Zachtronics has gained deserved and extraordinary fame within the puzzle game indie scene by creating some of the most challenging and satisfying titles in all of gaming history. For those not in the know, its most beloved titles include SpaceChem, Shenzhen I/O, and Opus Magnum. In fact, as far as I’m aware, Zach Barth’s entire time in game development has revolved around puzzle games. When I first discovered a few weeks ago that he was creating a visual novel, I was both shocked and immediately stricken with feverish curiosity.
Of course, his first visual novel revolves around artificial intelligence. Do not be mistaken, though: Eliza is true to the visual novel formula. Ostensibly, the game follows Evelyn, a genius programmer who has taken a lengthy hiatus from her primary profession to work in a book store and, currently, serve as a proxy for her former employer, Skandha. A proxy is someone who communicates what Eliza, an AI counseling program Evelyn helped design, believes a client should hear or be asked to do. Yes, an AI counseling program. As such, proxies don’t really do much but serve more as a face for Eliza to give it that human touch.
Out the gate, you realize that Evelyn is meandering, trying to discover her purpose after a tragic incident that occurred during her time with Skandha. Over the course of the adventure, Evelyn meets people old and new who give her some direction or at least a perspective to consider. Several options reveal themselves, though I personally discovered that refusing to go to a place doesn’t change the outcome. The only real decision players get is at the end. For those hungry for branching narratives, this isn’t your game.
If Zachtronics is your bag but visual novels aren’t, here’s the lowdown: most of the game is narrative driven, whether it’s the characters Evelyn speaks to or her inner thoughts, and the occasional dialogue choice crops up that can change how others interact with Evelyn. The story plods along. There are no puzzles, item collection, roaming, or anything one might discover in other adventure titles. I applaud Zachtronics for not aspiring to be something more, because Eliza doesn’t need padded mechanics to gamify the experience; though one might spend an hour or so immersed in the solitaire card game diversion included in several Zachtronics titles.
So what do I think of the story? Well, the characters have definite identities, even those who briefly appear. The counseling clients Evelyn sees feel real, as do the business people and middle managers. Some can come off as a tad archetypical, such as a power-hungry executive and an incurably depressed psychoanalyst, but most of the characters feel like they have multiple dimensions, and much is implied in what they say, how they say it, and what they don’t say. The writing is excellent in that sense.
Trouble is, I didn’t find any of the characters incredibly likable. This might come down to personal taste, but when I was given the big decision at the end of the game, I wasn’t sure what to do. I actually went on a walk to think about it! That isn’t to say it was satisfyingly grueling, but more, “Okay, what do I have to settle on?” True to life, you’re not going to like everyone you meet, and at some points, you may feel terribly lonely and detached from everyone around you — and maybe that’s what the devs were going for here — but as far as an interactive narrative goes, that makes it less enjoyable. I liked Evelyn well enough, but I feel like she was so broken and listless that I didn’t have much to grab onto. I was Evelyn, but Evelyn was not Evelyn. That can work, but it didn’t feel like the direction Zachtronics was trying to take Eliza.
In terms of the big idea of an AI taking the role of a counselor, that was a fascinating concept to explore. I have a graduate degree in psychology and work as a psychologist in my professional life, so this topic alone drew me in. Clearly, Eliza (the program) needs some work, but I was impressed with what Evelyn and her team of developers tried to accomplish. I found Eliza’s therapeutic foundations a serviceable combination of brief and humanistic psychotherapy. Like any counselor or clinician will tell you, an approach might work perfectly for one client but not another. Eliza’s toolbag seems limited, so to speak. The game talks about this at length in an intellectually respectful and philosophically grounded way, which I adore. All this to say that those with doubts can trust that Zachtronics has done their research and the execution is believable. Eliza feels definitively dystopian yet realistic and inspiring. Should I be worried?
Visual novels rely heavily on artwork and, in some cases, voice acting. How does Eliza compare to its ilk? Well, I love the art style. Eliza features a healthy combination of realism and comic book flair. Nothing animates, so scenes can feel rigid and impersonal for those unaccustomed to visual novels, but given the format, I applaud the artists. Regarding the audio, I honestly can’t say I’ve ever heard better voice acting in a game. Let me repeat: this is the best voice acting I’ve ever heard in any title I’ve played to date. I’ve been playing video games since I was five years old and have been reviewing games here at RPGFan for almost ten years. Whoever cast this team deserves major kudos. Of course, the voice actors themselves warrant even bigger praise for bringing their characters to life. I wish more companies put in the resources to find similarly capable talent.
I have such mixed feelings about Eliza. With regard to what it does well, it stands head and shoulders above the competition. In terms of the concepts explored, exemplifying how directionless adulthood can be, and its presentation, Eliza is exceptional. Regarding the actual narrative, pace, and flow of the writing, Eliza can be a slog to get through that frequently left me wondering, “Why am I doing this in the game right now?” Some scenes just feel pointless and don’t contribute much meat to what you’re here for about five hours to do. I suppose a supporter would argue they’re intended to flesh out the characters and build on the themes, but it doesn’t feel that way, and other adventure titles nail that without leaving me wondering, “Why?” Honestly, though, I hope this is an avenue Zachtronics continues to trek down. For the team’s first adventure title after singularly developing puzzle games, this is fantastic work. As a purchaser, this is a curiosity some might enjoy thinking about, while others can easily move on to a different experience.