Matthew Seiji Burns is no stranger to career burnout. In his 20s, he bounced from Treyarch, where he was an associate producer in the early days of Call of Duty, to Bungie and 343 Industries, where he worked on Halo and Destiny. Then he left triple-A development and eventually joined Zach Barth at Zachtronics, a developer known for intricate puzzle games like Infinifactory and Opus Magnum, which won the Independent Games Festival award for Excellence in Design this year.
"I did go through a pretty difficult crunch culture at the triple-A studios that I worked at," Burns tells me over Skype. "So burnout was a real factor in my life, and I also saw it affecting the workers around me as well."
He's in his 30s now.
"The feeling of getting to that age and thinking about how much, like how hard I tried to push forward in my 20s, I felt like I was running and trying to get ahead as far as I could," Burns continues. "And then you lose a little bit of steam in your 30s and you're kind of like, 'what was I doing that for?' You know, why was I working that hard? Like what do I have now? I think that's a thing that, it's not a midlife crisis; it's more of like a millennial crisis I guess. But me and a lot of my friends are at that point where we're like, OK, so we worked really hard and now what? It didn't make us happy that we worked really hard, so what do we do now?"
Burnout is a central theme of the new Zachtronics game Eliza, a visual novel about a virtual counseling program that was announced last week and is out August 12. In it, you play as Evelyn, a woman who toiled away her youth working in tech. After three years of dropping off the grid and working menial jobs, she re-emerges and begins to work as a proxy for the virtual counseling app Eliza. In sessions, Evelyn reads the script the Eliza program generates as it registers every answer of the very real, human clients of Seattle that come for counseling. She is forbidden from going off script, making the job a sort of mindless endeavor. It's a conundrum: Is Eliza an effective and affordable tool to stand-in for therapy? Or is it furthering tech companies managing pretty much all facets of our day to day lives?
"It follows the implications from there," says Burns. "Like what does it mean that you're using something like this to feel better and for counseling, and what does it mean that a big tech company is courting your answers and doing its data processing on those answers and maybe retaining those answers in some way. What are the implications of that for the people who work on it, and what are the implications of that for the society that uses that kind of thing. It sort of follows a lot of those threads."
In the world of Eliza, the AI communicates through a human proxy reading aloud the responses it comes up with. By using a proxy, the reality of it being artificial intelligence behind all the questions is obfuscated. It potentially makes it easier for patients to open up: both in the fact that they're technically communicating with a machine, but also with the fact that there's a warm and kind human face saying everything to their face. In theory, it reminds me of the (in one case almost) sex scenes in the films Her and Blade Runner 2049, wherein an AI "fuses" with a sex worker for one night of intimacy.
Burns was inspired by a virtual therapist demo he saw when he was working at a university games research lab in 2014. The demo was funded by the Defense Department Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA), and was in the works to treat soldiers coming home to see if they had signs of PTSD. The virtual therapist would analyze the distress in a subject's voice, record their face and answers, and so on. It unsettled Burns.
"It brought up a lot of complex feelings I guess is how I'll describe it," he says. "It was just so strange to see this computer analyzing someone with such a human problem, you know, and can we make computers sort of help people in this way, like at a large scale."
Eliza is a project that Burns is at the helm of, which is new for the studio. (On Zachtronics' other projects, he's frequently a writer or a composer.) Originally Eliza was set to be one of Burns' one-off Twine projects he makes in his spare time, but after talking about it with Barth, he was urged to release it under the Zachtronics banner with the additional support of an art team and full voice acting cast. It's also a visual novel, which is something completely unlike what the Washington-based studio has released before.
"Other Zachtronics games like, Opus Magnum or Infinifactory or Exapunks, all of these games are actually very interested not only in the engineering work that you do as part of the game, but they also get into what it means to be an engineer and what you're using your skill for," Burns says. "Because when you are an engineer and you can make computers do things, it's important to think about what you're using that power for, and pretty much all of the stories in Zachtronics games address this in one way or another and talk about the effect that you're having on the world around you by doing this engineering work.
"And that's not from me, that's from Zach. Zach is very interested in these kinds of themes. So even though Eliza is super different because it's a visual novel and it comes from me, it addresses many of those same questions, just in a different way. "
Also like Zachtronics, the game is set in Seattle, a city that has become overrun with Amazon's dominance. Before Amazon's reign, it was Microsoft. Burns himself has lived in Redmond, a suburb of Seattle, for 13 years.
"Everyone knows that Amazon has changed this city just so dramatically both in terms of the new construction that's going on and all of the tech workers who are in the downtown area now and then just kind of the outflows of that, like the effect on the people who've been here since from earlier. Although, you know, it's another cycle in this boom and bust cycle that Seattle seems to go through periodically, right? Because before Amazon it was Microsoft, and during the Microsoft heyday in the 90s, there was another like huge influx of money and people and technology in this region. [...] So Seattle's always had this real like boom and bust cycle based on these very large companies that come in and set up shop here."
That reality is reflected in the world of Eliza, both in the clients Evelyn regurgitates a computer's responses to, and the old friends she reconnects with along the journey. Evelyn, who disassociated for three years from the world of tech and the people within it, is slowly inching back and doesn't know how to feel about it, or anything for that matter.
Reading and hearing about Eliza, it doesn't sound too far from reality. It's easy to see in the near future a mogul like Jeff Bezos capitalizing on the mental health crisis in the United States and beyond, because in their eyes, why not talk to your Alexa about not just turning on the lights or what the weather's like, but about the hard parts of your day too? What if Alexa gave good advice? Still, Burns tells me he's never been a didactic sort of writer; there is no concrete moral lesson players should take away from Eliza.
"To get back to the experience of burnout and some of the other issues that the characters are going through, I think my greatest hope is that someone will play it and they'll feel a connection to that, you know, and they'll feel seen; like they'll feel like that the game gets them in some way," says Burns. "That's my greatest hope."