers show the wisdom of restraint.
Players are cast as rebels: three separate individuals who each work—willingly or not—to derail the altruistic endeavour of megacorporation Supercontinent Ltd. Donovan is a purveyor of information and bartender of the eponymous club, Brandeis is an idealistic hacker, and Akara is a freshly minted android caught between conflicting ideologies. Through a fortuitous event, Donovan and Brandeis learn of Supercontinent’s plot to release a “Social Psyche Welfare” system and set out to learn more about it. Adhering to genre expectations, industry is the villain, but nothing about The Red Strings Club is quite so clear-cut. The corporation is not a faceless organisation as Donovan has personal ties to several high-ranking personnel. These relationships are explored through sometimes lengthy conversations that also touch on themes as hefty as social conditioning and emotional determinism, yet always retain a profoundly human centre.
Discussion is at the heart of the title, gaining rare power by being inextricably tied to gameplay. Each character has a different mechanic that creates player agency and can change the tone of conversation at the drop of a hat, either locking away information permanently or resulting in small alterations to the story’s course. Akara uses a pottery wheel to design bionic implants that reprogram an individual’s response to social stimuli, Donovan blends drinks perfectly attuned to his patrons’ emotions, and Brandeis uses hacking and voice modulation to impersonate other people. Furthermore, far from being morose information dumps, the dialogues are a delight to experience—lively and imbued with a sense of character and charm that many games, and even novels, fail to capture. Nuanced and scintillating, the conversations unwind, divulging more information about this cyberpunk future and the motivations of Supercontinent, as well as grounding the world with a sense of reality.
Alongside the informational unlocking of the world comes a visual one. Although only a handful of locales are featured in The Red Strings Club, the order in which they appear reinforces the opening of the narrative. Akara’s laboratory and the bar are tight areas that seem to contribute to hivemind mentalities by virtue of their limited size. Later locations are no more expansive than earlier ones in terms of gameplay space, but their lavish views of cityscapes make them feel more alive and help the player to realise that the ramifications of Donovan and Brandeis’s actions extend far beyond just the duo. The old-school aesthetic also contributes through its lack of specific detail. While the backdrops are awash in detail, the same is not true of the individuals who more resemble faceless dolls than actual people. Rather than undoing the work of the writing by depersonalising the characters, this design choice universalises them, making them stand-ins for the unnamed, uninformed masses that may (or may not) agree with their viewpoints.
This tendency towards categorising humanity as a whole extends to the audio—particularly via the absence of voice acting. Voiceless characters are polarising. Tone and timbre can lend words a weight and meaning that they, on their own, may lack. However, doing away with this seemingly vital element of human interaction is another means by which Deconstructeam enables Donovan and Brandies to represent the bulk of the populace. In place of speech, music does the heavy lifting in setting the scene. Many games struggle to convey the emotional tone with audio, tending to overload the soundtrack with instrumentation that confuses the matter, but The Red Strings Club commits no such sins. The straightforward accompaniments are not particularly memorable, but they work wonders in generating a sense of sorrow, terror, or peace.
Few titles can take players on a journey with the ease and grace that The Red Strings Club does; its ability to do so much with so little is a ringing endorsement to the effectiveness of minimalism. The game will not—can not—appeal to everyone, but those seeking a title that takes narrative seriously should not overlook it. Although the gameplay is not challenging, the way it forms an integral part of the story is something that even the biggest, most practiced teams in the industry can learn from. In short, The Red Strings Club is unmissable.