Cyberpunk has never really been my thing. Not that I’m against it, it’s just not a genre that gets me rubbing my thighs. I don’t entirely know anymore what qualifies as cyberpunk these days. I’m relatively confident that The Red Strings Club (from my favourite publisher at the moment, Devolver Digital), fits into that little niche, however.
What qualifies a game as a cyberpunk title other than a title with the title of Cyberpunk 2077? (How many ‘titles’?) I’m breathtaking. First thing’s first: set in the future, dystopian (arguably), lots of neon, hints of jazz and smoky rooms and of course, tits. That’s my synopsis of Bladerunner and also the same for The Red Strings Club, only you’re not a replicant. Or are you…
One thing I know for sure is you’re a barkeep called Donovan, with your own little digs and regulars. In these future landscapes, we usually have an opposing corporation and then the freedom fighter types who have shoddy tech. Typically, the latter is uber-smart aim to expose the conspiracies that go on in these conglomerates. And that’s what the narrative is like – a sort of espionage/double agent information trading scenario.
Knocking back the sauce
Exposing an evil organisation would mean collating evidence and setting up traps to get the information you need. Fortunately for couch potatoes and bar owners, you can keep everything in the bar. Feeling a little overwhelmed? Head for the bottle – you’ll do that a lot. Not just because it’s your job, but mixing drinks is part of the game.
Should there be a paying customer that comes into the bar, you pour them a drink. Of course, you do. However, in the future, the drinks you mix hit people on a higher level and can either heighten their emotions or numb them. The moral theme crops up quite a bit, but in a mature way and not a case of getting someone drunk so you can draw a penis on their forehead.
For example, a customer comes in feeling a little fearful; you make them a drink to make it worse or ease that feeling. Depending on the results, they may give you more or trivial information. Making the drinks is a strange thing too. You select one of four drinks and control them by dragging and tipping the bottle into a tumbler. Each time you add the liquid, an on-screen cursor moves to match a circular disc that hovers around the customer, changing in size should you add extras like ice. Later you get a shaker to mix more drinks, a pill that can reset everything, but no sweet umbrellas.
Information Technology and other subjects
As an arms dealer – sorry, information dealer, your secondary job is to question the punters about matters that relate to the story. In this case, and this is a very sketchy analysis, the evil empire here is Supercontinent Ltd, and they have devised a gadget that interferes with the human condition. Well, my wife says I’m inhuman, so I fail to identify with that, but The Red Strings Club really does challenge your mindest.
Testuo: The Iron Man – one of my favourite films by Shinya Tsukamoto – is a story about a salaryman who infuses himself with machines and the theme questions our relationship with technology. While not as grotesque (a.k.a. cool) as Tetsuo: The Iron Man, The Red Strings Club challenges the opinion of infusing tech into our bodies that make us less human and more machine. Or does it? See, now I’m questioning you, punk. Cyber.
In the game, the character Akara-184 is your moral compass. We’re introduced to her early on as she is arguably the catalyst for these shenanigans. She literally stumbles into the bar and Donovan and his partner, Brandeis, jack into her and retrieve her memories. From here, you experience life as an android that moulds and installs implants into people with money so they can perform, mostly, in their professional lives. One section from her memory replays the murder of a human. Why was she killed? Who killed her? What other questions shall I add? Boom! Our story begins.
Building a story
Now that we have our narrative thread, the customers who frequent the bar become imperative to the investigation/quest. It’s time to ask the right questions to get the correct answers. Duh. Questioning is from a selection of multiple-choice lines – much like a LucasArts adventure only without the wit but having much more significance. If you’re the type to skip over and half-heartedly choose a quick response, wrong game buddy. There’s not much else to do other than talk and completing the mini-games. Also, the story arc will change dramatically, and Akara-184 will suss you out.
After each dialogue section, Akara-184 summarises your prior conversation and tests whether you were paying attention and if your perception was on par. She’ll give you a score on your answers and the option to retry the conversation again. This keeps you alert and fully appreciate the dialogue with NPCs, and also regret taking the android under your roof, questioning every bloody thing you do. Tart.
Donovan is the main protagonist, but you get to play Akara-184, plus Brandeis – they all have their uses. But Donovan is the mac daddy. Well, not in the conventional sense. It’s a pretty nifty story, but it’s not like a traditional adventure. There are no point and click mechanisms other than the mini-games, and you don’t get to explore areas either – it’s all about the characters and dialogue. Overall, they’re your choices.
Guilty conscience? Delete it
I always find it quite amusing when people talk about feeling bad about their actions towards an NPC character. Either the person is a complete square or the game is good enough to suck you in to make you pay for your crimes.
Sometimes video games give you the freedom to be someone you’re not like run someone over in Grand Theft Auto or kill innocents in Death Coming. Least, I hope you’re not someone like that. Freak. The Red Strings Club is a game like that. Maybe you’ll care for some of the characters – I didn’t too much, but I did care enough that I was cautious with my questioning – almost as if talking to an actual, in-the-flesh, real human bean.
There’s also the theme of free will (wherever he has been imprisoned), and the actions you take. I could attempt to be all intellectual and break down all the connotations and representations in this dystopian future, but I did that at university and left my brain behind many years ago. Plus, you want to play (and read!) about video games, right? No matter what, if you have a soul, this should affect you on an emotional level. You won’t cry, well, you’d better not, but you’ll question your actions before doing. Like you jolly well should!
Looking to the future
Will I be playing this in the near future. Maybe. For nostalgic purposes, escapism or to take a different approach with my questions. The Red Strings Club is a short game and you could complete in a day – if playing for a long period, or like me, a few days or thereabouts. There’s no rush. Besides, you should be taking your time to get the most out of it.
It’s not the type of game to have different modes and don’t think of a multiplayer option – you’re going solo on this one. The presentation is alright – the graphics are in a pixel art style and the sound is adequate – the story is the goal. Perhaps having a bit more variety or being able to explore other areas through movement could have been a welcome addition, but as it is, it’s a great game. If you want something a bit more fast-paced with a cyberpunk theme, go for Akane or more in-depth, wait for Cyberpunk 2077. At the time of writing (18:21), it isn’t out yet.
Disclaimer: The Red Strings Club is set in the future so I haven’t been there as it hasn’t happened. Yet. Will we all turn into heartless cyborgs in the future? Will we end up dreaming of electric sheep? Is it possible that I may be able to finish this disclaimer on a cliffhanger? Do you want to find out where they stashed the Holy Grail? Find out next week.