Whenever I play a game, my excitement tends to be front-loaded into the first few hours. By the time I’m at the end, I’ve already sated myself on early gameplay, and the ending is a neat little cap on the rest of the experience.
But Eliza, the new visual novel from developer Zachtronics, challenged me on that by delivering with five endings. It was only when I selected what I assumed would be the “bad end” that the entire game flipped for me, and I was left in awe at the audacity — and execution — of Eliza’s narrative.
[Ed. note: This article spoils several of the endings for Eliza.]
Eliza was frustrating to me. This is thematically appropriate, as in the narrative, the AI program Eliza is a source of frustration for many of the characters. Eliza is a digital therapy provider built to listen to people’s problems; it’s been adapted to provide accessible mental health resources to people in need. I play Evelyn, one of the engineers on the original Eliza project.
There’s a twist to Eliza, and it’s that patients talk to a proxy. Evelyn is now serving as one of these proxies as she gets her life together. Get her life together from what, exactly? Evelyn is frustratingly vague about this throughout the entire game. It’s heavily implied it was a reaction to the death of a colleague, but Evelyn freely talks about him with her new friends and colleagues.
Evelyn comes across as rudderless and uncertain. She doesn’t spend enough time with any one person for them to really impact her, although there are flashes of insight here and there.
So, my first playthrough culminated with me choosing to ignore Eliza’s suggestions, and disconnect from Eliza. I turned my back on big tech and chose to call Nora, a former coworker and current electronic DJ. It’s implied our relationship is romantic, and Evelyn is happy in her new life as an artist. She won.
This was a perfectly fine ending. A story about a woman returning to big tech after a crisis of confidence, realizing she doesn’t fit in, and finding her true passion in making music with a girlfriend is a good story. But I still felt irritated; a good ending wasn’t enough to make up for the six hours I spent playing Eliza. I wanted resolution for other plot threads in Evelyn’s story, answers to other questions raised in the narrative.
So I reloaded an earlier save and chose what I assumed would be the “bad” ending. That’s when Eliza knocked my socks off.
There’s a guy in the game, Rainer, who is a die-hard capitalist who believes in using Eliza to collect as much personal data as possible and create a new world-changing AI. He’s annoyingly vague about the details, but he has seemingly unlimited resources, and he wants to hire Evelyn to bring his plans for Eliza to fruition.
Surely, this is the bad end, I thought. In Eliza, Rainer’s every word is laden with menace. No one else on the cast trusts him. So, I accepted his offer.
I expected this to go wrong, for Evelyn to embrace her dysfunction or burn out. Instead, she immediately excels in her new role. We see her leading meetings, setting goals, helping Rainer plot the course of the corporation. That’s a good ending in how it’s framed; Evelyn is doing something she’s good at, and she can be proud of her work.
Then, the tone shifts. Evelyn has a one-on-one conversation with Rainer where he congratulates her, and they talk shop. Evelyn admits she no longer feels; she sees herself as a vessel for advancing Eliza. Rainer approves and tells Evelyn he’s been the same throughout the entire game. Capitalism was just a means to an end in order to build this order of what is effectively machine priests, heralding a new era of transhumanism.
What? What?? Going from domestic and flirty music-making to the game’s two most grounded and AI-focused characters admitting they see themselves of heralds of a new kind of consciousness was a big jump. There’s such a determined tone to the way they speak about Eliza and her inevitable progress, enough to almost make it come off as grim ... but they’re also totally devoted to the future ahead.
It reminds me of a bit in Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty that always stuck with me. There’s a scientist aboard Raynor’s ship who serves as kind of a love interest. The ship comes upon a planet that is infested and will soon join the Zerg armies. The scientist begs for your help. She thinks she can come up with a cure, she just needs more time. You need to stop the Protoss from purging the entire planet.
You can agree with her and protect the infected Terrans, or you can go ahead and help the Protoss with the purging. If you agree with the scientist, she was totally right, and everyone is saved. She leaves the ship after thanking Raynor, gone forever. If you don’t take the risk, she becomes infected and Raynor has to kill her. It was the protagonist choice that determined reality, instead of having branching consequences.
Eliza does something similar, and it completely changed the way I looked at the game. There’s enough in this visual novel to support every ending. At the end of seeing a client with Eliza, a little Uber-style screen shows up displaying your performance and tip. I found it frustrating and video game-y. Why was it there? Then, in one of the endings, I completed an Eliza session with a character who was previously frustrated, hopeless, and ended the session by storming out. He thanked me sincerely, and shared that he was doing better.
Then, the score screen came up. Five stars, and a hundred dollar tip.
That’s just one example of how every ending takes something — a series of text conversations, sessions with an Eliza client, an interaction at dinner — and validates it. It’s bizarre, but it works so well. At the end of the day, playing Eliza feels like a dating simulator, but I’m not looking to select my partner — I’m choosing my philosophy.