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Reflections on 'Eliza', and visual novels

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In the 1960’s, after failing to engineer artificial intelligence with his colleagues at MIT, Joseph Weizenbaum developed ELIZA. ELIZA was a computer programme that billed itself as a virtual psychotherapist. Users would type out a sentence expressing their innermost problems; ELIZA would comment with a pat response – “I am sorry to hear that” – or would parrot and reframe the user’s sentence. For example:

                User: I feel so depressed.

                ELIZA: Why do you feel so depressed?

ELIZA was written and presented as a parody: the programme’s brute simplicity was intended to satirize the limited nature of contemporary AI. The strange thing was, ELIZA was a hit. Despite knowing ELIZA’s limits, the programme was engaged with earnestly and excitedly by virtually everyone who tried it. Users felt liberated: they could undergo therapy without the imposition of a therapist. Nobody would watch them; nobody would patronise them; nobody would (or could, ever) judge them. Eliza, developed by Zachtronic Games, is a 2019 visual novel.

The premise of Eliza explicitly harkens back to Wizenbaum’s programme. You play as Evelyn, a formerly idealistic software engineer. You had helped to create a virtual counselling service for a venture capitalist tech firm, but left the firm three years ago in depression and disillusion. Curious to see the evolution of your software, you return: but this time, you start from the bottom rung. You are employed as a ‘proxy’ therapist: you smile at your clients, ask questions with concern and compassion, appear receptive and empathetic and open. You read – and are never once allowed to deviate from – an AI generated script.

Eliza is the first visual novel I’ve played, which is fitting: this is Zachtronic Games’ first visual novel too. I’m not familiar with Zachtronic’s older titles, but Campster characterised them as “overly formal, systems-based” games. I might be imagining this, but in Eliza I think this history shines through. I was repeatedly reminded of the design sensibilities of something like Super Mario Sunshine, or Super Meat Boy, where a central mechanic is introduced, and then – from as many different angles as possible – ruthlessly explored. Eliza’s central hook? Tech-boy dreamers and the software they push. The game’s approach? Testing out each and every way their software can malfunction, prove inadequate, and break. This methodical approach is apt. Like its engineering protagonist, Zachtronics wants to unearth tech-culture’s bugs.

We counsel self-absorbed men who wreak havoc in their lives, Eliza never seriously challenging them. Comforting, consoling, asking only about their own feelings, Eliza primes these men to turn further and further inward.

A middle-aged woman seems to wonder in off the street. She chats as though to her neighbour: breezily, inconsequentially, darting from topic to topic. We find out later (through a breach of her data) that she is about to be made homeless. This does not come up once in our sessions. Inherently conservative, the software can only work within the boundaries of what her clients say; it is incapable of making imaginative leaps outside of that framework. There can be no insights, no fresh perspectives, no rupturing shock of the new.

There are moments of unintended rudeness, of abruptness and insensitivity that range from devastating to hilarious; prescriptions of drugs that are obviously inappropriate, or of ‘wellness-apps’ that are laughably insufficient; of the underlying horror if it all gradually, inevitably seeping through. The game traces out the fundamental existential angst of being talked to and treated as though one were a machine; of reaching out for help and receiving a smiley face stamp on top of cold computer code.

In one of the game’s final twists on its mechanic, Evelyn decides to test the software from the perspective of the client. Sitting down in the chair you’ve sat opposite for a week, you undergo therapy. You spill your guts as you stare into your therapist’s dead, distracted eyes through the AR glasses that frame them. It’s an unsettling moment. Like the clients of the 1960’s ELIZA, Evelyn knows full well about the limits of the software, and of the uncaring passivity of her pseudo-counsellor. What unsettles is that this knowledge does not disenchant. Evelyn’s knowledge of the programme should spoil the illusion, but even she can’t help talking to her software as though it were a trusted friend. Knowledge is not itself enough to overcome our fantasies and desires. We all need to be heard, even when we have nobody to talk to.

Up until this moment in the game, Evelyn has been a markedly reserved protagonist. It is only as a client, talking to herself – talking to her own computer programme – that she is able to open up. She reflects on her life with a clarity and a strength of personality that is never brought out by her colleagues. You talk with fellow Skandha employees (or former employees) regularly. Some of them are awed young graduates, some are CEOs, some are well-meaning friends. The effect is always the same: Evelyn is cast into a strictly pre-determined role. Whether she is seen as a mentor to be slavishly admired, a pawn to be used, or a vulnerable child who needs to be helped, Evelyn will always feel trapped, hemmed in by the expectations of the other. By highlighting this, the game avoids an uncomplicated condemnation of algorithm-driven counselling. We can’t help noticing that it is only here, talking to herself, that Evelyn has room to breathe.

I wanted to write this post really to do two things. First, I just badly want to recommend this game to you. Eliza has unexpectedly shot up to being far and away my favourite of the year. I love its muted colour scheme and subdued, clinical environments – the frame sometimes warm but always stark, emptied of clutter. I love that it does not pretend that this dreariness is all that life is: there are moment of warmth, and they shine through all the more in the contrast. I love the “screaming, low-level panic” induced by the never-fading presence of your phone: buzzing incessantly, tempting you away from anything and everything (even your therapy sessions, if you cannot resist), the absurdity of feeling such urgency in response to such crushing banality, the drudgery of sifting through memos and promotions and corporate detritus.

I love the complexity of the game’s characters: Rae, your immediate superior, is a particular highlight. She strikes you at first as someone who has accommodated herself far too well to this quiet corporate horror. She brushes aside your concerns of Eliza’s ethics and efficacy, but does so with that brand of ‘understanding’ unique to the professional manager. Rae has just enough empathy for her employees to feel consoled, but not enough to threaten her conviction that some things just ‘have to be the way they are’.

