In 2013, Studio Ghibli released The Wind Rises. The film, once set to be acclaimed animator Hayao Miyazaki's final feature, was a fictionalized biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of warplanes used by Japan during World War II. It's a complicated film; following Horikoshi's (and by extension Miyazaki's) love of planes, while war and loss surround him. How does one reconcile something they put their everything into as it's being used for evil?
Eliza, the new visual novel from puzzle game aficionados Zachtronics, reminds me a lot of The Wind Rises. In Eliza, you play as Evelyn. In her 20s, she worked at Amazon stand-in Skandha, as part of a scrappy design team that programmed Eliza, a virtual counseling program. Evelyn and her team had one goal in mind: they wanted to help people. A traumatic incident scatters the team, and three years later, Evelyn's still struggling to put the pieces of her life back together. She doesn't know if helping build the advanced intelligence of Eliza was a good or bad thing, and out of curiosity, she goes on a journey to find out.
She does so by stealthily going back to work at Skandha as a contract employee, now a proxy for Eliza in counseling sessions. The Eliza program requires a human proxy, wearing special glasses that project Eliza's innermost workings. As the AI hears the patient talk, it comes up with answers. In most cases, Eliza acts like a mirror, reflecting questions back on the person in front of them. For a visual novel, there aren't many choices to make in these sessions, at least at first. You just listen as people spill reflections of self-doubt, being unfaithful, and suffering from burnout; often achingly so, as you have no control over what Evelyn says next. The more sessions I'd click through, the less I felt like Eliza was doing anything worthwhile.
That's the key dilemma of the game, and one of many reasons why Evelyn vanished for three years socially. Is Eliza actually helping people, or is it only empowering a massive tech conglomerate its dominance over our everyday lives? Evelyn soon finds herself caught between many people; a rebellious former co-worker, her manager at the proxy center, and her two former bosses on the Eliza project: one of whom is still at Skandha, the other has left on his own start-up venture.
In visual novel fashion, you spend time with all of these people, in addition to those you meet during your sessions. But unlike most visual novels, it's pretty on-rails. Every instance is clearly denoted; there's no choice of, "Who should I hang out with today?" or anything like that. Usually this would bother me, but the story and characters of Eliza were so compelling, and the voice acting so excellent, that it kept me glued from start to finish.
By Chapter 6, about three-fourths of the way through Eliza, you get the option to make decisions that aren't just flavor text. It's here where Evelyn's story can diverge dramatically, based on one clearly outlined choice rather than dozens of micro choices you've made along the whole game. And thanks to the handy Chapter select feature, it's easy to hop back in and see all of Eliza's endings; while you can play through Eliza again, it's not necessary to see where every potential path leads.
While Eliza is scant on moment-to-moment narrative-altering decisions, it's not completely without other things to poke around in. You can read Evelyn's emails, text acquaintances on some occasions, and even look at the quote of the day on a meditative app. Best of all, you can play an excellent solitaire minigame that I must admit, probably sapped at least one hour of my total four hour playtime. Solitaire minigames are a staple for Zachtronics' games, and it's no stranger here either.
Eliza's own iteration harkens to the roots of the Spider Solitaire I wasted many hours on from old PCs. You match together like cards, this time with a Japanese Kabufuda cards. There are multiple levels of difficulty too. So while Eliza may not be solely built on mind-numbing engineering puzzles like Zachtronics' previous games, it still at least retains a captivating solitaire game.
It's the story and the really, really good voice acting that kept me glued to Eliza, which featured more than a couple voice actors I've heard in other, sometimes bigger games before. While usually I like a little more choice and consequence in the visual novels I play, for Eliza, I found that chief criticism falling away as I learned more about Evelyn and the harsh world she lived in. It felt like a direct reflection of our probable near future; if not like a modern horror with some startling revelations.
The art too, while mostly static, stunningly illustrates Seattle—from the innards of a server hub to a coffee shop's exterior. It's all around a polished game with a clear eye for art direction, something that's a staple for Zachtronics' past, totally GIF-worthy games.
I won't lie: Eliza really affected me. Maybe because I'm in that mid-20s workaholic phase of my life right now. Maybe because I live in San Francisco, a city where tech companies have uprooted and changed neighborhoods for the worse. While some of the people I listened to in my Eliza sessions really annoyed me with their selfish attitudes, Evelyn herself really resonated. I imagine for a lot of players, they'll connect with someone in Eliza's story too.
Zachtronics make a detour from its puzzle game destiny with the visual novel Eliza. It's slick in its design, though shy on the big choices you might expect from most visual novels. Still, packed with a stellar solitaire minigame, impressive voice acting, and one of the most prescient narratives I've seen in games, if you're a fan at all of interactive stories that'll have you gripped from start to finish, Eliza is it.