Interview: Eliza is a visual novel about an AI therapist, a tech worker, and more
If Eliza was a novel, we’d be talking about it in the same breath as Asimov and Bradbury.
Eliza is ostensibly a visual novel by Zachtronics, a studio known for complex, mechanically heavy games like Opus Magnum and SpaceChem. Eliza is different, however, it’s about a digital therapy program and the people who work on it.
What starts as speculative sci-fi blossoms into an experience as authentic, immediate, and important as anything you can find in any medium.
If Eliza was a novel, we’d be talking about it in the same breath as Asimov and Bradbury
It tells a very real story that’s equal parts a vignette into modern living and heady science fiction – fiction, I should add, that is not as far-flung as it sounds. It’s unlike anything else we talk about here at KnowTechie, so instead of a traditional review with a score, I sat down with Matt, the chief architect of this project, and we talked Seattle, tech, ethics, inspiration, and more.
If you’re already sold, Eliza is available now on Windows, Mac, and Linux via itch.io and Steam.
If you’d like to read the interview first, the full text follows with my questions in bold.
Let’s start with an introduction. Who are you, what’s the game, that sort of thing?
Sure. My name is Matthew Seiji Burns, and I’m a writer, composer, and game designer based in Seattle. My visual novel Eliza is a story about an AI-powered therapist, the people who use it, and the people who develop it.
Eliza is quite a departure from previous Zachtronics work. Can you talk about that a bit? What inspired the change?
So I’ve worked with Zach of Zachtronics since 2012 or so, and in 2016 I joined the team full-time to work on writing, music, narrative design, and a few other things. I also write my own projects on the side— Twine games, fiction, and the like— and in 2014 I saw something that inspired the idea for the story that eventually became Eliza. I was working on that story on my own as an entirely text-based thing, but one day Zach and I were chatting and I told him about the idea, and he basically said, “Why don’t we make this with the team, as a Zachtronics title?” Since that would mean having the budget to get professional art and voiceover, as well as Zach’s valuable input on design and UI, I agreed right away.
So, that’s how that came together. I think Zach was, and still continues to be, interested in trying new things.
You touched on another thing I definitely want to talk about: Where did the idea for Eliza come from? Why this story in particular?
A lot of my ideas bounce around in my head for a long time and don’t really come from one or another place, but in the case of Eliza, there’s actually a specific inspiration point.
In 2014, I was working at the University of Washington in a lab called the Center for Game Science. As part of my duties there I went to academic conferences and saw demos of research projects that other groups were doing using game technology. One of these projects was a “virtual therapist” developed for DARPA as an experimental way to detect symptoms of PTSD in soldiers returning from tours of duty.
I remember sitting in the demo just struck by the idea that someone would go to war, get PTSD, come home and have to talk to a robot.
From 2014, I tried a few different approaches to the idea, including some that were more obviously sci-fi or futuristic, or more dystopian, but ultimately I decided that the present day and the real world would be best for this story.
Present-day, real-world, and Seattle of course.
That’s right. As the story grew, it came to encompass things like my own experiences with therapy and medication for mental health, the experience of living in Seattle over the last decade and watching the changes happen to the city, what it means to live in an area fueled by that boom, and many other things.
That was something that struck me immediately: This game is so authentically Seattle. It’s exactly right.
Yeah, that was important to me! I wanted it to feel real.
The concept of Eliza isn’t new, though, right? I mean, the namesake comes from a decades-old program, doesn’t it?
That’s right— Eliza, the original Eliza, was developed in the 1960s by an MIT professor named Joseph Weizenbaum. People sometimes call it “the world’s first chatbot.” The therapy app in the game is named after it, in a conscious decision by the company that makes it.
There’s a lot in the game about the nature of technology and what role it serves in society. Some of it seems speculative and some of it seems personal. For you personally, what do you think the highest moral aspirations of technology should be?
In my view, technology by itself is not inherently good or bad. It’s how we use it and apply it to our lives that determines whether it’s something that really benefits people or not. And, as you see in the game, sometimes you build something with the hope that it will benefit the world, but the real effects are harder to predict.
It’s not really a viable option for most people to refuse technology or opt-out of it. Because of that, I think the best thing we can do is continually look at how technology is applied to our lives and continue to make sure we’re okay with it, and if we aren’t, to try to do something about it.
Jane McGonigal thinks gamification, for instance, can save the world. From the way you get the Persuader badge for convincing someone to share all of their personal information with a corporation, I gather your view of the current state of things is a bit more cynical, no?
I’d argue that the view is not cynical so much as it is simply portraying something that happens in the real world, right now. People, including me, routinely give up their privacy in exchange for convenience, or entertainment, or some kind of small reward.
I understand why people think simply portraying things as they are comes across as negative on the tech industry, but I personally don’t think I’m adding cynicism to the equation here. It’s more like, hey, this is a thing that happens.
That’s a valid perspective. I think most people have a pretty good idea that tech is an endless nightmare landscape right now.
