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Eliza Review: Maybe Computers Shouldn't Be Therapists

The tech industry is advancing at a very quick pace - new breakthroughs and developments are popping up constantly. We're always hearing news about the ways our world is changing; from augmented reality, to artificial intelligence, major medical advancements, and beyond.

Eliza takes place in a world that's incredibly similar to our own. In fact, it might even be the modern day; the technology that exists in it could plausibly exist in some form in our current reality. This verisimilitude is why the game is pretty unsettling, as it tells a story about how tech giants could use A.I. and machine learning to help people cope with their problems even though that might be a terrible and dangerous idea.

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The World Of Tomorrow

Eliza is a graphic novel from the people at Zachtronics, which is shocking considering every other game from the developer is usually an overly complex puzzle game that would render the average player a sobbing mess from trying to understand the complicated systems. So for them to create a game that's essentially just clicking through screens to get to the next bit of story is a pretty significant departure.

You play as Evelyn, a former tech industry professional who'a been dealing with her own mental health issues for about 3 years, and is now trying to get her life back on track. She takes a job as a worker at Eliza, which provides therapy and counseling for people by using artificial intelligence. Evelyn is a proxy, which means that she simply reads out what the Eliza system tells her to in order to give the computer a human touch.

The game confronts the dystopian nature of having a machine try to help those with mental health issues, as well as the emotions of those who can only help by communicating what Eliza tells them to, instead of offering actual human advice. It's a tremendously interesting and thought-provoking premise. Giving people a mass marketed way to get the help they need is one thing, but the actual practice of having a cold machine doing therapy essentially boils down to Eliza simply recommending breathing exercises, therapeutic phone games, or prescription medication, instead of actual solutions.

The game also goes after tech companies who try to innovate and jump into medical fields without thinking about the ramifications of what they're doing. Eventually the story reveals that some important tech figures are even developing technology that could alter brain patterns by inducing dreams, which raises some serious ethical questions.

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Some Serious Moral Grey Areas

In the middle of it all is Evelyn, who basically is forced to come to terms with everything happening around her while trying to deal with her own emotional and mental baggage. I actually really liked her character, and came to relate to her pretty easily. She struggles with the script that Eliza forces her to read. She has to sit there and listen as patients pour their hearts out, only to receive stock advice that a learning program compiled from bits of data. I could tell that some of the people stopping by were not getting the help they needed from Eliza, and it really demonstrated what kind of a nightmare it would be for machines to be in charge of diagnosing our mental health. The scary thing is that something like this could be months away from actually happening.

The writing in this game is excellent, and the dialogue is snappy and genuine. It's an incredibly unique idea for a graphic novel, and I was pretty engrossed in the story throughout the entire game. It doesn't hurt that the voice acting is also pretty great across the board, with characters sounding very natural and in some cases quite likable. A lot of visual novels seem to neglect casting actors who can actually emote, but with Eliza, I bought into the story and I was pretty moved by some of the performances.

There are multiple endings - depending on how you feel about the questions and issues that the game is raising, you can see a lot of diverging story threads. Your choices won't affect the story until much later on in the game, but there some pretty different ways for the plot to go and you can really steer Evelyn towards a variety of important life decisions. The game also has some mild point and click elements, as you can interact with certain objects in the environment to get a little more background info or exposition about Evelyn.

Maybe I'm Just Bad At Solitaire?

You have a cellphone that you can use, which is how you'll receive messages and emails from other characters or organizations as well as some extra bits related to the story. There's also a Solitaire game on the phone that you can play when you need a change of pace, but in typical Zachtronics fashion, it's a little more complicated than your usual game of Solitaire.

The characters and environments all look fairly realistic, but everything looks as if it was hand-painted. A lot of the character portraits are full of personality even though there isn't much animation in the game. The game can seem a little drab at times, but considering the mindset of Evelyn, and the world that Eliza takes place in, that may be the intention.

This Could Really Happen

Eliza's story is incredibly well done, and combined with the excellent voice acting is a must play for any fan of visual novels. Even though it's not a horror game by any stretch, a lot of the concepts and theoretical tech in the game actually did scare me a little because they seem so possible. They might even be in the prototype stage as we speak. We often hear about the perils of things like facial recognition and machine learning - and while this game doesn't present us with some kind of Skynet-controlled apocalypse scenario, it does feel like a dystopian vision of the future that's more likely to happen than you'd think. The story isn't all doom and gloom, though. The way it also shows how people deal with trauma and mental health issues was very relatable, and in some cases uplifting.

Eliza doesn't offer a ton of gameplay, but it's a stellar visual novel that almost serves as a parable that tech companies should pay attention to. It's definitely a Zachtronics game, as even though the game's mechanics are simple, there's a lot of complexity within the tale it tells. If you're looking for a good story, you should definitely check out Eliza.

4 out of 5

A review copy of Eliza was provided to TheGamer for this review. Eliza is available on PC.

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