A lot of little moments in games make you feel good. Mario’s jump is predictable and weighty, and headshotting a Fallen in Destiny 2 and seeing their soul leave their body will always give me a tiny burst of pride. What really fascinates me, though, are the moments in games that make you feel incredibly gross.
The Red Strings Club is a game mostly about bartending, but there are a few other minigames that add some variety along the way. Early on in the game you meet an android called Akara, who makes cyberpunk-y human enhancement modules and installs them in clients. She doesn’t just select the module from a pre-fab list. Akara sculpts them on a lathe out of what her disembodied boss calls “biomass.” You click rapidly to spin the lathe, and then use tools to carve it into the required shape.
When I first saw the lathe setup I assumed we were cutting into a pillar of crystal or something. Then I sunk the first tool into it. The pillar made a wet, squelching sound. The hairs rose on the back of my neck. Whatever it was we were using, it was fleshy, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what Akara would have felt when she touched it. Each time I pressed a tool into this pink mass, I imagined it giving way like gelatin when you press a fork into it. Even grosser was pressing the undo button and watching the mass regrow itself.
Even though it was gross, creating these upgrades also felt peaceful, almost meditative. I couldn’t shake the ickiness of the sounds it made when I shaved away parts of the biomass, but watching a blank slate turn into something with purpose made me feel surprisingly accomplished. Still, as soon as you finish making an upgrade, Akara shoves it into the stomach of a client, accompanied by those wet, fleshy sounds again.
You sometimes experience moments of discomfort in horror games, like the rotting food in the dinner scene in Resident Evil 7, but these scenes use grossness to enhance the scares. In The Red Strings Club, being unsettled is the point. The mechanic of using the lathe doesn’t feel comfortable even when you’re good at it, but you must use it to progress. It’s not meant to frighten you, but it adds to the tone of the scene. These upgrades will be used to help the people you install them in deal with perceived problems in their life, such as not getting enough attention on social media or not making enough money. The dark lab and the gory sound effects make it all feel illicit. Are these problems that you need to solve to begin with? Being made to do gross feeling things in games can help prompt you to think critically about what it is you’re doing.
In The Red Strings Club, when the lathe stopped spinning and I looked at my creation, I always felt kind of proud. Some of the designs are tricky, and getting it right felt like solving a puzzle. But while I was making it, I was forced to confront my actual actions. I was cutting into synthetic flesh like a perverse potter, adding a morally dubious corporate product to an equally morally dubious world.