Eliza review: Startup culture meets sci-fi in a touching, fascinating tale


Enlarge / Main character Evelyn looks upon her hometown of Seattle in the fascinating new visual novel Eliza.

Zachtronics

“You’re a computer,” a graduate student says in a huff, directly to my face. “You don’t know what [relationships] are like, do you?”

I don’t respond. Instead, I eye him quietly, his face appearing between two informational grids, full of biometric analysis. His vitals (heart rate, voice levels) appear in a chart on the right. His word choice, and each word’s associated value (positive, negative), pop up in a chat log on my left. I study him. I wait.

This person—my therapy client—continues speaking, like a freight train full of anxiety, and his rhetorical questions fall like discarded cargo as he continues. He eventually compares his distress to something out of a “self-pitying novel,” which finally prompts my guiding system, named Eliza, to offer a question: “Why did you think you were so much better than those types of writers?” I see this question pop up in my augmented-reality field, and I speak it aloud, word-for-word.

This question is the only option I have in the “visual novel” game Eliza at that moment: to look at the “proxy response” generated by a computer system, then use it to guide the therapy session. At the game’s outset, I’m warned very sternly not to waver from the script, and it’s the kind of video game warning that you can’t help but attach foreshadowing to. Like, duh. The game’s plot is about emotions being interpreted by machines. We’re going to break through and disobey our robotic masters. That will be this game’s emotional resonance.

Or will it? So many things about Eliza will stick with me for a very long time. But perhaps the strongest of them is how this visual novel toys with player agency—and does so in a way I’ve yet to see, outdoing the oft-cited likes of Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line. Forget everything you know about visual novels. Eliza is a new masterwork in the genre, and it’s full of interesting answers to the graduate student’s above question about empathy and sentience.

A proctor in more ways than one

For starters, it’s important to consider the pedigree of this visual novel. It comes from the folks at Zachtronics, a game studio best known for such mind-bending super-sim games as Spacechem and Infinifactory. I don’t point that out to raise expectations that there’s some complicated simulation logic driving this visual novel’s story. Rather, it’s a solid reference point for how seriously this studio takes the technological and emotional details that fill out this surprisingly rich journey into the human condition.

Eliza revolves around a near-future version of Seattle (full disclosure: my real-life hometown) where a leading software and data company, Skandha, operates a series of therapy centers with an AI twist. Make an appointment using Skandha’s app, then arrive at your scheduled time to sit with a proctor. Everything you say and do is recorded by the Eliza system (yes, named after a real-world AI project from the 1960s), and it follows a somewhat rigid pattern of intake, listening, leading questions, and resolution.

You play the game as Evelyn, a longtime Seattle resident desperate to start her life anew. You apply for a job as an Eliza therapy center proctor, and the game abruptly opens at the job’s orientation, with only a hint of Evelyn’s troubled past that has apparently led her to this strange job. The Eliza system analyzes real patients’ speech patterns and word choice, then feeds algorithmically determined questions and statements to your character to repeat out loud.

Over the course of playing Eliza, you’ll meet a variety of clients, with some appearing multiple times (and they’ll appear in places other than your private therapy-center room). As the plot moves forward through a six-act structure, you’ll also begin processing the wreckage of Evelyn’s past life, all while seeing former friends and colleagues return. The first striking thing about Eliza becomes known when we see Evelyn begin to sort and understand her life through the few people she’s still close to—and comparing that to the seemingly robotic interactions she leads with Skandha customers.

The game’s visual novel conceit means it largely wrests control from its players. The game’s Eliza system makes that clear from the get-go, as the opening series of therapy sessions stick to a script, no matter how much clients bark about the system’s lack of human emotion. The result is a fascinating presentation for the usual storytelling trope of therapy, which we’ve seen in everything from the intense drama of The Sopranos to the cheeky fun of Frasier. From a sheer writing standpoint, Eliza is a winner, full of raw stories about emotional vulnerability and mental health, and its cast of voice actors, by and large, do great service by the script.

