A mirror for mental health counseling and the tech industry's role in it.
Life is rarely ever easy. In order to make sense of the world’s difficulties, it’s often recommended to talk it out with a friend or a therapist. But what if that counselor was a computer program following a script, with all of its data controlled by a large tech company?
Eliza comes to Nintendo Switch after a PC release earlier this year through developer and publisher Zachtronics. While the developer’s founder Zach Barth is known for creating engineering and programming puzzle games such as Infinifactory and Opus Magnum, Eliza is a drastic departure in terms of scope and genre for the team. This is because Eliza is a visual novel, written and scored by Matthew Seiji Burns—a former Treyarch and 343 Industries employee who wanted to tell a story about burnout in the tech industry’s crunch culture. Through the lens of mental health, the rise of technology’s ubiquity, interpersonal relationships, and one’s purpose in life, Eliza’s narrative presents the player with a range of currently relevant topics in a thoughtful way that few games tackle.
In Eliza, the player assumes the role of Evelyn Ishino-Aubrey, a 34-year-old software engineer who is returning to Seattle’s present-day tech industry after a three-year absence that was caused by a traumatic event. Evelyn has accepted a new job at the tech giant Skandha as a proxy for the mental wellness program known as Eliza. The program is designed to listen to patients during counseling sessions, as well as study a variety of their physiological factors, in order to provide the best response to continue the conversation optimally. A proxy, by extension, must provide a human face and voice for this programmed response, in order to build the best rapport with the patient, and a good Skandha employee must always stick to the script. Outside of work, Evelyn is trying to find meaning in her life after this hiatus and piece things back together by making connections with old friends and new acquaintances.
It’s these characters who help give shape to Evelyn’s world and present her with a variety of options for how to move forward with her life. These include her current boss at the proxy job, an old colleague who has started a new electronic music career, a former boss who is trying to make waves with his own tech startup, and even Skandha’s CEO with his own big plans for Eliza’s future. On top of that, Evelyn will encounter a range of patients through her proxy job, each with their own struggles in life. Every character is remarkably well acted, and you really get a sense for how each is either trying to convince Evelyn to come to their side or attempting to show how the Eliza system is flawed in certain ways. I found myself particularly empathizing the most with Maya, a struggling artist in dire need of a fresh start, whose pain can truly be felt behind her voice during counseling.
A visual novel is rarely ever demanding in terms of gameplay and that continues to be true with Eliza. Evelyn can open her cell phone at any time to distract from the main story, in order to read emails and text messages, relax with an artistic thought of the day, or even play a fleshed-out rendition of solitaire. Still, plenty of button presses to advance the text will be required, though I wish that a control stick input wasn’t necessary to highlight the only selectable response option on the screen. The game has a heartfelt artistic style that draws the player in, with character and menu design that blends the best of both hand-drawn and pixel art. Musically, the soundtrack supports the mood of each scene nicely, but never stands out enough to have its themes be memorable. It all culminates in an experience that may present the illusion of choice, but a linear narrative will play out, whether you want it to or not. This isn’t an inherent problem with the possibilities of storytelling in games, but it is somewhat disheartening that the only decisions with actual weight come towards the very end of the game, particularly the ultimate choice that drives the player to one of the game’s several endings. Fortunately, a chapter select option on the title screen means that full playthroughs are not required to see the other outcomes, even though a player’s first choice should best represent their own thoughts on the game’s narrative themes.
Expect to spend about five hours playing through the story of Eliza, assuming that the solitaire minigame doesn’t end up becoming much of a distraction. Fortunately, it is a compelling tale that comments on difficult topics with sensitivity, while presenting thoughtful challenges that humanity will have to wrestle with in the coming years. While I was pleased with how my selected ending mirrored how I would have responded to a similar situation, I just wish that my journey to get there could have been more customized, instead of feeling like all endings were possible at the end, no matter what. Still, fans of visual novels with deep thought experiments and realistic characters should certainly download Eliza for lots of engaging reading on their Nintendo Switch.