That brings me to my next question. Eliza tackles tons of issues, from crunch to the prevalence of impostor syndrome to the way systems can fail clients who aren’t perfectly on-script with how common interactions can go. Which issue in the game is the most important to you, in terms of spreading awareness?
That’s not to say “which issue is the most important issue,” but more of which would you most like people to know about after playing Eliza
Yeah, in terms of looking at it as a bunch of issues, I think— I think the biggest thing I’d like people to take away from it is just feeling seen, and feeling some kind of connection to it. Whether that’s because of burnout, or alienation, or depression— I just want it to be like, okay. Here’s something that gets it, or at least gets at it.
Does that make sense? Like, all of the issues you mentioned are extremely important, but Eliza isn’t a clarion call saying we should do something about this… even though I think we should. It’s more the— yeah, I’ve been there too. To me, that’s the most valuable thing to take away from it. It’s a very personal story, and I hope it relates on a personal level.
I mean, I can’t speak for everyone who plays the game, but yes, I felt like that. There’s so much in there that made me feel like there are other people out there having these experiences. I mean fuck, the main character is 34, disenchanted with tech, and questioning her moral purpose in life. Just @ me next time
Haha, right? I had the hunch that there were a lot of people like us, in that kind of space. And there wasn’t anything that really captured it that I was aware of, so I wanted to try that.
I think part of it is the level of detail, from the reference to creepy Microsoft private transit to the background radiation of like, hey here’s another email about a data breach leaking your personal information to who-knows-where.
That leads into one of my favorite developer questions: What detail(s) did you spend time on that you think people might not notice?
There’s a bunch of things, but one I’m proud of is the way the different emails have different voices, depending on who it’s from or what it is. I like to think some of the internal emails at Skandha really capture what your inbox can be like at a big company. And the things you’re forwarded too, like an article in a local newspaper versus a thinkpiece essay by a famous writer, and so on.
Another set of details I enjoy are the sound effects. The solitaire cards use real recordings of Kabufuda cards. Soren’s whiskey bottle is a real whiskey bottle. These are tiny incidental sounds and I would be the first to admit it doesn’t make a significant difference in the end product, but it was fun to do it that way, to know it’s “right.”
I get it. Those things do add up and while any one of them might not make or break something, there’s value in the emergent assembly of all of them together.
Last question for you: I noticed that throughout most of the game, you aren’t given much choice, then your options hugely open up for you as you approach the conclusion. That got me thinking: Why make this a game? Why not a novel, or a fiction podcast, or any number of other potential media? What is it you’re hoping people experience with this medium as opposed to anywhere else Eliza could have existed instead?
That’s a really good question and something that was definitely on my mind when I designed it this way. It’s a complex answer I could go on at some length explaining, but to try to sum it up— I think the structure of having no choices for so long helps to make it very meaningful when the choices do finally come.
Sometimes you encounter this sense in game design that more choice is unequivocally better. Choice and interactivity are what sets games apart from other media, so there should be as much of that as possible, right? But I think choice is not something to put everywhere, precisely because it is so powerful and so medium-defining.
I spend the whole first two-thirds of the game setting up a very specific, intricate situation, and then say: okay, now you choose. I just couldn’t have done that if there were tons of choices along the way. And I knew that some people wouldn’t like that, but I did it anyway, because I wanted to have that payoff of finally making one, big, very important choice.
As for the story existing in other media, I really wrote this to be a visual novel from the start. A lot of things, from the way the phone works to the idea that you begin to get real agency only at the end of the game— none of that would be the same if it were a novel or a stage play. And I think putting that final choice in the player’s hands is important to make it work, to make it cohesive.
I’d be interested in finding out which paths are chosen how often, but in the interest of keeping things spoiler-free, I won’t ask that question here.
I’ll say it isn’t very evenly distributed— some routes are pretty popular, and others are rarely taken. I’ll let you guess which ones are which!
One more really quick question: Who’s your favorite character?
Oh, that’s like asking me to pick a favorite child! I actually do kind of love them all, even the ones I deliberately made terrible.
They’re not my kids! Maya was my favorite, easily.
I love Maya. She’s so real and raw. And funny, too, which somehow makes the tough parts even tougher.
It was tricky to write her because she spends a lot of time complaining about not being successful enough, and that could have been really annoying if she didn’t have other things going on to balance that. Luckily I think it turned out, not least because her voice actor, Cissy Jones, was just incredible.
I think Cissy stole everyone’s heart in Firewatch, so that doesn’t surprise me.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me! Right now folks can find Eliza on Windows, Mac, and Linux via Steam, right? Anywhere else they should be looking or any other platforms to keep an eye on in the future?
That’s right, it’s on those platforms on Steam and also itch.io if you prefer that. I’d personally love to bring Eliza to more platforms and localize it too, but we need a little time to see what makes sense for us.
Perfect. Thanks again and take care!
Thank you too!
Jake played Eliza with a review code from the developers – before finding out he’s friends with one of the voice-over artists. It is available now on Windows, Mac, and Linux via itch.io and Steam.
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