[This article contains spoilers for The Red Strings Club]
Games are all about manipulation. We influence systems with button presses to achieve a desired outcome. We lure our enemies into elaborate traps, bribe guards to let us through, or pass skill checks to make someone swallow our lies.
Even though we’ve been cheating, deceiving and tricking our way through games for years, it’s rare that a game puts manipulation at the centre of what it does. The Red Strings Club explores manipulation from its first to its last moment. The plot is simple: an android called Akara-184 escapes from the Supercontinent corporation after a botched attempt by PROXYMA, a group of cyberpunks, to infiltrate and sabotage the corporation. Akara-184 somehow ends up in the Red Strings Club, where they meet bartender and information broker Donovan and his lover Brandeis, a freelance hacker. Thanks to Akara they find out about Supercontinent’s secret project, Social Psyche Welfare, and, believing it to be an attempt at mass mind-control via implants, decide to fight back.
The Red Strings Club is essentially a three-act play, in which each stage explores a different kind of manipulation. The first act shows manipulation at the most extreme and invasive. Led astray by the infiltrating PROXYMA agent, Akara-184 installs mind-altering implants in two high-ranking Supercontinent executives. We are complicit in this transgression, down to deciding which implant to install.
In the second act, which constitutes the majority of the game, we employ a softer, more playful touch. Playing as Donovan, whose clientele includes many Supercontinent employees, we try to coax our guests into giving up information about the corporation and its projects. It is in this act that any simplistic conception of manipulation as one-sided and invasive begins to be slowly pried apart and dissected with a lot of nuance. Donovan uses his skills as a bartender to ‘tune’ into the various emotional states of his guests – such as depression, vanity or ecstasy – by mixing special drinks, then exploits these states to get the answers he wants.
At first glance, this may seem similar to the transgressions of the first act, but it becomes clear that the guests know about the effects of Donovan’s special drinks and frequent his bar because of it. The guests we interrogate are fully aware they’re being manipulated, and they don’t mind; in fact, some seem to embrace the back and forth of drinks and questions as a game, a playful and friendly tug-of-war. The guests sometimes change the rules of the ‘game’; Larissa, for example, stipulates that you can never serve her the same drink twice.
Over this second act the idea of manipulation, following its introduction as a sinister threat of bodily invasion and mind-control, gradually loses its comic book simplicity. It is no longer something brutal done to strangers in an impersonal, sterile laboratory, but something that occurs mutually between friends and acquaintances in the familiarity of a bar. Even the ‘mind-control’ project starts to appear more nuanced. We get pulled into lengthy discussions about the ethics, legality, potentials and consequences of the project, and are told that SPW doesn’t turn people into complacent drones, but in fact makes them happier and more creative by permanently ridding them of debilitating mental afflictions like depression.
Even though Donovan will never be entirely convinced, these arguments do muddy the waters. Choose the right drinks and dialogue options, however, and you can sow doubts among your guests, too. There are other debates to be had, most of them about manipulation: is there such a thing as ethical marketing? Are the persuasive qualities of art different from those of technology? By the time the second act ends, it has become clear that manipulation, to varying degrees, suffuses every kind of communication. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we manipulate.
In the final act, the gentle manipulation of drinks and small talk gives way to outright deception. Playing as Brandeis, we infiltrate Supercontinent and attempt to sabotage the project. To do this, we dig up private medical data and impersonate employees on the phone to trick their co-workers into helping us or divulging information. While the stakes are high and the end (perhaps?) justifies the means, Donovan and Brandeis are losing some of their moral high-ground; you can sabotage the company by firing employees, or even hire a torturer!
In the end, there is a not-so-surprising twist: the events of the game have been orchestrated by Akara all along, who manipulated both our revolutionaries and the company itself. There’s a gentle but clear meta-commentary behind this. Akara alludes to their own interest in game design several times, which also recalls the quizzes they’ve been playing with Donovan in the bar. The games you are playing, Akara seems to suggest, are really playing you. Not unlike Akara, who collapses in the bar like a puppet whose strings have been cut, but is really the puppet master, games ‘trick’ us into seeing them as passive playthings while influencing us throughout through careful use of restrictions, cues and various tricks.
Like all art or technology, The Red Strings Club manipulates us and tries to ‘tune’ into us much like Donovan does with his drinks. With hindsight, the beginning of the game makes this clear: in a brief flash-forward, we see Brandeis falling to his death. Apart from pointing towards its own artifice and manipulation of how the player perceives the game’s events, this scene also reveals another main theme: fate. The intro wilfully subverts the game’s own careful illusion of agency; no matter what you do, Brandeis’ death is inevitable. Brandeis, Donovan and Akara all talk about fate at one time or another, sometimes in casual asides, sometimes at great length.
Manipulation and fate are connected somehow. Even the ‘strings’ of the title hint at this, alluding to the phrase ‘pulling the strings’ (which is used several times in dialogue) as well as to fate. The string or thread is a common symbol for fate which appears, for example, as the ‘red thread of fate’ of East Asian legend, or the thread of the three Fates in European mythology.
Akara is the one that uses manipulation to turn chaos into what appears to us, short-sighted humans, as ‘fate.’ The paradox of Akara is that they emerged ‘organically’ from human information and technology, but weren’t created by humans. They are a superhuman consciousness born from the unpredictable chaos of the internet (the ‘web’ being another string metaphor employed by the game) as some sort of deus ex machina. In this light Akara can seem like an embodiment of the systems created by humans, which have become so complex over time they've developed, in some emergent fashion, a life of their own. And neither individuals nor corporations or governments can predict these outcomes, let alone master them.
We could look at The Red Strings Club as a depressing exercise in fatalism, where human actors are forever stuck in a moral morass of mutual manipulation, and bound by webs they themselves have woven, but don’t understand. The Red Strings Club, however, never devolves into cynicism and still manages to find some optimism and humanity in this predicament. Even though the actions of Brandeis and Donovan are compromised by Akara’s influence from the very start, they find some wiggle room for personal expression in the web of chaos and, in the end, make a real difference. It’s a small consolation perhaps, but The Red Strings Club is all about how little things will add up in the end.