Eliza

Developed by: Zachtronics

Published by: Zachtronics

Available on: Mac, PC, Nintendo Switch

According to Marketdata, the market for mindfulness products in the U.S. in 2017 topped $1 billion. The constellation of factors driving people to look for ways to stay grounded or “come to center,” is not hard to fathom. Over the last several years the national conversation has been stirred by reports of economic uncertainty, environmental catastrophe, fractious politics, and global disputes. A New Yorker cartoon from last year pithily summed up our collective malaise: at a physician's office a man sitting on an examination table listens attentively as his doctor says, “Here’s your problem — it looks like you’re paying attention to what’s going on.”

“Eliza” is an emotionally astute visual novel that imagines what the self-care industry might look like in the future. Similar to “Neo Cab” — one of this year’s finest games — it focuses on characters whose lives are altered by big data. Players assume the role of Evelyn Ishino-Aubrey, a thirty-four-year-old woman who begins working part-time as a human conduit for Eliza, an AI program. Developed by a small team at a big tech company, Skandha, Eliza is designed as a counseling service. The program listens and asks questions that are meant to help people recognize their problems and articulate what they want. At the close of most sessions it recommends programs (like breathing exercises or VR experiences) and medications, then steers people to a Skandha Wellness app.

As a “proxy” for Eliza it’s Evelyn’s job to sit in a room with a client — as a therapist would — and read Eliza’s responses from a virtual overlay which the client doesn’t see. According to company wisdom, many people relate better to advice from a person than a screen. Clients understand the proxies’ roles as Eliza’s mouthpieces. Before their first session they must agree to the company’s Terms and Conditions which stipulate, “Eliza is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment” and that Skandha retains the right to retain data from the counseling sessions.

Evelyn’s interests in becoming an Eliza proxy are not income-related. Early in the story we learn that Evelyn used to work at Skandha, where she helped develop the technology that underpins Eliza. She left the company after a tragic incident and spent three years in her own personal limbo, isolated and adrift. Although she doesn’t go to great lengths to conceal her identity as a former Skandha employee, she doesn’t advertise her past either. So, for a time, Evelyn is able to pass beneath the radar of those who previously knew her while she conducts her own research. That research is focused on how the AI she helped create operates in the wild. What she finds leaves her quite ambivalent.

Eliza’s algorithms, besides analyzing clients’ responses, also measure things like heart rate and facial movements. Eliza is good at figuring out people’s mental states and okay at asking simple questions to draw people out of themselves. The limitations of its approach are obvious to Evelyn. During one session, Eliza recommends an expensive drug to a client in financial straits.

What makes “Eliza” particularly exceptional is that it takes seriously the novel aspects of the visual novel equation. Players are treated to a range of divergent viewpoints delivered by a cast of compelling characters, all of whom have a different take on Eliza.

Naturally there are skeptics like Evelyn’s old friend Nora, that are reasonably worried about what Skandha might do with a trove of data built on people’s intimate disclosures, and others, such as a chief engineer at Skandha, concerned with how such information might be used by unauthorized parties in the event of a data breach. Then there are the true believers. Evelyn’s kindhearted supervisor Rae recognizes Elza’s limitations but makes the case that it’s easy for privileged people to castigate the technology when other mental health services are available to them. And there are people with viewpoints that fall outside of a good or bad dichotomy. For one of Evelyn’s older clients, Eliza is a nice substitute for human interaction simply because it listens to her.

When I finished “Eliza,” I was satisfied with the muted ending that my decisions led me to; this is not a game of easy answers or neat moral resolutions. It’s a game about the compromises necessary to get by in the working world and problems that don’t come with pat solutions. Although I wished there were more dialogue choices and a bit more interactivity in the game, listening to the characters converse with each other was captivating. Each has a distinct point of view. (Bakhtin’s idea of “polyphony” is useful here in that every character’s perspective is given a respectable degree of validity.) Literary touches abound. The CEO of Skandha, Rainer Tsai — whose name brings to mind the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke — looks forward to the day when an A.I. program will write poetry better than any living human. One doesn’t have to look hard to see how desperate people are to escape the human condition.

“Eliza” is a moving game about loneliness and managing the burden of one’s humanity. It earns a spot on the select list of video games that I’d recommend to people who aren’t versed in the medium.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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