Eliza – Review – What happens when a studio who has mastered game play, focuses on a story.

Played on Windows.
Also on Linux and macOS.

Zachtronics has been one of the studios that I’ve continuously supported. I’ve owned and played all their games from this team, and have loved pretty much all of them. So about a month ago when it was announced that Zachtronics would be putting out a Visual Novel, I was sold just by the studio’s history even if it was a departure from the type of game they are known for.

This is not what I would have expected from Zachtronics. They are well known for their programming games where players solve puzzles through some form of instruction based gameplay. There have been programming computers in TIS-100, Exapunks, and Shenzen I/O, programming waldos in Spacechem and Magnum Opus, as well as even automating factories in Infinifactory.

Most of their games have a minor story component to them, but to remove the entire gameplay part of the story and focus only on the Visual Novel concept is a huge departure for the studio. At the same time, with Zachtronics having a large amount of unique and interesting games, this had me curious to see where they take the experience.

Presentation

Eliza’s graphics are a bit plain for a game. Most of the game focuses on rather mundane locations like a subway car, a coffee shop, or an office and show two-dimensional images of the characters talking. These characters are nothing more than a single image. The main character Evelyn spends most of her time in a jacket and hoodie combo. All the other characters are similarly dressed the same for a majority of the game.


There’s one (maybe two) outfits for Evelyn but they don’t change at all.

The characters themselves don’t react or emote at all, they’re just stock images that stand still. There are not even animations as they enter or move around. Even if the audio and text make it clear they are moving to stand closer, the graphics don’t change, and thus you get a static image.

The fact is Eliza isn’t horrible, and the locations and characters look good, but the graphics don’t add much to the experience, because it’s just the same as looking at a photograph for the most part.

Even when you have serious and important sessions with characters, they always appear in the same manner and will look at the same area of the room, because they are just a single image. If the character sounds like they are looking up at you in the story or are getting agitated there could be some reaction from the character but instead, it’s just the same image every time you have a session with that character.


This guy will flip out but remain staring at the ground the entire time.

On the other hand, the one place that Eliza does well is the voice acting. Every character is well done and has a lot of personality in their delivery. The voice acting was good enough that I felt reading the dialogue was detrimental to the experience because the voice actors were doing a superior job. The parts of the game with no voice acting, limited only to Evelyn’s (the main character’s) internal monologue are weaker, due to the lack of voice acting. These scenes are exceedingly rare, but I still find the voice acting to be a necessity for this game as it improves the experience and it’s one of the highlights of Eliza.

Gameplay

There’s not much gameplay in Eliza. As a visual novel, this isn’t that surprising. Most of the game focuses on choosing from different options and watching the game play out and as a bit of a spoiler, none of your choices outside of the final choice will change the ending. This isn’t meant to be an “adventure” but rather a storybook.

It would be very easy to complain about it, and I would but Zachtronics was upfront about this being a Visual Novel. This isn’t like the Walking Dead games, where they promise choices will matter, or that there might be more than just a story. Eliza is a Visual Novel and while some Visual Novels are deeper than this, I find Eliza to be perfectly fine with how it turned out.

On the other hand, there is a bonus game, which has become a Zachtronics trait. Almost every game they have released includes a secondary game. While there’s no primary game in Eliza, there is a bonus Solitaire game that is heavily based on and influenced by FreeCell, and to be honest, it’s not a bad version of FreeCell with its own twists that will make it more interesting.


Honestly it’s a fun FreeCell game, but it won’t keep your attention for long.

The core of the game is trying to match four cards which will then “Seal” a tableau, the place the cards are laid. Players can only move connected cards of the same type and it’s a relatively interesting and somewhat hard version of Solitaire.

But it won’t keep your attention. If you play it for about an hour or two, I don’t imagine you’ll feel the need to play much more. It’s good for a quick diversion and that’s it.

Otherwise, the rest of the story is just choosing options and continuing the visual novel, which works well for what Eliza has promised.

Story

Thus we come to the story. Now when this game was announced, and in my preview, I mentioned that this game is based on the Eliza program from the 60s, where they tried to simulate speech and produce a therapist from computers, and the fact is that is one of the purposes of the name.

The story makes a few references to it, including one where they flat out use a line exactly how the original Eliza program would. “How does make you feel?” Later in the game, they make passing reference to the original research. It’s an interesting subject but not one the game goes deep into.


A perfect Eliza quote.

Instead, this becomes more of a character study, focusing on Evelyn, and her past and future. The game is set up over six chapters, that almost feel like six days, though perhaps not consecutive days, and I’ll try to keep to the first two days when possible as the game’s story is what you are playing it for.

Evelyn starts as a new “proxy” for Eliza, a therapy program. The proxies are hired to only read Eliza’s text and let Eliza tell them what to say. Eliza even pretends to be Evelyn at one point to simulate a human contact with the person receiving the therapy, and the idea is that the Proxy is just a human interface to the computerized machinations of Eliza. From there Evelyn has two patients on the first day, in fact, she always has between two and three patients each day and through that, you get a better view of what Eliza does.