She initially embodies all the evils of her company, but is quickly shown to be as powerless as her employees. Her management job brings her a high level of administrative responsibility, but an almost total lack of agency. Rae personifies the uneasy position occupied by low-level management, where she is aware of being totally invisible to the leaders of her company, but any anger she might feel is pre-emptively extinguished by her sense of investment and duty.

You come to learn that Rae’s brother is an addict. Working hard to support him, she sheltered him from the judgements of their parents (and later her flatmates), until she is pushed to let him go. The transformative potential of a cheap and universalizable therapy app seems obvious to her. Eliza avoids the limp ‘both sides’ equivocation of something like Bioshock Infinite, since a later outburst from Rae (angrily defending her company from the press) puts you again on your guard. But we come to understand that her professionalism is not borne of cynical careerism, but of being a true and desperate believer in the promises of algorithmic therapy. Not even the boss is paid well enough to shield her loved ones from a hostile world.

*

Besides just recommending Eliza, I wanted to reflect on the formal qualities of visual novels. This is my only experience of playing one, so naturally my thoughts on this will be wide-eyed and limited. But I’ve spent this summer playing mostly action games – DUSK, DOOM, Call of Duty 2 – and I couldn’t help but appreciate how radically different a frame of mind Eliza put me in. It was a relief to be freed from the treadmill of chasing pleasure, from a ceaseless twitchy stimulation that leaves me feeling empty and alone in a blitzed-out bunker of a head. Eliza felt like it was operating on a different part of my brain – on a more sociable side that games rarely provoke. Visual novels have an obvious advantage over action games in engaging your sociality: the slowness of pace and withdrawal of stimuli lifts you from a panicked fight-or-fight, frees you to engage more reflectively and richly with the characters around you.

What struck me most of all about Eliza was how sharply different this visual novel was from my experience of reading novels. The inclusion of music, painted backgrounds and spoken dialogue – these are not minor additions to the novel form. They mark out a fundamentally different mode of engagement.

Last week I wrote about living as a shut-in. I have spent a long time living mostly inside my own head, without friendships to anchor me to a stable sense of myself or the world, to common-sense structures of thought or feeling. In this context, I regularly find reading novels to be devastatingly, existentially hard. I grew up with the belief that fiction is where we tell the truth about ourselves: with such a belief, and with little outside of fiction to ground me, I am very vulnerably credulous to whatever perspectives I stumble upon in my reading.

Longform writing, I think, is uniquely powerful in producing credulity in me. The very form itself – the silence of it, the basic abstraction of it, the experience of getting lost inside your own head – I find this vertigo-inducing. The abstraction of the form – of meeting with ideas unmoored from sight or sound, the dreamy unreality of it – can be enervating, can free you from yourself, and has meaningful parallels with the effects of psychedelics. You are de-habituated from the established and the familiar; the basic categories and structures of life feel contingent, arbitrary, and changeable. The abstraction of the written word expands your sense of the possible, makes you open to radical new ideas. But it can also leave you untethered from the nuts and bolts of reality: cut adrift, open and exposed.

Growing up I read quite conservative works. I fixated over Richard Yates, with his omnipresent irony and unadorned prose. He obsessed over the workings of strained relationships, relationships made stable only when every true or meaningful thought goes unsaid. His focus quite naturally rests on the inner monologue, on the stark and ugly innards of private thought. Do not trust your senses: only brooding introspection will help you navigate this world. Sight, sound, the external will tell you little; only in this hidden realm of seething subterranean thought will you find the world's truth. Yates also liked to linger over small moments of misconnection - fumbling, accidental rudeness, all lingered on significantly, imparted with great (but unspoken, unexplained) judgement. If you live alone, with anxiety and few friends, this is an engine for crippling paranoia.

Turning to more radical writers did not help. Andrea Dworkin, Mark Fisher: each produced writings that were ferocious, fuelled by a belief that their readers were comfortable, all too comfortable. They wrote to pierce the armour that we construct around our consciences, the armour that protects us from the guilt of inhabiting an obviously barbarous world. I have little of that armour. I didn't have a background infrastructure of care, a basic conception of my right to be alive. These writers take for granted a stubborn self-preservation in their readers – and so to try and reach you, they write with a flaying severity. These writers ask you to justify your existence; reading them unguarded, you can interpret this demand in the most bluntly literal way.

But Dworkin and Fisher are noticeably less difficult to engage with when they exist outside of the page. I started watching interviews and lectures on youtube; I found that the simple inclusion of their presence – their bodies, voices – imbued their work with a warmth and empathy that was transformative.  

All this is why I found the basic form of Eliza so helpful, and so comforting. The game is bleak in its premise: in its focus on the hidden worlds of suffering that therapy makes visible; in its cataloguing of the limits of our social lives, and of our contracting horizons under precarious employment and atomising tech. But the immediacy of Eliza’s backgrounds, portraits and spoken dialogue instil the game with humanity and warmth. It makes real to you its characters, makes vivid what we stand to lose.

This immediacy, this focus on the external, also grounds you in a stable sense of reality. The game’s executives and entrepreneurs like to assault you with their differing philosophies on life, and on life’s future intersection with tech. These worldviews are articulate, compelling, and often wildly speculative. But by virtue of Eliza’s images and sounds, and by its focus on those at the receiving end of these worldviews, at the bottom of the social ladder - you soon find that your theorizing can only run so far. In Eliza, and in the medium of the visual novel, your thoughts are tethered to your flesh.  

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About My Enormous Hairy Downstairs Kitchenone of us since 2:33 PM on 01.05.2012

Games, self-pity, and k-punk fanfic.

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