Why Launch a Videogame at a Bookstore?

'Eliza,' the visual novel by Matthew Seiji Burns, plays with the border between fiction and gaming

Hands playing video games in front of a screen
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

On the top floor of the Strand is the Rare Book Room. In addition to housing the New York store’s signed first editions, the Rare Book Room also plays host to the Strand’s event programming. There are book launches and panel discussions, and there are events too that depart from the standard reading-interview-Q&A-signing format: live music, book clubs, in-person podcast episodes. A few times a week, above all but a few of the Strand’s famed 18 miles of books, an audience gathers, of people who care about stories.

On August 12, 2019, a writer stands at the podium. The story is one he’s had in his mind for five years or so. Today it was released to the public. In the audience, we sit in rows of folding chairs and listen to the opening lines: “I had a dream this morning, but I can’t remember what it was…” The voice, though, isn’t the writer’s, but an actor’s, coming through speakers. In the background, we hear the ambient noise of a train car, and then on a TV screen next to the podium an illustration of the car’s interior appears. The image is still, apart from the scrolling text notifying passengers of the next stop, and the rubber straps slowly swinging from the handrails. There’s a cursor on the screen too, and the writer moves it, pausing over the next-stop announcement. Text appears below the image, voicing the narrator’s thoughts: “I forgot how difficult getting around this city can be sometimes.”

Eliza, by Matthew Seiji Burns

This is not exactly a reading, then. The Strand billed it as a “live playthrough”: an in-person demonstration of gameplay from Eliza, a videogame about artificial intelligence, mental health, and the gig economy, written and directed by Matthew Seiji Burns and released by indie game developer Zachtronics. The obvious question, then: why launch a videogame at a bookstore?

Some of my favorite moments on Twitter are the ones when I’m reminded that my interests aren’t as disparate as it’s easy to assume. In real life, I know that all my friends don’t just care about one thing—that one person can very easily care deeply about both the machinations of the improv comedy world and speleology—but on Twitter, most of the people I follow tend to tweet about one thing. The literary people tweet about books, the fashion people tweet about clothes, the academics about their fields, and sure, everyone tweets about politics, but for the most part my feed consists of a half-dozen parallel conversations.

Which makes the unexpected points of connection—say, when the person I follow for their menswear memes posts about a continental philosopher—all the more memorable. They remind me not just that people have wider sets of interests than glancing at their social media might suggest, but also that the conversation around these interests is more capacious than I often realize. So I appreciate it when writers I love—like Tony Tulathimutte, or Hanif Abdurraqib, or Eve Ewing, or Carmen Maria Machado—tweet about video games. It’s a useful reminder that, whether it’s told via a game or a novel, a good story can provoke a broad conversation, and in doing so create—however fleetingly—a new community.

Whether it’s told via a game or a novel, a good story can create––however fleetingly––a new community.

Eliza deserves to be the subject of that kind of border-crossing conversation. In fact, it’s a game that itself crosses those borders: it’s a videogame, yes, but it’s gaming at its most novelistic, and it’s a game that’s seriously engaged with art across different media, from music to comics, film to poetry. It’s a game that makes the case that storytelling can benefit from bringing together fiction-writers and coders, actors and musicians, visual artists and poets.

The game is about an AI-driven therapy service called Eliza: think Alexa for mental health. (One reason why it makes sense to launch the game at an independent bookstore: Eliza is at some level an anti-Amazon satire). But here’s the twist: rather than using an onscreen avatar or a digitally generated voice, Eliza uses real people—“proxies”—to deliver the lines the AI produces, so as to provide the patient with something approximating person-to-person conversation. The game’s protagonist, Evelyn, works as one of these proxies. Throughout Eliza’s runtime, Evelyn grapples with what Burns describes as “the thesis question of the entire game”: can an AI-driven therapy program ever be an ethical good? The story Eliza tells, then, is more or less sci-fi—in the low-key, near-future/tweaked-present way of movies like Her (one of Burns’s stated influences) or books like Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy.

In terms of how it goes about telling that story, Eliza is a visual novel. That means that it belongs to a category of video game that’s more focused on story, dialogue, and character than most big-name, big-budget games. It’s not—like, say, Super Smash Bros.—about combat, nor—like Dark Souls and its kin—about difficulty. One way to put it would be to say that it’s a novel (or short story) with added onscreen images (a kind of digital graphic novel), plus voiced dialogue, some music and sound effects, and a certain degree of player choice. You could call it a multimedia choose-your-own-adventure, or interactive sequential art. Either way, it’s a hybrid, taking elements from different forms and using them to tell stories that couldn’t be told in the same way otherwise. The genre is still most popular in Japan, but—partly because visual novels are relatively cheap to produce, at least compared to AAA titles like Call of Duty or Red Dead Redemption—it’s a type of game that’s increasingly being made across the world, by small, independent developers. Those fairly low barriers to entry also contribute to the fact that it’s a relatively diverse genre: in terms of both the creators and the content, you’re more likely to find people who aren’t straight and male in visual novels than in AAA games.