Outside of her sessions, we also learn about the other people around Evelyn, her old friend, Nora, who she used to work with who now works on music experiences, an ex-boss Soren who is creating a new technology that could be more promising than Eliza, and more from Evelyn’s previous life.

And that previous life is… creating Eliza. If you hear ominous music, it’s not from this page, I’m only a website, but while that seems like the big reveal, it’s talked about very early, and isn’t treated as a major secret but just an omission in the first hour or so of gameplay.

Why Evelyn left, what she’s doing and more is open to interpretation. There is a part of the story that does what I find to be an unacceptable action, where the main player knows something but it’s hinted at and revealed to the player later when talking about someone who isn’t around anymore but that wasn’t that horrible of a reveal or exposition and treated well.

Since you play as Evelyn and make decisions for her (And only her), I feel that the player should have the same knowledge that Everlyn has, and while Eliza hides that at times, it comes off in a way that makes me feel it’s more due to limiting the level of internal exposition where possible.


The text conversations are interesting but all amount to the same system as the rest of the game.

Much of the story here is treated well, though perhaps it’s what drags Eliza down for me. Eliza has stuff to say, or at least has stuff for the typical media pundits to get on their soapboxes to push their socio-political agenda when talking about this game, but much of it is a very loose connection.

Eliza has references to a lot of heady arguments but never takes a stand nor provides facts. Instead, we’re given a story, and the player is supposed to experience that story, but it’s hard to feel that something is gained when much of it feels like it’s made to entertain instead of inform. Yes, bad stuff happens, but it happens because the author wrote it that way, not because that’s the way things are, so while the arguments can be made, it’s not the overall purpose of Eliza.

However, without taking a strong stance on many issues Eliza lacks what could have been a stronger story. There’s no 11th-hour battle, there’s no major confrontation, the end of Eliza is a 6-way choice system and while I resonated with one of the choices, the ending is only slightly different. Admittedly, the six different endings are very solid though they amount to a few minutes of content a piece, I still replayed that last section four times to see four different results and enjoyed them.

One of the problems I have is more how one character is given a villain’s backstory in the final chapter of the game, to the point where they become a caricature of what they were up to that point. The sudden shift in the character is both unnecessary, and strange for a game that spends so much time letting the player draw their own conclusions, and yet that character still hashave an ending where you can side with them, and Everlyn doesn’t even make a reference to how insane that character was acting, or her purpose with siding with them.

There’s another piece in the lead up to the final choice that should have made a difference in that final choice, in fact, one choice should have been impossible if you do a specific action and yet the game doesn’t lock you out. Whether that’s a good thing or not is debatable, but ultimately the ending, as much of the game is just another choice.


Each character has their own philosophy, here Nora plays an electronica concert.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing good from the story. As I said the voice acting was well done and because of that, all the characters in the game are compelling. The Evelyn’s friends are very well written and I liked all of them, which is why the character that is treated as a villain doesn’t make sense because there was a less villainous tone they could have used similarly and it would have worked equally well, but sadly it wasn’t done that way.

Each character has a strong motivation, philosophy and almost all of them come through clearly. All six of the final choices (minus the one talked about) make a lot of sense, and I could imagine Evelyn choosing anything here. Players will make the choice, and I would be amazed if any player really struggled which ending they feel is right, but almost all the endings feel properly valid, not for a lack of trying, but because there are six compelling resolutions from the story, and each of those resolutions are compelling due to the fact that Eliza has built a story to support them.

Besides, each of Evelyn’s sessions is ridiculously interesting. While they are completely uninteractive (other than choosing the single voice line to mirror Eliza’s prompt), the stories told here are interesting in a Soap Opera style, and the player wants to see these characters return so they can get updates, more information, the five to ten minutes sessions are never enough and even when the patient isn’t really going along with the script of the program, the player wants more from these characters, and in almost all cases they will eventually get it.

Conclusion

So, Eliza has a small problem. It’s a compelling story, but that’s all it is, and while I don’t want to play a round of “Is it a real game or not?” (It’s a real visual novel, do with that what you will.) I do believe that the format for Eliza is wrong. If this was a novel, short story, or movie, it may have been able to be done better. Eliza lasts only six hours and I believe it’s that long so players feel that they got their money’s worth. However the Eliza sessions could be shortened, as could many of the character’s scenes, and this could have been a two-hour movie, book, or play.

In those formats that the mostly uninteractive nature of Eliza is acceptable. Those formats might make the story more acceptable since it’s the interaction that hurts the game. Having to hit a button every five minutes to go on doesn’t assist with the story.

It’s not that Eliza isn’t good in its current form. It’s that I don’t think changing it to a movie, or book would fundamentally change the experience, and I question if it could enhance the experience with more visual flair or more facts or information outside of the first person narrative players are forced to use in Eliza.

As a game though Eliza is fine for a visual novel, but perhaps just a little weaker than I expected.

I give Eliza a

3.5/5

Final Thoughts: Eliza doesn’t stand out unlike other Zachtronics games, but it is enjoyable for its story and thoughts. It’s not bad but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t already a huge fan of Visual Novels.

Stats: 6 hours played 1/1 achievement (Winning the solitaire game on the hardest difficulty)