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 old man talking to the fish in Under What?

Under What? is an interactive visual comic by Dan Gartman. It’s an adorable little tale of a fisherman who falls in the water and has some unexpected lovely banter with an old fish under the sea.

The art of this game shines brightly—you can tell the game is made by an artist with a sharp eye for visual storytelling. The sequence where the fisherman falls into the water really makes it feel like you’re drifting downward with him, even though you’re just watching a short visual comic. The vignette of the fish city has such a vibrant and alive atmosphere, I almost want it as a framed painting in my house.

The fisherman falling into water.

Though the game is most potent for its art, the writing isn't all that bad either. You make small talk with the fish, and you're also subjected to few semi-philosophical questions. It's also got a few punchy jokes—if you (the fisherman) quip that it stinks like fish, the fish retorts, “have you ever had to smell smoked people?”

Under What? is a short and sweet little experience—it’ll take fifteen minutes of your time and give you a few laughs. It's a great sort of game to click through with your morning coffee. Under What? is available on itch.io for Windows.

A screenshot of a desktop while playing Subserial Network, depicting the chat, email, browser, and music player.

Set in a world of synthetic life, a group of synths, made in the image of humanity, seeks to make unauthorized modifications to themselves—by adding a serial port, to be able to communicate via networks rather than by human means. You play as a CETUS agent, tasked to investigate this group, learn about them, and find their leader, Andromeda.

This is what you’ll find in Subserial Network, a cerebral visual novel, by Aether Interactive.

Enter the Mesh

Mechanically, Subserial Network plays out like a multi-window desktop simulator, similar to the interactivity you’d find in Sam Barlow’s Her Story—but this takes place on your very own desktop, rather than its own fullscreen window.

For the most part, you’re browsing the mesh network, bouncing from page to page, searching for context clues that hint you toward new keywords on the mesh net. As you’re finding new pages, you’ll also discover the email addresses of various synths online. Some will be happy to chat, others will realize who you are, and will be uncomfortable speaking. Certain conversations are two-way—you have the option to pick your replies to emails which change how the characters reply to you. You’ll also pop into IRC-style chat rooms—which the game doesn’t make enough use of—and see several synths interact with each other in real time.

Sitting on the Outside

But really, this is a game about more than all that. You’re an outsider looking in, observing a group of synths fighting for and figuring out a new identity for themselves. This is, after all, a story about change, and the game doesn’t shy away from analogs you’ll see in the trans community. Synths are learning by doing, and relying on the stories of others to get the energy and inspiration forward. You’ll find synths who’ll tell you your name, and then tell you they don’t care about their name—that’s just what they’re called. You’ll find stories of loss and growth. (Delightfully, you’ll also encounter a group of synths just excited about their favorite TV Show. and write fanfics about it.)

In all that, this game successfully captures a feeling of an internet we don’t know today. It reminds me of my days as a kid, bouncing around America Online—not really knowing what I’m looking for, but hunting for something interesting to consume my time. It also reminds me of the early days as a member of Reddit and Twitter communities. The days where everyone proximally knows each other, and you felt like you could strike up a conversation with anyone; before everything grew too large, and sadly, too anonymous and angry.

Subserial Network Splash Screen

The game makes excellent use of its retro cyberpunk aesthetic. The classic 90’s style UI is just so lickable. I mean, the title card for the game is typeset in Baskerville—it feels like you’re launching 90s-era Photoshop 2.0 in Classic Mac OS. It totally nails it.

If you’re a fan of Her Story or are looking for a cerebral visual novel which forces you to hunt for clues, Subserial Network is likely a game for you. Subserial Network saves your progress, and my total playthrough took approximately two hours. It is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux, free as part of the Humble Monthly Trove, or standalone on itch.io for $9.99.

The hero of A hero and a Garden speaking to sooty, your gardening helper.

A Hero and a Garden is a visual novel/clicker hybrid game by npckc. You play as a hero, locked in a garden by a witch, in the aftermath of destroying a town while trying (and failing) failing to rescue your princess. You’re tasked by the town doctor to start planting berries to sell to the townspeople.

A lesson in empathy and forgiveness.

As with anyone, you’re not exactly happy to be locked up in this unfamiliar town. This new gardening you’re forced to do, to pay back in reparations for your damage to the town, is difficult. It’s not fun. You’re grumpy.

So you’re irritable, unlikeable, and you just trampled the town—you’re not exactly well-liked. To top it off, you’re human, which makes you the different one in this town of monsters.

And it’s just that. Everyone is different. Your attempts to get to know the townspeople don’t precisely align with the social norms. You’re earnestly trying to get to know people. But sometimes, despite good intentions, you unintentionally ask rude questions. This only makes things worse for yourself.

The garden you tend in A Hero and a Garden, a visual novel by npckc.

The Gardening Savant

Alas, you figure out how to do this berry thing. You get to know people. You learn their names and their backstories, and what their needs for the berries are. And you make things better. Providing berries to townspeople and paying for things you broke gives you new opportunities, like meeting new people. You’re reintroduced to your princess, and understand what brought her here in the first place, and why she wants to stay.

And the townspeople grow to love your berries.

Gameplay Tip

If the clicking mechanic grows to be too much for you, be sure to reassign your helper, Sooty, to another plant using the notebook menu on the bottom right. Also, you don’t need to keep harvesting berries if you don’t have any orders for them.

My playtime of A Hero and a Garden clocked in at just under two hours. The story was delightful and worth it, but I’ll admit, the clicking mechanic became monotonous by the end—particularly with the scorchberries. If you find yourself waiting some time to collect some berries, this might be a good time to pop on a podcast and let Sooty do its thing. (While the clicker mechanic mostly works, I’d hope for the dev to add an additional method to harvest berries, perhaps by keyboard shortcuts.)

If you’re a fan of visual novels, A Hero and a Garden’s story is cute, and the characters feel kind and friendly. It may not have complex branching storylines familiar with the genre, but by the end, it feels like you’ve made a positive impact in helping this small community heal.

A Hero and a Garden is available on itch.io for Windows, macOS, and Linux. It’s also available for Android on the Google Play store.