The Red Strings Club is a perfect example of how far games have come as a storytelling device. It was a game that I actually sat through the credits for; not just because of it’s striking pixel art and soothing piano instrumental, but because it left me with a plethora of ideas and emotions, it was a challenge to even organise my thoughts. It’s contemplative, impactful, interesting and beautiful throughout. The Red Strings Club is undeniably a surprise indie gem.
I’ll start by stating the obvious: The Red Strings Club is gorgeous. At this point neo-noir, cyberpunk settings are fairly clichéd but we rarely get to experience them in games so The Red Strings Club avoids ever looking mundane. Colours pop and the general neon aesthetic doesn’t stop the game from retaining a dangerous, moody vibe. Because of the game’s short length, there isn’t a whole lot of variety when it comes to art or environments. Most of the game is set in the titular Red Strings Club, with occasional detours to the rest of the city, so don’t expect any surprises, aesthetically at least.
On the other hand, The Red Strings Club’s soundtrack is quite eclectic. This is prominent from the very first scene in the game with a smooth, jazz piano playing with the backdrop of a neon building. The rest of the game is filled with a healthy mix of cool jazz tunes and heavier, more traditionally cyberpunk, synth beats. It all works beautifully to compliment the games settings switching between a club and a dangerous, futuristic world. The duality of the soundtrack is also a nice contrast for the game’s narrative about the struggle between humanity and technology.
The Red Strings Club definitely has a challenging story in almost every sense of the word. There’s a lot of unnecessary clutter with different acronyms, names and companies all introduced in a relatively short span of time. This can make it difficult to keep up with the story the game is trying to tell, but the stories’s structure somewhat negates this. The player will usually only be interacting with one or two characters, so even when the game switches perspectives between its two central protagonists, it doesn’t get too overwhelming.
While there is a lot of unnecessary fluff around The Red Strings Club’s plot, the core of the game’s narrative is incredibly strong. The game is about Donovan, a bartender/information broker, and Brandeis, a ‘freelance hero’ who works to uncover a dark conspiracy. While it might seem fairly standard for a sci-fi story – a big business trying to control the public through augmentations – there’s a deeper layer to everything here thanks to the games incredible dialogue. Talking to different characters involved in the conspiracy means you get multiple different perspectives about the issues being explored. At first what might seem like a definitively evil plan, becomes increasingly morally ambiguous. The game questions the player’s opinions on the effect that technology has on humanity through all different sorts of ways. Is an emotion real if it’s artificial? If mind control can stop murder, is it justified? How much control can we let big businesses have over our lives? These are big, philosophical questions that unravel over the course of the conversations in The Red Strings Club. You might have an opinion already but having to defend that position in the middle of an argument will challenge everything you believe. Again, it’s not a groundbreaking story, but they’re not issues that come up in games all that often, and they’re definitely not told with this kind of maturity.
Even with these heavy themes, the game’s story still remains fun. The game’s two leads have a certain amount of humour to them and they also have chemistry with all of the secondary characters as well. Witty banter, flirtations, threats and espionage are sprinkled throughout all of these encounters and it leads to some very entertaining and funny moments. The game also deserves some praise for its diversity. Society becomes more liberal as the years go on, so it’s only natural that these progressive attitudes are present in the game.
The game is broken up between point-and-click conversations, mini-games and puzzles. The conversations are perhaps, the standout of the game, gameplay-wise. Depending on what you say, conversations can go a number of ways and even though there’s only one ending, your decisions will have other, minor consequences throughout the story. Most of the conversations you have while playing as Donovan are combined with a bartending mini-game. The player can make different drinks to influence a customer’s mood. Asking them a question while they’re scared would lead to different information then if you made them a drink to make them arrogant, for example. While the actual act of making a drink isn’t too interesting, the mechanic remains clever since it forces the player to think about the dialogue options they choose and the mood of the customer. It’s just another thing to consider that adds some replay value to the game since outcomes based on mood can be altered.
There are a few other mini-games but these can be hit or miss. One of them involves the player essentially sculpting implants and it requires just about as much agency as a quick-time-event. The only interesting thing about this mini-game is a minor spoiler.
The other two mini-games also require you to manipulate conversations to discover new information and change characters’ emotions in different ways. One of these involves changing your voice over the phone to impersonate different characters. It requires a lot of mental juggling, figuring out the relationships between these characters and which voice is best suited to get information out of certain characters.
In some aspects, like its gameplay, The Red Strings Club is a mixed bag. However, that doesn’t stop the majority of the game from being well worth your time. Stunning pixel art and a smooth soundtrack elevate The Red Strings Club’s excellent, contemporary story further. It’s sometimes disturbing, sometimes existential, but always interesting. If you’re a fan of deep stories, conspiracy thrillers or neo-noir settings, The Red Strings club is for you.
You can probably find Kaan hibernating until the next episode of Game of Thrones.