A therapy session is in progress, in the game Eliza—a game which explores parametric AI-based therapy.

Eliza is a visual novel by Zachtronics, the developer of puzzle games Opus Magnum, Exapunks, and other Zachlike games.

The visual novel explores the potential impact, ethics, and effectiveness of an AI-driven digital therapy program, Eliza. You take control of Evelyn, a newly hired proxy for the Eliza program.

AI doesn’t make the world go round

Eliza sessions are delivered by Proxies, contract workers who serve as a therapeutic human intermediary between the two way conversation of AI and client. An Eliza proxy wears AR glasses, getting a realtime stream of patient vitals, sentiment analysis of the patient’s words, and scripted guidance on what to say to a patient.

The Eliza sessions are held by human proxies because the company behind Eliza, Skanda, feels that interacting with computers feels impersonal and unnatural. Theoretically, a realtime conversation feels more natural and less contrived—it’ll challenge a patient to open up more, so Eliza can listen.

However, patients are incredibly aware that they’re still interacting with an AI. Sometimes, they’ll even break the “fourth wall” and say that they’d just wish for an actual human exchange with the person that’s delivering the Eliza-based therapy.

Evelyn talking with Erland, in the Eliza server rooms.

Can a chatbot provide effective mental healthcare?

The game exists in a world affected by a mental health crisis, not unlike today. (I’m personally someone affected by this, too. As someone going through therapy, this game feels close to me, in a way.) Many people in-game are seeking treatment, and Eliza seems to be the option for most, not because it’s good, but because it’s cheap.

You see, therapy is a process of listening, understanding, and challenging a patient to change and improve. Eliza’s treatment seems to land at either end of ineffective and adept at this, depending on the particular patient. For example, Eliza will happily listen to a long-winded essay from a patient, yet its follow up response is banal and unempathetic: “it seems that something is really troubling you.” It’ll fail to drive deeper on the pain or augment the conversation contextually—it’s just an AI’s lexical notation of what the patient is exhibiting.

The biggest miss for Eliza is in the “solution” department, which is a glorified ad for more Skanda services and partnerships. After a patient has poured their heart out during their appointment, Eliza gives cold and scripted recommendations for an app and a pill. In a way, this kind of highlights a big issue with a service this—if you have cheap therapy as a service, is the company really invested in addressing your root issues? Or, will they just do the absolute minimum to keep you happy and keep you as a customer?

At a cafe, discussing Eliza's role in the future.

What if you get to change things?

But what’s your role in all this, as a proxy? Well, chapters take their twists and turns. It turns out that not only was Evelyn a previous Skanda employee, but she was also a principal engineer for the Eliza project.

And that’s what makes this game compelling. It sets up an AI-driven near-future dystopian world and then sets you up to explore what that means. How does your role in this change if you made Eliza? What would you differently? What would you do to change the future?

Each chapter introduces some sort of plot-shift, that twists your feeling of the overall effectiveness of Eliza, your alignment and empathy for Evelyn, and your sentiments toward other involved characters—like the Skanda administration and other ex-employees.

And here’s where the game really hits close to home for me. If you’re on the inside of a large company and can see something is going wrong, and you want to try to change that momentum, what really happens if you speak up? Sure, you internally know that speaking up is the right thing to do, but, likely, you could just be seen as a troublemaker, and ultimately pushed out. Your in-game relationship with Nora (an ex-Skanda engineer, turned artist) and Erlend (the new engineering leader of the Eliza project) make you grapple with the feeling from differing perspectives.

The obligatory zachtronics solitaire game in Eliza.

An effective new entry from Zachtronics

Yeah, it’s dramatically different from anything you’d expect from a Zachtronics style game, but that honestly makes it worth the play. They approach the subjects of engineering, AI influence, and ethics from an informed perspective. There’s no handwaving and namedropping of just the right keywords to make it “seem” competent. It’s apparent actual programmers and engineers wrote and influenced this game, and they know their audience will be technically minded.

It’s different from other visual novels I’ve played too. It’s fully voice acted. It’s got a Zachtronics style UI, suited to the story they’re telling. With this, it manages to feel like a visual novel of their own, not that they just decided to do something new and build a game on top of RenPy or Twine.

And, overall, Eliza is effective at exploring the philosophical and ethical issues of our world, today. It doesn’t try to give you the answers or arrive on any novel conclusion—it wants to make you think. I bet you’ll come out of the game feeling totally different than I did, and the game gives you the freedom to experience that.

At the very least, you still get to play another solitaire game from Zachtronics.

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The flowery bird boy you befriend and help heal, in Compassion.

Compassion is a narrative experience game by Ivan Papiol, about getting help when you're in pain.

You encounter an injured bird, in need of help. When you interact with the bird, the thoughts that appear on-screen reflect more gloomy thoughts about how you deal with pain. Poking the bird with a stick explores the ways you can pull away when someone tries to be there and care for you. Offering the bird some flowers dives into the validation and, well, the compassion you can feel when you open up and let others provide help. If you think about it, in a way, that bird is almost like yourself.

This game carries a tang of extra meaning for me. If you check the archive of this site, things slowed down in July. I had a hard time dealing with some things going on in my life, and figuring out how to navigate the road ahead hasn't been easy.

