Eliza explores the perils of technology and our desire to automate intimacy

The perils of technology, and our desire to automate intimacy, is explored in Eliza, an interactive novel.


By TODD MARTENS | Los Angeles Times | Published: September 5, 2019

Please, pleads a character we meet in Eliza, just let him talk to a real human. The interactive game unfolds as a not-too-distant nightmare, one in which technology has enabled us to talk to everyone and connect with no one. It also taps our fears over healthcare access and how our always-connected life affects our mental health. It’s a timely work of digital anxiety that captures a generational desire to use apps and technology to solve problems rather than seek to fully understand them.

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? 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. Our digital footprint, the game’s tech proponents tell us, will reveal more secrets than whatever we say 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. 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, get some antidepressants and move on. Others appear stuck, such as the man who begs for Evelyn to turn Eliza off and just talk to him. But there’s a script for that, too.

Here’s where the game gets sinister. Its world is so cold that even a personal touch is false. Most of Evelyn’s patients are overwhelmed with modern life and technology’s performative aspects. They see friends’ social media timelines 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.

Platforms: iOS, PC, Linux
Online: zachtronics.com/eliza