It’s been a weird year for visual novels in the west. On one hand, we got a grim reminder of the corporate hellscape we live in thanks to the Colonel Sanders dating sim. On the other hand, we got a thoughtful visual novel from indie studio and puzzle game extraordinaire Zachtronics.
Eliza is a story about Evelyn, a young woman working as a “proxy” for an AI therapist named Eliza. As a proxy, she brings a “human touch” to the therapy session by serving as the mouthpiece for the AI. As the game progresses, she meets a number of characters and learns about how Eliza has affected their lives. At the final chapter, the game branches into multiple endings based on what Evelyn decides is most important to her. The game explores the ethical implications of technology, burnout culture in the software industry, and how working under capitalism affects our legacies.
Throughout the game, Evelyn’s own insecurities and ennui color the way she sees Eliza and the people around her. Her personal history and trauma are a lens through which to examine the implications of others’ ideologies. When choosing her future path at the end, her own well-being is one of many factors she must take into account.
Eliza‘s writing is some of the best I’ve seen this year. It grounds its lofty concepts with a cast of interesting and thoughtful characters. Many of them represent an ideology or ethical perspective while still coming across as a complete person in their own right. The voice acting is solid throughout and often exceptional, including some surprising voice talent. The art is lovely and evocative, and the music fits perfectly with the tone of the game. The story is structured around therapy sessions, which are emotional and intense despite often being mundane and directionless. Though Eliza‘s writing is occasionally corny, and tends to overplay some of its tropes, it always falls back on thoughtful and earnest characters. On top of all that, the game also includes a fantastic solitaire mini-game, a tradition in Zachtronics titles.
It’s tough to go into much detail without digging into some of the characters and story beats. But it’s one of the few games I’ve seen that expresses so much nuanced perspective on modern technology. It knows that ethics are not straightforward, and answers are difficult to come by. As someone who works in tech, it touches on plenty of familiar anxieties. What are the implications of the work that I do, and what will huge corporations choose to do with it? How am I complicit in the choices my company makes?
Eliza is one of the most thought-provoking games I played this year. It excels because it understands how to filter abstract ideas through character-driven stories. It’s rare to encounter a work that can articulate complex ethical dilemmas but also be deeply personal and sincere at the same time. Eliza‘s ability to strike this balance makes it a standout, not only in video games, but in sci-fi storytelling in general.