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In my review of the Netflix series Altered Carbon, I complained about that show's slavish devotion to recycling cyberpunk tropes, to the point of being derivative and unoriginal. So now I've just played The Red Strings Club, a point-and-click style adventure game that also has pretty much the same old cyberpunk imagery - dismal rain, neon lit nights, towering corporations, boozy heroes and self-actualising robots - and yet still manages to feel like a fresh and new take on the genre. I'm still trying to figure out what the difference is, if any.
The Red Strings Club tells the story of an an unusual couple who become embroiled in corporate espionage after a broken robot stumbles into their bar. You alternately play as one of two characters; one is a hacker who fights to take down the corporate hegemony, the other is a barman/information broker who has the mysterious ability to drastically alter people's emotional states with his cocktail recipes.
Gameplay revolves around dragging information out of people, usually by deceiving them or warping their psyche. This could involve altering their mood with drinks and asking the right questions, or phishing scams in which you impersonate half the corporate ladder over the phone, or by messing with mind altering implants hardwired into people's brains. Some of these activities go on just long enough to start becoming repetitive, but once you've finished them you'll never see them again. This is a short game experience of around three hours, but has a bundle of replay value even after you've absorbed all the twists of the mystery plot.
What the game does exceptionally well is withhold a tantalising amount of information from the player. It tells enough to provide a full and complete story, but holds back far more than you might expect. By the end of the game, there are a number of unresolved mysteries and plot threads, and yet it doesn't feel like that matters too much because the journey is an emotional one rather than one of solving every element of story. Technically there is more than enough left for a sequel, but if I understood this game correctly, there is no need to have one.
The game also has a tremendous sense of humour. It has the classic adventure game wit and sarcasm down to a tee, and I think that bit of freshness is perhaps one of the main reasons why it doesn't feel like a Blade Runner clone. This game isn't all moodiness and misery; it is optimism and joy and fun, as well as the sadness. Yes it has lots of big questions to ask about the nature of free-will, but what I took home from it is a tale of two dudes trying to make out the best life possible in the moment, for themselves and for everyone.
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