The Red Strings Club (Deconstructeam) and Minigame Conversation

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The Red Strings Club is a cyberpunk narrative experience about fate and happiness featuring the extensive use of pottery, bartending and impersonating people on the phone to take down a corporate conspiracy.

The Red Strings Club was recommended to me by a reader who explained that this was a game that used mixology as its conversation interface. If you want someone to talk to you, you make them a cocktail.

That does really sound like my kind of thing, I have to admit. I have written multiple prototype games, all of them sadly occupying dusty corners of my hard drive, that were based on some variation of “you have to mix evocatively-described liquids together in order to elicit information.” In one, it was a form of scrying with magical ingredients. In another, you were going to custom mix perfumes for yourself to wear to social events in order to subtly influence the conversation of the nobles around you. In a third, your choice of how to weight components in the mixture was going to drive the probabilities in generated descriptive text, so if you used a lot of one liquid you might become more perceptive about physical qualities, or a lot of another liquid would reveal memories.

None of these projects ever got finished. The perfumes one didn’t get further than an “oh I think I see how I’d do that” level of spec. But what appealed to me was a combination of challenge, physicality, and expressiveness

The challenge would have to do with the mixing rules: you might find that the ideal potion to scry out the murderer was one requiring ingredients that reacted horribly together, and you’d need to find a way to mix them safely.

The expressiveness would arise from the fact that you’re combining several elements into a single choice, and they could carry different axes of information. Imagine a perfume in which the top and heart notes express the noun and verb of action, the “what are you doing” portion of the command, while the base note expresses how you feel about it, a touch of protagonist characterization. Patchouli for the earnest, unguarded, irony-free. Sandalwood if you’re old enough to know better but not quite old enough to be genuinely subtle. Myrrh for bitterness. Vetiver for an inscrutable smirk.

It’s too rare in games that we’re allowed to say whether we take an action eagerly, or joyfully, or with reservations, or because we can think of no alternative.

Anyway. That is a very long preamble to say: that is not how The Red Strings Club works at all.

In TRSC, you use cocktail mixing as a kind of minigame to steer your cursor over the choice you wish to select. Pouring from the green bottle moves the cursor left; pouring it from the yellow bottle moves right.

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In my choice terminology, it’s a selection mechanism that involves effort and a limited amount of embodiment, but ultimately you’re picking among two to four static options. The cocktail mixing mechanic doesn’t add expressiveness, doesn’t let you communicate any more data than you would with an A/B/C menu. And the effort/embodiment here is actually pretty anti-mimetic. In real life, I generally don’t have difficulty lifting bottles and pouring their contents accurately into glasses, but the control mechanism here made simply pouring and mixing correctly into a time-consuming, error-prone exercise. Reviews and YouTube videos suggest other people were as clumsy with it as I.

(And before we consider the obvious other explanation: this mechanic wasn’t representing the life experiences of a bartender with restricted mobility. It was just awkward. It wasn’t quite the QWOP of bartending, but it did make simple intuitive real life actions into something hard.)

What I did like was the idea that different liquors corresponded to movements in a (simple, two-dimensional) vector space, with emotional matches located at particular points in that space. More of my attention went into getting the stupid bourbon into the stupid glass than into figuring out how to reach a particular point in that vector space, but this is a model for complex, composite meaning that I rather like.

There is, I think, another point to this as well. The game is about transhumanist questions — how much it’s appropriate to modify ourselves or other people. There’s a large corporation experimenting with what it can do to people’s ambitions and emotions, but the bartender (who is leery of this corporate meddling) is himself handing out drinks that manipulate his customers without their knowledge. For both bartender and corporation, creating the device or substance that alters someone’s experience is a matter of painstaking crafting. And that does suggest something about the game universe: that it’s possible to meddle with people’s perceptions and behavior, but that you need to invest some time in creating your solution and customizing it to them.

In any case. This is not the cocktail conversation game of my dreams, yet, but it has some cool things going on. I eventually got too frustrated by the amount of time that was going into basic dexterity tests and watched the rest of the dialogue scenes on YouTube rather than playing it out, but if you have more spare time than I do and a taste for transhumanist/cyberpunk narratives, you may enjoy this one.

2 thoughts on “The Red Strings Club (Deconstructeam) and Minigame Conversation

  1. I would agree with a lot here. The choices in this game and the mechanic used to get to them didn’t allow a fluid enough (ha) participation from me to get into the story. The drinks felt like interruptions at times. What do you think about the conversations themselves?—the way drinks did or didn’t impact a line of question and answers. I had trouble feeling like I wasn’t just cycling through drinks and being a completionist, but maybe I didn’t look at the mechanics cosely enough.

    • I think there were definitely more and less successful approaches you could take with the drinks, and I think I made the wrong emotional choices sometimes, but since it was hard to be certain of the consequences of my actions, it was also hard to learn from and get better at mixological manipulation. (And the game is long enough that I would be hesitant to replay the whole thing to attempt to get more out of people.)

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