The topic of artificial intelligence is one that is far from unexplored in the world of gaming. No Code's Observation showed us what it was like to play as an AI system, while System Shock taught us the horrors of a hostile AI, but Eliza - the latest game from developer Zachtronics - brings us a story that's not set in a spaceship or on a sci-fi world. Instead, we get a narrative rather close to home, in a world not unlike the one we see all around us in 2019.
Eliza is laid out like a visual novel, so the majority of the time you'll be selecting dialogue options and listening to what characters have to say. You follow Evelyn, a woman who has been off the grid for around three years after helping to develop Eliza, an artificial intelligence system that's used to deliver therapy to those in need of it. The only condition is that it works via a proxy, i.e. a human to talk to the client, albeit reading off a script that Eliza provides. After three years, Evelyn returns to Skandha - the company behind Eliza - to act as one of these proxies.
From the very start, it's clear that Evelyn's past is a great source of pain for her, and she remains reserved and quiet for the duration of the three to four hours the game runs for. As we progress through the game we eventually get introduced to others like Rae, who's in charge of the Eliza facility you work for, and Nora, an old colleague of yours that you get in touch with so you can catch up after your absence.
We won't mention much more about the story for fear of spoiling the key elements, but all of these characters bring their own influence to Evelyn's life, impacting her and sometimes pulling her in different directions. They challenge her emotionally and intellectually, and despite her quietness, Evelyn also brings something to each of them as well, depending on what you choose to say to each of them, of course.
The game looks subdued with its convincing, hand-painted character portraits and environments, but the key appeal is in this story that's delivered to us over six chapters. The story is so relatable and human in its writing, and it really resonated with us from an emotional point of view. Each of these characters is going through their own dilemmas in life, and each has their own troubled past, as do we all. That's why the acting needed to be just right for each of their voices, and it hits the mark on all accounts.
The reason this narrative is so good is that it asks questions of the player on multiple occasions, with the biggest dilemmas revolving around Eliza's system and whether AI therapy is viable at all. This, of course, opens a whole can of worms around whether artificial intelligence can understand human emotions, how helpful it can be, and, naturally, the ethics around learning this data and how it's used/stored.
In this way Eliza illuminates an interesting view on therapy. Through our own understanding of cognitive behavioural therapy, we noticed that Eliza's methods touched upon many of the same ones that are used in real life, so this isn't as futuristic and far-fetched as it sounds. Being forced to stick to the script when hearing the problems of various clients is also a tough ask of the player because we're asked to put our trust in the system rather than intervening with our human input as we'd like to.
Hearing all these stories, both from the clients and elsewhere, is what makes this game resonate so much. It's a cliche to say that this is a really human experience, but nevertheless, it's true. It reminds us of Night in the Woods in the sense that they're both games that capture real experiences with subtlety and nuance. You might see yourself in this game at some point, and that's a really powerful thing.
You're not just talking in the game though, as technology is everywhere; the game is set in Seattle, after all. You'll answer emails and texts from your phone, and this lets Zachtronics eventually layer on more of the story in an organic way, laying down clues regarding your past, Eliza's origins, and what caused your three-year absence.
Eliza only lasted for a few hours but it resonated with us for a long time after putting it down. It captures human emotion in an authentic and thought-provoking way, intermingling that with discussions around ethics in technology, AI, and therapy. There are multiple characters with their own nuanced goals and beliefs in the plot, and it's not so much of a rollercoaster ride as a ride on the teacups, spinning you around and questioning what you really believe in.
We'd recommend Eliza not only to fans of visual novels but to those who love a story that offers up some food for thought. It's a powerful game that combines solid writing with believable characters and a wonderful soundtrack, where the material within is sensitively portrayed in a thoroughly intriguing way, to the point where we were fully invested in Evelyn's life and her future.