This Is A Love Story

August 25, 2019

Thoughts on "Eliza", Zachtronics' newest game.

a picture of the city street at night

In Eliza, the newest game from the studio Zachtronics, the player assumes the role of Evelyn Ishino-Aubrey, a former software engineer living in Seattle coming out of a self-imposed three-year exile. Evelyn used to work at Skandha, the local tech giant, where she helped develop an artificial intelligence trained to listen to people's problems and offer assistance - a virtual counselor that the company now calls, "Eliza".

Because it was deemed that people would never open up as well in front of a machine, Skandha employs people as proxies for Eliza. Instead of clients coming into their local Skandha Wellness Center and talking to a screen, they talk to the Eliza proxy, who wears augmented-reality glasses that allow Eliza to listen, formulate a response, and display it to the proxy. The proxy can then say the response verbally, thus completing the appearance of face-to-face communication between a machine and a human being. The Chinese room in this case isn't just any room but a therapist's office.

Evelyn surfaces from her exile not to return to her old job as the lead engineer on the Eliza project, but instead to work as a proxy for Eliza. She re-connects with her old friend and former coworker Nora, who herself left Skandha not long after Evelyn did and is now working as a musician and freelancer. She's quickly courted by her other colleagues as well - her former project manager Soren and the CEO of Skandha itself, Rainer. They all have their own ambitions and ideas of what Evelyn should do now that she's back, and she has to somehow make sense of it all.

The game has great artwork, a wonderfully understated soundtrack, and sharp writing. Many of its observations strike quite close to home - the discussions of ethical development in the tech world and a developer's responsibility in the shaping of morally-questionable software, to stories of horrific overwork and crunch in the industry, to the tense proxy session with one of Skandha's self-proclaimed "old guard," an older employee simmering at how the world has left him behind, are more relevant now than they ever were.

More than that, however, Eliza demonstrates how the act of merely listening is not enough to truly help others. Listening is important, of course - having friends you can talk to about what you're struggling with, or what's going well, is essential to everyday life. At one point, Evelyn reveals that she would refer to Eliza during development as "The Listener", and that the software itself is far less complicated than it seems:

"Eliza is really simple at its core, you know. It just turns things around. It tries to reflect what the person says back at them, pretty much like the old Eliza. It's just a smoother version of an idea from half a century ago. Anything you've read that makes it sound fancier than that is just a bunch of academic jargon. It's a mirror."

As the game itself concludes, this approach, and the Eliza project as a whole, is misguided. People need much more than just a neutral third-party to listen to their problems; people need other people. People need community. They need someone to talk with, not something to talk to, no matter how much it can help in the short term. At the end of every single Eliza session, Eliza prescribes clients some combination of medication and meditation and sends them on their way. "It may help you take your mind off things," Eliza helpfully suggests. But this feels much more like a gentle dismissal rather than any sort of meaningful guidance or counseling. People want more than just their pain to go away, or to forget their troubles; above all else, they want to know that they're not alone. In my playthrough, Evelyn ultimately decided to join Nora in her artistic and technical endeavors, and the game ended on a hopeful note about the future and what these two people could contribute to the world together. Like much of Burns' writing, the game left me with so many different feelings: nostalgic, discouraged, yet cautiously optimistic.

My favorite scene in the game is the dream-like opening section of chapter 7, in which Evelyn and her friends, under the starry sky and over a crackling campfire, contemplate the state of their world. Their conversation is at once sad and hopeful, mundane yet determined: will everything be okay? Will we accomplish what we set out to do? No easy answers present themselves, no matter how desperately we shout at the heavens. All we can do is try.

In season 2, episode 3 of the BBC/Amazon Prime show Fleabag, the titular character gets into a conversation in a bar with an acquaintance, Belinda Friers, about being a woman in the business world. Belinda takes a sip of her martini and says:

Belinda: There is nothing more exciting than a room full of people.
Fleabag: Yeah, except most people are...
Belinda: What?
Fleabag: ...shit.

At this, Belinda scoffs:

Belinda: Look at me. Listen. People are all we've got.