March 2nd, 2023

Devolver Flashback: The Red Strings Club

By Andy Kelly

Welcome to Devolver Flashback, a new series of blogs in which we go spelunking in the deep, dank caverns of our back catalogue and pluck out one of the many gems sparkling in the gloom. This week, booze-soaked cyberpunk adventure The Red Strings Club.

Key art created for the video game The Red Strings Club by Deconstructeam showing a person lighting another person's cigarette.

Five years ago, Spanish indie geniuses Deconstructeam served me a cocktail I'll never forget. The Red Strings Club is part bartending sim, part existential rumination on the nature of being. One minute you're mixing a drink, the next you're wrestling with challenging ethical conundrums about humanity, privacy, artificial intelligence, and other thought-provoking topics. It's pretty intense, but any cyberpunk story worth its cyber-implants should be.

Sure, there are neon-lit cityscapes and impeccably-dressed hackers in The Red Strings Club. It even has a brilliantly moody, brooding synth soundtrack courtesy of Paula 'Fingerspit' Ruiz. But while some cyberpunk games are content to stop there, Deconstructeam goes deeper, pushing beyond the superficial. The result is a game that isn't just cool as hell, but one that's intellectually nourishing as well. When the credits roll, you're gonna need a lie down.

As Donovan, proprietor of the titular Red Strings Club, you mix cocktails to tap into people's emotions and extract information from them. As Akara-184, an android capable of empathy, you sculpt bio-implants with a pottery wheel-like device to improve people's lives. As hacker Brandeis you mimic voices over the phone to play people against each other.

But as fun as these interactive minigames are (I'll never get tired of hearing the clink of an ice cube when I drop it into a glass), it's not long before The Red Strings Club has you questioning yourself and your actions. Manipulating these people, whether through booze or advanced bio-technology, will challenge the morality of all but the most unfeeling of human husks. Some of these tough moral quandaries may even make you feel uncomfortable.

But that's Deconstructeam for you. This is a developer that wants you to think big thoughts and feel big feelings, and The Red Strings club certainly fulfils that brief. The game's evocative, compelling script was written by Jordi de Paco, with art direction by pixel artist extraordinaire Marina González, whose vivid visual imagination and eye for colour sets this cyberpunk setting apart from other examples of the genre. Some people are just too talented.

The game's mix of bartending, pottery, and social engineering is, let's be real, super weird. When I ask Jordi where the idea came from, he admits that Deconstructeam wouldn't have thought to combine these elements independently. It happened because the studio already had prototypes of each of these minigames, which were then combined, given a cyberpunk makeover, linked with a narrative, and turned into what we now know as The Red Strings Club.

This is a game that was made quickly on a low budget by a tiny team, and was a mish-mash of existing gameplay prototypes, but you'd never know. It's so confidently made and clear in its vision that you'd think the idea appeared fully formed. The Red Strings Club is available now on PC and Switch, and is a must play for anyone who loves point-and-click adventures, branching narratives, or deliciously dark visions of the future. I'll drink to that.