As a visual novel, then, Eliza feels more at home in a bookstore than a less narrative-oriented, less textual game would. But it’s also, even within the genre, an unusually bookish specimen. It’s a game that resists feeling like a game for as long as it possibly can, because it’s a game that’s unusually cautious about letting the player control the action.

As an Eliza proxy, Evelyn doesn’t have any choice as to how she conducts the therapy session. Her job is simply to deliver the lines that appear on her Google Glass–like headset; deviating from the script is strictly off-limits. And as Evelyn, when you the player play through a therapy session, you don’t have any choice either. You click on the lines that Eliza projects on to your display, and Evelyn delivers them. No room for deviation—at least for the majority of the game. This is worth emphasizing, because it’s something that makes Eliza a decidedly un-game-like—or alternatively, a decidedly novelistic—kind of videogame. A choose-your-own-adventure with relatively little in the way of choice. And that lack of power isn’t, as the saying goes, a bug. It’s a feature.

It’s easy to think of videogames as being distinguished by the element of player choice. Control is a big part of what separates a videogame from a book or a movie or a comic. Hence the common view that, as Evan Urquhart puts it, “the point of a game isn’t its narrative, but its interactive nature.” But the reality of how games exist in the world is a bit messier, not least because in 2019 the videogame community contains as many people who watch games as play them. Watching a game being played is a different, much less interactive way of consuming the same piece of content. But as the audience reaction to the Eliza playthrough at the Strand demonstrates—moments of laughter, an audible “oh my god!”—not having a choice over how the game plays out doesn’t stop people from enjoying it.

In Eliza, choices don’t matter, until suddenly they absolutely do.

Eliza gets this. The game knows and plays with the fact that some choices are important and impactful, but a lot of the time choice is nonexistent or inconsequential. Evelyn isn’t Oedipus or Lily Bart, for whom individual decisions are always subordinated to a preordained fate. Yet for the majority of the game, she has little to no agency: she goes to work and does what she’s told. Eliza tells a story about the ways technology can condition and limit users’ degree of control, and about the rare opportunities we have to evade those restrictions and reassert ourselves, whether by deleting social media accounts or switching careers. And the gameplay mechanics echo the plot and themes of the story. As the player, sometimes you have no control over events—you’re observing things play out as you would when watching a Twitch stream or seeing Oedipus Rex, or you’re reading recounted events as you would when sitting down with The House of Mirth. At other times, you’re deciding between one dialogue option and another, but either way the conversation ends up in the same place. And on a few rare but impactful occasions, you’re making choices that really do have a major influence on the plot. Choices don’t matter, until suddenly they absolutely do.

But of course Eliza isn’t just a short story with an element of interactive choice. Its overall effectiveness as a piece of storytelling relies also on the cast of voice actors, the illustrations, the music, and more. Matthew Seiji Burns’s labor is central to the game (as well as writing it, he directed the voice actors, recorded the soundtrack, and even edited the dialogue), but it only exists as a result of the contributions of a wider community of creatives, spanning a range of media. This too is reflected in the game’s story: the characters we meet in Eliza’s Seattle are a cross-section of artists, storytellers, and consumers of multiple media. There’s Evelyn herself, who’s just coming from a three-year stint as a bookstore employee (one more point of connection between the game and its launch venue). Her friend Nora makes electronic music. Rae, her supervisor, used to work in theater (look out for the poster for a production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros). Rainer the tech CEO has a poetry obsession, and Maya the patient is a comics artist. And as the game’s fourteen therapy sessions make clear, everyone here is a storyteller, piecing together narratives to make sense of their lives.

When it comes to Eliza’s central question—the ethical status of AI-driven therapy—the game doesn’t push its players towards any one answer. The pitfalls of the program are very evident. But the game holds on to one potential benefit to the work that Eliza does. That’s the idea that a room in which one person tells a story, and another person (even one hooked up to an AI) listens, is a room that holds out the promise of meaningful consequences, for storyteller and listener alike. And this is one final reason why it made sense to launch Eliza with an event in a bookstore. The Rare Book Room at the Strand is a room in which, at book launches and readings every week, stories are told and listened to. And when the session is over—when the audience dissolves and we each go back out into the summer night—there remains the possibility that, in a small but important way, something’s changed.

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