I’m crap at video games.
1320, my recent competitive rank on Overwatch. I will say no more on this issue, other than, One simply cannot be arsed to ‘git gud,’ so I took the advice of one sagely gamer and ‘fukked ooof.’
I have the reactions of a sedated sloth. Large chunks of my teens were spent on single-player, narrative driven games, namely in the point & click adventure style. So, like the video gaming attempt to swaddle myself in a security blanket, I scoured the Steam store page for that classic 90s pixel-style, point & click hit. Something I could savour, like a fine glass of malbec, paired with Aunt Bessie’s jam roly-poly with Angel Delight crème anglaise; a game that didn’t require the reaction-time/twitch abilities of a 13 year old Dorito-sprog.
Technobabylon became my stodgy, e-number ridden comfort food, whilst also provoking some thoughts, in my brain!
The game takes place in the year 2086 in the city-state of Newton. Newton is governed by an omnipresent AI known as Central who maintains all of the city’s civic systems and implements its jurisprudence. Centralized Emergency Logistics or CEL form the body of ‘police officers’ who take orders directly from Central.
The games features 3 playable characters:
Dr. Charlie Regis: a CEL Agent tasked with investigating a series of murders perpetrated by the infamous ‘Mindjacker.’
Dr. Max Lao: Charlie’s partner at CEL, and overall kickass, techno-savvy gal.
Latha Sesame: an unemployed, agoraphobic young lady known colloquially as a Thrall. She prefers the online world to ‘meat space’ and goes by the persona Mandala.
TB’s main strength is in its world building. The game has it’s fair share of technobabble (heh), it is of course a piece science fiction. However, aspects of it’s world aren’t explained away in bloated lines of exposition. Rather it’s technological marvels, and morally-dubious customs are discovered in engaging, plot-appropriate ways.
The player begins the first chapter as Latha, cosplaying as her early noughties cyber-goth persona, Mandala. She appears to be levitating and orgasming through some kind of virtual, online world. She’s espouses the virtues of the Trance, as a platform of infinite potential; another reality where humans can escape the confines of reality or ‘meat space.’ She loves dat trancing shiz. So much, that when she’s pulled out of it due to a power failure in her apartment block, she’s desperate to re-connect. We discover that one one the ways she is able to connect is through an organic, nanomachine known as ‘wetware;’ this allows for a direct connection between trance terminals and the user’s brain.
This dichotomy, or even symbiosis between organic matter and the ‘artificial,’ becomes a recurrent theme. Newton appears to be a bastion for ‘Gengineering;’ the manipulation of genomes, to improve and create plant and animal species for social and commercial gain. Newton implements science to have total mastery of nature. If Francis Bacon was an atheist, Newton would be his Bensalem wet dream.
What I love about TB is that it doesn’t shy away from exploring the more ‘dystopian’ elements of scientific progression. Including suicide bombers, engineered from birth to grow explosives in their bones, and synthetically grown human meat, to be consumed by the curious bourgeois. Moral ambiguity is furthered by the curious trends and ‘fashions,’ subsets of Newton enjoy. In one chapter, Lao encounters a lab worker who gives himself temporary aphasia, presumably part of some counter-culture movement (or just for teh lols). There’s also, ‘Pheerless Phil’, part of a group who enjoy running atomic blast simulations from the past; not at all insensitive given pockets of the world beyond Newton have suffered nuclear catastrophe… But hey ho, it makes more sense to me than simulating trains, buses or farming equipment, so GET NUKED!
TB’s world felt wonderfully complex. It was these layers of world building presented throughout the game that kept me engaged, over character-related intrigue.
That’s not to say TB’s central plot is bad, it’s still very good. What begins as an isolated, buddy-cop murder investigation evolves into a full-blown conspiracy that will affect the world at large. TB is also peppered with just the right number of cut scenes and interactive flash back sequences to provide enough context to character motivations without ruining the pacing.
None of the characters are superfluous, they all have a role to play, however I can’t say I was the biggest fan of the Mindjacker; largely his motivation for hating Regis. He displays the same level of vitriol for Regis that I have for olives on pizza or shit portmanteaus like ‘sexcapade’ or ‘affluenza.’
I won’t spoil his backstory here, but when his reasons for hating Regis came to light, it felt underwhelming. I highly recommend playing the game with the commentary on, the developer James Dearden reveals his original ideas for the Mindjacker, which were more to my liking.
There are some fantastic characters in this game. Max Lao is a personal favourite of mine. She combines the right level of charm and techno-know-how to make her character enjoyable to play as. Conversely, Regis’ chapters, were ever so slightly more lacklustre. Partly because I had difficulties understanding his outlook on technology. For a man with a doctorate in genetic engineering, who lives in a scientific metropolis where public trance terminals have the same ubiquity as Starbucks, his aversion trancing, wetware, cybernetics and the overall ‘kids of today’ appears a little incongruous. Likewise, I wasn’t sure whether his ‘life begins at conception’ mentality was supposed to be product of his Texan roots or biological imperative in a world where the rates of fertility may be in decline. In Regis’ defence, he’s not entirely an archetypal fuddy-duddy. When it come s to same sex marriage and transgenderism, the man is completely nonplussed.
For those triggered by media hit with the ‘SJW stick,’ I wouldn’t touch this game. For everybody else who can envision these things as being widely accepted, non-issues in the future, welcome on board!
Dingy neon-lit streets, plastered with graffiti and riddled with jobless thralls living under the gaze of wealthy ultra-capitalists. But that’s enough about Manchester, aesthetically, Technobabylon fits the bill. In a society hooked on escaping reality through the trance, it stands to reason that no one would be too concerned with beautifying ‘meat space.’ Ben Chandler did a fantastic job creating the background art. From futuristic office-spaces to dilapidated apartment blocks, a lot of thought went into creating a distinctively cyber-punk aesthetic. My only bugbear was the pixelated text, I must have pulled my constipated Easter-Island face a few times trying to read it. They should have opted for a classy font, neon pink comic sans methinks.
The puzzles are completed using an uncomplicated point & click interface. Perform an action or move by left clicking, or right click to read or listen to a description of some feature of the world. Hovering over the bottom half the screen opens up the inventory. Nice and clean!
None of the puzzles felt particularly extraneous to the scenarios the characters found themselves in. The puzzles Latha can solve in the Trance were particularly enjoyable. Corrupting an overbearingly chirpy anime chef will never get old. Likewise, there’s a wonderfully creative segment where you can play around the mindstates of synths (androids) to change their personalities, memories and roles. Of course with any game requiring a degree of ‘pixel hunting’ there were one or two frustrations. I resorted to a walkthrough during chapter chapter 7, simply because I hadn’t hovered my mouse over a particular art asset, so spent a good 30 minutes oblivious to its existence.
If you’re yearning for a point & click adventure game or simply enjoy science fiction, Technobabylon comes highly recommended! Given TB’s graphical limitations and its short relatively compact gameplay (around 10 hours), its world still feels full-realised. I do hope there is a sequel in the pipeline, because not expanding on this world any further would be a wasted opportunity.