Eliza Review $14.99
Platforms: PC, Switch
Release Date: 2019-10-10
Game description: "Eliza is a visual novel about an AI counseling program, the people who develop it, and the people who use it. Follow Evelyn Ishino-Aubrey as she reconnects with people from her past, gets to know the people of Seattle who use Eliza for counseling, and decides the course of her future." - http://www.zachtronics.com/eliza/
Herald in a new era
Depictions of mental health within media can be an incredibly sensitive thing to approach. When handled properly, it can be quite affecting to those who have been through similar kinds of suffering. Empathy is critical for these kinds of stories to feel real – if the way in which mental health is being portrayed within the story doesn’t feel realistic, then it can potentially feel pandering or even dismissive. Zachtronics, developers of the visual novel Eliza, have approached this subject in a way which makes it clear that proper research was done, and even more likely, those who wrote the story have been through similar struggles to the characters they portray.
“Well-researched” is exactly how I would describe the writing in Eliza. By the time you are finished with its story, you will have picked up on vernacular which is used by both professional programmers and psychologists, complex concepts which would normally take significant explanation, and what can realistically be expected of a computer. A particular favourite amongst these researched subjects was one character’s rampant obsession with synthesizers – as a longtime user and fan of synths, I adored seeing direct references to Moog, LFOs, and the TB-303. However, before I get ahead of myself, what is this game?
Eliza pulls you into a not-too-distant future world wherein access to mental health services has become ubiquitous. This was accomplished by developing an AI psychiatrist (named Eliza) who reads stimuli from a patient (heart rate, skin temperature, vocabulary used, et cetera) in order to diagnose and offer treatment. What differentiates the Eliza system from other AI-driven counseling systems is how it interacts with its patients. A patient never has to look at a screen or wait for a computer printout of their diagnosis – Eliza clinics hire humans to be proxies between them and the system.
This system is great in concept, and for many patients, great in execution as well. They are given feedback and treatment options for whatever has been plaguing them, and they get to do so by interacting with a real-life human – all while the costs are extremely low for them! But what if the system is imperfect? What if human emotions are too nuanced to be boiled down to floating point numbers put through a series of conditional statements? What about the people acting as proxies, should they have any agency during these sessions? What if Eliza is wrong? These questions and more are what Eliza aims to answer.
You guide Evelyn through a web woven with many deep characters – each with their own history, passions, problems, and goals. The characters are the best part of the story, and by the end, you will genuinely care about what happens with each of them. From minor ones who initially seem like they won’t get much play later, to ones who shape the core of the story – they all get their arcs, and they all get their conclusions.
As expected of a visual novel, the moment-to-moment gameplay is fairly straightforward. However, one differentiating factor from most VNs is that every line of Eliza is voice acted, and done very well – so if you prefer hearing a story rather than reading one, this is an exemplary implementation of voice acting in a VN. There are choices to be made, and as in other Zachtronics games, a well-designed Solitaire game! While the solitaire itself has no story consequences associated with its completion, it is still a welcome distraction (even if the music which plays during it is awful – I had to mute the game whenever I played it).
I would like to applaud Eliza for how well it handles mental health, and the weight with which it affects people. No-one’s plights are made to be any more or less valid than another’s, and all of it feels extremely relatable. I have nearly no criticisms with how this aspect of the story is handled. In fact, I’d say that the majority of the story is excellent. However, that does lead me to my one real criticism of the game.
So, so close
I don’t intend to spoil any story beats nor flow when I say this; but it must be noted that while the tale Eliza weaves about human resilience and our ability to grow and cope with nearly anything, I found the final act of Eliza is quite underwhelming. It has numerous endings, and I wouldn’t say that any of them felt fleshed out enough for me to say they were satisfying. Some had endings which felt entirely incongruous and inconsistent with everything set before it, some felt too black and white for how many shades of gray were in play, and some simply felt like they had nothing to say.
The main reason this was disappointing to me was because of just how good everything was up until that point. It felt as though the story was juggling dozens of balls masterfully, but in its last chapter, forgot how to juggle and instead just grabbed a few from the air and let the rest fall where they may. The main problem across all of them is that they all felt too short – like they needed an extra scene each, at least. Perhaps this is being an armchair game designer, and this was something Zachtronics wanted to do but couldn’t accomplish for whatever reason; but it did deflate the experience for me – especially given how, up until that point, I was loving it so much that I didn’t want it to end at all!
Ultimately, Eliza is a fantastic experience. It dives deep into subjects which aren’t often talked about openly, and does so with expert attention to detail. It is a biting commentary on our reliance on technology in the modern world, and does not use kid gloves while doing so. Along with technology, it is a wonderfully executed think piece on mental health, and what it is like for everyday people to be afflicted by mental illness. Were it not for the story stumbling across the finish line, it would be a wholehearted recommendation without any caveats; but as it stands, expectations ought to be tempered for its conclusion.
- Extremely well researched
- Fantastic characters
- Voice acting & art is great
- Fun Solitaire minigame
- Disappointing final act
- Incongruous ending(s)