You can't erase pain, but it's easier when you're taking my hand.

Caring for my flowery bird boy was somehow the highlight of my day. It's games and experiences like this that reenergize me. I'm gonna come back to this game when it feels like the sticks and rocks are clouding my judgment.

The player, at the entrance to a dungeon, in Atma.

Atma is an adventure game made by teamatma. You play as Shaya, a guardian who keeps a balance between the spirits and the material world. Your lover and fellow guardian, Atma, tries to create an urja—or go through the process to become an elder—prematurely. This creates a rift, allowing spirits to wreak havoc in the material world. Your goal is to seek Atma’s key of memories.

Your primary way of interacting with the world is by a sort of spell casting, called mantras. With your mantras, you can do things like draw a line to assemble a bridge, or attack enemies by connecting a line between to hit them with lightning.

As you venture into a vibrant eastern-style forest city, you meet an ornithologist, who gives you a quest to unlock a new mantra. This quest grants you the power of wind, to solve unique puzzles and dungeons, as you continue on your goals.

One of the intro panels in Atma

Atma is a shining example of high-quality content put out on itch daily. It’s incredibly polished, with vibrant art, good gameplay focus, and a great journey and experience. It totally succeeds in its goal of making you feel like a real guardian of the material world.

Atma is great for players seeking a vibrant eastern atmosphere with a story that matters. It’s available for free on itch.io, and an average playthrough will take about a half-hour.

Screenshot of Bird of Passage, which depicts the ghost standing, preparing to enter a taxi, on a Tokyo street.

Bird of Passage, by SpaceBackyard, is an atmospheric narrative puzzle, set in taxi cabs traveling the streets of Tokyo.

You play as a low-poly ghost-bird-eye-thing (a technical term, of course), and you travel at night in taxis, recounting your stories to the drivers who take you around. It turns out that the ghost you embody died in the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake, and is seeking answers as they continue along their path.

The atmosphere and vibrancy of the deconstructed Tokyo are lovely. The game boils down its vision of Tokyo to just the bare essentials to deliver its view of Tokyo—a taxi cab, various taxi stops, bright lights, and road markings all serve to give you the feel of a big city without actually rendering a big city.

Screenshot showing the dialogue options in Bird of Passage, while traveling in a taxi.

This is a perfect game for a pensive dark rainy day. It’s not quite the same, but I found myself getting lost in thoughts in this game—like when you’re a passenger in a long car ride and your mind starts to drift.

Gameplay Tip:

It’s not necessarily easy to intuit the best choices to progress the story. For the best route to the end of the game, and to avoid repetition, keep track of your dialogue choices. One of the taxis you enter will give you a hint for what you’re looking for—once you heed their tip, the route to get to the end of the game will be clear enough with a little bit more trial and error.

My playtime of Bird of Passage was about 30 minutes—but yours can be a bit shorter with the non-spoiler gameplay tip above. It is available on itch.io for macOS and Windows.

The title card of Speak Easy, showing the characters, and art deco style.

Speak Easy, by Shots on Sunday, is a prohibition-era bartending game set in a 1920s-era Chicago.

You take the role of Ruth Moran, bartender, and proprietor of an illicit speakeasy, named “The Straight and Narrow.” Set over three nights, you serve drinks to a revolving cast of characters dropping into your speakeasy. You prepare them a spread of drinks, at their request, from your elegantly drawn and well-used recipe book.

“The Straight and Narrow,” your speakeasy, is set in a smoky Art Deco style as you’d find in the world of BioShock. Inter-day story exposition in Speak Easy is told through slides depicting a vignette of Ruth’s world and inner thoughts, but the biggest story beats come through your interactions with patrons.

Ruth’s Recipe Book in Speak Easy, featuring elegant hand-drawn art

You see unrequited love between two patrons—a doctor and his patient. Sapphire Riviera, another patron, is far too drunk and is claiming to be a star that you should already know. Pearl is an intoxicated police officer, and realistically, a patron you’re perhaps too friendly with—considering the prohibition, y’know. Of course, you also have the occasional drop-ins of the heavy fist of the mob supplying your speakeasy.

The interactivity of the bartending in Speak Easy is well considered, and is easily the best part of the game. Yes, Speak Easy certainly shares mechanical similarities with VA-11 HALL-A, the highly acclaimed cyberpunk visual novel, but the bartending in VA-11 HALL-A is more “click to mix.” Speak Easy’s bartending feels more real—you’re grabbing bottles from the shelves, picking up and squeezing the fruit, and shaking up drinks (with your mouse!) while preparing drinks for customers.

The Art Deco atmosphere of Speak Easy, as Ruth prepares a drink for a patron.

In terms of polish, I’d like for the ability to increase dialogue print speed. Also, even though it’s not necessarily a “choices-matter” style game, I felt like there was inflexibility to some dialogue—I wound up sternly kicking out a customer, where I’d have preferred an option to ask them to leave more politely.

This is an excellent showing from a student team of ten. It’s worth dropping in to chat with a few patrons, make a few drinks, and learn a bit about Ruth’s story. My playtime in Speak Easy was about an hour, and the game is available for Windows on itch.io.

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