The cyberpunk genre has always been something of a strange one. On one hand, it can be very metaphoric and thoughtful: It deals with topics of humanity by pushing the envelope in the direction of inhumanity. It makes us recognize our own world by showing us one that is distinctly alien and far fetched. On the other hand, it could also be just be an excuse to hack mega corporations and engage in high speed chases through neon-lit street.
And both are pretty fun, when translated to the world of video games.
Of the two options, The Red Strings Club definitely fits more snugly into the first example. And it does it damn well. Released by Devolver Digital on the 22nd of January, 2018, The Red Strings Club was developed by Deconstructeam, the same folks who brought us 2014’s strange indie puzzler Gods Will Be Watching.
Red Strings Club is a narrative driven puzzle game set in a dystopian, corporate run future, where there’s a biomedical implant to cure just about any woe that ails you, and a small, but determined force of underground rebels exist to fight back against the fascistic overlords who are interested in further altering the minds and experiences of those that they sell their wares to.
It’s a pretty common theme for storylines like these: all the way back to Philip K. Dick. Questions about free will, artificial sentience, all that stuff makes an appearance. You spend the majority of the game switching between playing one of two freelance heroes: a hacker named Brandeis, and his boyfriend Donovan, an information broker and owner the titular Red Strings Club.
What sets Red Strings apart from so many other cyberpunk experiences is how it tells the story. Donovan’s business is information, and the vast majority of the game reflects this. You meet different, talkative members of the local corporate scene, and the questions you ask will lead to different strings of future options and dialogue. This is displayed in game through literal red strings that guide you to your next steps and remind you of what you’ve decided and done in the past.
In addition to your narrative options, you have various mini games that make those options even possible. The most frequently used ends up being the powerful drinks that Donovan serves at his club. Through some sort of cyber punk alchemy, Donovan is able to tap into various inner emotions of his clientele by mixing just the right concoction that will open up new routes toward the end of Red Strings Club’s mystery. All of the mini games are fun, but if one had to take center stage, I’m glad it was this one. Different drinks push and pull in different directions, and getting the recipe just right is the key to unlocking your interviewee’s pride, greed, or whatever other emotion will loosen their tongue. Honestly, it’s a pretty brilliant metaphor for how booze works in general.
The look and sound of Red Strings Club can’t be missed, either: the pixel graphic style that Decontructeam began with in Gods Will Be Watching has been evolved and beautified. The characters are designed incredibly well, and their movements and body language set up a lot when it comes to getting to know who they are personally. Neon signs, pouring rain: all of those cyberpunk tropes are here, and the developers translated them beautifully to the screen. The music is also excellent. It swaps between raucous electronic dance beats and somber piano ballads. There’s even a mini game during which you can specifically set the music you’re listening to to help you along in the game. Pretty great stuff.
By the end of my playthrough of Red Strings Club, I hadn’t unlocked every mystery set in front of me, but this game is so damn engaging, that it’s impossible not to want to give it another playthrough, if only to unlock little pieces you’ve never seen before. And Deconstructeam should be proud of the smart dialogue and fun puzzles that are key to that engagement. My first playthrough took me around three hours, but I get the feeling that my second one will be a little longer, now that I have a better understanding of how the game’s mechanics work.
Fans of cyberpunk, excellent stories, challenging puzzles, or all of the above should really give this one a go. Red Strings Club is a smart, fun indie game, and it was released today. So have at it.