Souls, poetry, server farms, and pain

Yet even while Eliza cruises by in a mostly straight-line path, it’s still packed with surprises, twists, and “wow”-worthy moments. Some of the game’s plot turns are predictable enough, but a few changes to Evelyn’s work in and around the Eliza system had me actually put my hand on my mouth as I gasped at their intensity. Some ask the pointed questions you might expect from someone who has gone through the trenches of start-up culture—who has seen ambition and ingenuity prioritized over care and decency—and it’s in these moments that creator Matthew Seiji Burns’ grace with the subject matter feels most pronounced and engaging. This all comes without a sense of preachiness, and thank goodness.

There’s also the matter of this story revolving around reams of personal, intimate data as being relayed to a computer and that process being ballyhooed as a healthy alternative to the old way of doing things. Regular Ars Technica readers know what has happened in the real world when people have trusted their personal moments to keenly aware computer systems. Unsurprisingly, Eliza explores this darker side of data transparency (and about humans double-checking machines’ interpretations), but it’s also generally careful to let organic plot moments speak for themselves as opposed to smothering them in obvious, melodramatic commentary.

At times, the game casts clear aspersions upon something like this wholly hypothetical conceit: automated therapy as fed through a human host. And that can be a bit tough to stomach as a player. Would people actually pay for this type of crazy service? The reason this conceit wins out is that Eliza is less interested in selling this system’s viability, or forgiving its craziest aspects, and more interested in comparing it to how human relationships already play out in the 21st century. What happens when powerful people project their hopes and assumptions onto Evelyn? What happens when friends can’t shake their foolishly positive assumptions, and thus can’t be a truly kind ear to Evelyn’s biggest fears?

It’s through this prism, studying our uneven abilities to perceive and empathize, that Eliza succeeds the most as a work of science fiction. You may not even notice the game asking crucial sci-fi questions about humanity—about souls, poetry, server farms, and pain—because of how its therapy-robot conceit sneaks its big-deal questions into the narrative.

What’s more, the act of clicking through this game is pretty marvelous. When Evelyn is granted multiple conversation options, they wisely align. You’re never given options outside of Evelyn’s personality; rather, you’re given the option to pick which of her moods and instincts to verbalize while being given a hint of all of them at once. And the game weaves its cast of characters into and out of Evelyn’s life at a breezy enough clip, with only a few conversations overstaying their welcome, all while the game’s static scenes benefit from a gorgeous ambient-synth soundtrack and a decidedly Seattle-looking coat of cool, comforting colors and paint strokes.

“Everyone’s alone”—what if that’s the connection?

Eliza launch trailer

At its worst, Eliza feels like it could have been a radio drama instead of a video game, what with its complete lack of animation and generally static scenes. But the interactivity is ultimately a crucial part of the experience. Sometimes, it’s because of the Eliza therapy system’s conceit, which makes you repeat and parrot a robot’s synthesis of human emotions. Other times, it’s because you’re asked to pry into people’s lives to move the plot forward. And eventually, your decisions start to carry some weight. (Without going into spoilers, this fact leads to at least one ending possibility with an all-too-neatly tied bow, but the heavy emotional hits on the way more than make up for this.)

If you read this site, that means you likely work with, or are at least keenly interested in, how strange factors push the technology sector forward. How stupid and even inhumane ideas have somehow become mass-market forces. And how we connect with each other on a personal level as automation steamrolls ahead as a potential factor in so many lines of work. Eliza is a visual novel for that exact kind of 21st-century person, and it rocked me emotionally many times, like when the main character Evelyn, voiced so wonderfully by actor Aily Kei, recalled her lowest points.

A little over halfway through the story, Evelyn pleads with a friend about the surprising shape her worst periods of depression took: “I would stay in bed even though I was awake. This blankness would come over me, and it just seemed fine to do nothing. I was by myself and I thought that was alright. That’s how it is. Everyone’s alone. I’m just being honest about it.”

I came out of Eliza with the sense that I’d been on a journey of juggling grief, hope, and joy through the existential dread that is living a modern, tech-filled life. And for that reason, I recommend this visual novel as a must-play experience.



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