What to Play: Brilliant and heartbreaking, ‘Eliza’ explores technology and mental health
Please, pleads one of the first characters we meet in “Eliza,” just let him talk to a real human.
The interactive novel game unfolds as a not-too-distant nightmare, one in which technology has enabled us to talk to everyone and connect with no one. What’s more, it manages to tap into fears over access to healthcare and how our always connected life is affecting our mental health. It’s a timely work of digital anxiety.
Parts of “Eliza” may be a bit frightening, but only because it feels real, capturing a generational desire to use apps and technology to solve problems rather than seek to fully understand them, and in turn creating a host of new issues.
It’s also the best form of narrative unease. A work of sci-fi that would likely appeal to fans of “Black Mirror,” “Eliza” recognizes that the quest for personal understanding is itself a form of play. What puzzle, after all, remains harder to crack than the human mind, itself a mess of contradictions and tricks? “Eliza,” nodding to the trend of self-help and on-demand therapy apps, imagines a world where our local shrink has been automated, arguing that an impartial computer program can be just as accurate in diagnosing depression and other ailments as a real-life human.
It’s a step above a chat bot, the tech proponents in the game tell us, and removes any misdiagnosis due to the pesky nature of humans to over-analyze or develop compassion. And since we’ve already green-lighted most social media apps to track our online whereabouts, chances are our digital footprint will reveal more secrets than whatever we say aloud to a certified therapist. At least that’s the theory.
Plenty, of course, goes wrong, and “Eliza” becomes an exploration of mind games, both in our inability to read ourselves and in the misguided belief that a quick fix is a permanent one. We play as Evelyn, a once-prominent tech developer who disappeared from social media for about three years. What inspired her tech and emotional hiatus is an underlying mystery of the game. Evelyn returns to work as a proxy for Eliza, the digital therapist the game is named after, and the program she helped create. In this role, she reads a script, wearing augmented reality glasses that analyze her patients and feed her lines.
In these scenes, “Eliza” largely puts the player on rails, as Evelyn is instructed not to offer her own insights — it will confuse Eliza’s reading of the patient. Some clients know the game; they’re there to express discontent and get some guidance on what anti-depressants to take and then move on. Others appear stuck, such as the man who begs for Evelyn to turn Eliza off and just talk to him. She doesn’t; Eliza has a script for that too.
That’s where “Eliza” gets a bit sinister. Its world is so cold and inhumane that even a personal touch is false, the result of a program fooling us into believing we are being cared for. Most of the patients Evelyn treats are simply overwhelmed with modern life and the performative aspects of technology. They see the social media timelines of friends and peers as real and struggle not to become happy or succeed but to maintain an illusion.
Evelyn at the start is checked out. Everything designed to help has failed. We click through her smartphone, and see the exercise app that nags her, the emails she hasn’t answered and the texts from friends that overwhelm her each night to the point that she can’t be bothered to muster the energy to hang the art she had framed. No longer on social media, she has become a mystery to friends, and worse, herself.
Though “Eliza” doesn’t saddle the player with anything to solve — we guide Evelyn through the day by directing her conversations — it still presents quite the puzzle.
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