Musings 01 - Eliza

I realized that I hadn't touched my blog in years, so here's an attempt to (temporarily) fix it.

As a kid, I would often be left with this empty feeling as I turned the final page of a book that had kept me engrossed for hours. Soon after, my mind would be flooded with thoughts as it tried to clutch on to memorable moments. These days, I find myself wading through a similar sea of emotions when I finish a video game. There's an urge to share it with the rest of the world and a desperate need to convince people that they need to experience what I just went through. However, I make the mistake of sleeping on my impulses and then eventually talk myself out of doing anything. [1]

Over the past weekend, I finished the short visual novel game, Eliza. It only took about five hours to reach the end, but it was captivating throughout and I haven't stopped thinking about it. I made mental notes about things that stood out to me and I really wanted to put them down somewhere. So, here we go:

  1. Phenomenal voice acting
    • In a game where you're looking at static images for the most part, the voice actors play an influential role in establishing a character's personality. I loved Aily Kei's performance in particular as she added these subtle human inflections to "AI-generated" sentences. Every line that I recited in my head was delivered significantly better by her a moment later.
    • It was also a pleasant surprise to recognize Zehra Fazal and Phil Wang among the diverse mix of characters.
  2. Excellent sound design
    • An underrated aspect of Zachtronics games, it wasn't really surprising once I found out that Eliza was led by Matthew Burns. The writing and music have always enriched their puzzle games, but it was great to see them take center stage for this title.
  3. Extremely smooth interface
    • This should be a no-brainer for a text-based, point and click experience. But even then, I was constantly marveling at the responsiveness of the electronic interfaces. Scrolling through all the content was a breeze and made the user experience something to be desired in real life.
  4. Content of emails and messages
    • The actual content of all the text media was impressive (even the fluff, world-building ones). It felt like they were drawn from the lives of people who had actually participated in similar conversations instead of hasty search results for "How do techies talk?".
  5. Genuine grievances by patients
    • I was floored by Darren's rant in the first session. I looked around for hidden cameras as it felt like someone had direct access to my brain and was reading my thoughts verbatim.
    • Even the other clients brought up authentic talking points that all felt like conversations I have had with friends or family before.
  6. Accurate life events
    • This one is a little difficult to explain, but the portrayal of relationships over time is extremely well done. Circumstances bring the player back in touch with people that they have fallen out with. And much to my surprise, the interactions never felt forced and seemingly bounced around in the gray area that most of life falls under.
  7. Realistic motivations
    • The game manages to capture a wide variety of motives and does a good job of showcasing the thinking behind different perspectives. There are no outright protagonists/antagonists and there are merits to everyone's argument. In addition, even the most resolute characters have moments of vulnerability and doubt like the average person.
    • The only bit of bias I felt was that the creative/musical choice felt like the "good ending" when compared to the other outcomes.
  8. Ace representation
    • My personal favorite — the game has a remarkable representation of asexuality. It's a topic that is both unexplored as well as misunderstood, and I love that they didn't let the character's sexuality be the defining aspect. It was also heartening to see that they didn't use a tragic backstory or an inherent flaw to justify the orientation. Just a part of their identity that gets communicated without explicitly using the word 'asexual' at all.

Even having raved about it so much, it's difficult to recommend a visual novel to every one — it's still a niche genre and some people don't enjoy the medium regardless of the quality of content.

And beyond that, I'm certain that the reason this game resonated so strongly with me was probably because I was part of the target audience:

  • Spent several years in the tech industry and corporate environments.
  • Technology has been ubiquitous and deeply intertwined with my personal life.
  • Direct experience with the startup culture, tech bubbles in multiple cities, and the cognitive dissonance of your technology getting abused/misused.
  • Had I lived in Seattle for longer than a couple of days, I would have ticked all of the boxes.

If any of this sounds familiar or if you found these descriptions fascinating, do give this game a try.

  1. "Who cares about what you have to say?" - my internal monologue.

    Posting here seems to be a decent compromise. I have a couple of games I want to talk about and maybe I'll revisit some other memorable ones from the last couple of years. These posts are by no means a review of the game, just highlights of certain aspects that resonated with me.