Wot I Think: Technobabylon

I’d almost forgotten the feeling. I’d begun to wonder if maybe, just maybe, I was deluded in my belief that adventure games could create coherent pathways, difficult yet fun puzzles, and characters whose motivations extended beyond the need to reach the next screen. What a relief it is, then, to play sci-fi dystopia Technobabylon. Here’s wot I think.

Set in a semi-dystopian future, the game features multiple protagonists exploring a tale of genetic engineering (genineering), AI overseers, mysterious mind-hacking murders, and overlapping online and offline worlds. It is, in that sense, delightfully pulp sci-fi. But it’s also a delicate story of individuals, personal struggles, and most of all, a nuanced approach to complex future-worries.

There’s Latha – an agoraphobic (and one of gaming’s extremely few positively portrayed autistic characters) who spends most of her time living in the online world of the Trance. When she’s nearly killed in an explosion in her apartment complex, she’s forced to leave her sanctuary and try to figure out who’s after her and why.

Then there’s Charlie Regis, a weary and technophobic cop who has become trapped in his own mourning. He’s partnered with Max Lao, a bright and headstrong younger cop with a streak of geek. They’re investigating a series of murders that appear to involve people having their memories brutally torn from their minds. Both work for Central, an AI that controls the city of Newton, in the year of our lord, 2087.

You control all three at different points, as the extremely involved and complex story starts weaving itself together. It also jumps back and forth through time, seeding in crucial pieces of back-story as they become relevant to further understanding both the wider plot, and the motivations of individual characters.

As a piece of storytelling, it’s superb. A little convoluted in places, it could certainly have done with some sort of “the story so far”-type prompt in the characters’ not-that-futuristic cell phones, or something. I felt a little lost at times, although I’m told by Mr Richard Cobbett of our parish that I was just being thick.

There’s a great deal of effort put into elaborating details. You know in a game where there are a bunch of telephone numbers to call, but all but one results in the same non-message? Not here. There are fifty-one different people providing voices for errant dials. A tiny thing, but such a nice sense of a wider world. Conversations are equally detailed, letting you explore a lot of extraneous information with characters, and indeed providing non-critical choices for how those conversations will go. It allows everyone to feel so much more fleshed out. I’m still not entirely sure how “wetware” goo is any different from a USB cable, and not at all clear how the Trance actually works – there is a good deal that could still be explained better. But where there’s detail, it’s often splendid.

The puzzles are often exemplary. Inventory led, with the goal visible before you accidentally stumble on the solution, the route to solving things fairly laid out, and the satisfaction of executing it successfully. There are some neat moments of inspiration, and even some significant choices to make about how you proceed. Two different endings give surprising twists, and – thank goodness – wrap the game up nicely.

But it’s not perfect. Early on there are a few issues with direction. One chapter’s beginning leaves you with no clear idea what you’re supposed to be doing, stuff you need to get in locations there’s no indication to check, and the entire continuation of the plot contingent on noticing something tiny on the floor of a location you’re not prompted to visit. It’s a problem that goes away as the game finds its groove, creating one of the finest adventures in a good while, right up until the final sequence where it all falls to bits.

Oh goodness, what happened to the final level? In this last section there’s a half-removed puzzle, conversations encouraging me to do things I’d already done, description markers incorrectly describing objects, and a puzzle that requires noticing something that’s on-screen for about a second before being hidden again. The joyful sense of coherence, in those final moments, is lost. It’s not a game-destroying experience, at all. And it’s all stuff that can be tidied up with a patch. It’s worth saying that as I was playing the review code I encountered some bugs that have already been fixed in the release version, and I know that other issues I encountered toward the end are already gone. Hopefully it’ll all be smoothed out soon enough.

There’s so much to celebrate about how the game’s story is put together. While familiar tropes are in place, they’re often delivered in surprising ways. It’s far too deeply into spoiler territory to give good examples, but just having an all-powerful sentient AI that isn’t moustache-twirling evil, or terrorist baddies whose ill-actions aren’t entirely clear-cut, makes for something a lot more sophisticated than we’ve come to expect. No, it’s not the new Philip K. Dick, but it’s pleasing to see echoes.

Overall, Technobabylon is a superb game, and a game that deserved a better platform than the increasingly aching Adventure Game Studio. I desperately hope publishers Wadjet Eye will be moving on from the needlessly retro engine in the future, and allowing Ben Chandler’s exquisite pixel art to shine in something like Unity. It gives a beautiful and superbly written game a clunkiness it doesn’t merit.

But it is a beautiful-looking and well-written game, in a way that adventures far too rarely see. It’s a game that proves to me that I’m right to demand so much more from point-n-clickers that get eulogised despite their enormous flaws. It has restored my faith that the genre deserves high expectations, even if it occasionally fails to meet them. And it’s a long, detailed chunk of hefty sci-fi, with some careful character work.

You can get Technobabylon direct from Wadjet Eye here, or from Steam here.

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33 Comments

  1. Not_Id says:

    Why is Leonard Hofstadter in that top pic?

    • JimThePea says:

      My theory is that it has something to do with that big bang in the last picture.

  2. celticdr says:

    The big question is: Does it compare favourably to Westwood’s classic Blade Runner?

    That is perhaps my favourite adventure game of all-time (primarily due to the future noir setting, which I am totally enamoured with).

  3. Gap Gen says:

    Top pun in the game name, btw.

  4. skalpadda says:

    Wow, sounds great (except for the few bits that don’t). Weren’t Wadjet Eye also involved in the Blackwell series and Primordia?

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      Harlander says:

      Yep, they’re the guys.

      Shardlight should be good if it follows the trend of stuff published by them, too. If nothing else it’ll surely be pretty

      • shoptroll says:

        Shardlight is technically an in-house project now that Dave’s hired both Francisco and Ben. I’m definitely excited for that one though.

    • vahnn says:

      Don’t forget Gemini Rue! That game was a real gem. Played through it three times.

  5. shoptroll says:

    “Oh goodness, what happened to the final level? In this last section there’s a half-removed puzzle, conversations encouraging me to do things I’d already done, description markers incorrectly describing objects, and a puzzle that requires noticing something that’s on-screen for about a second before being hidden again.”

    That’s disappointing to hear, but not totally surprising as this game is part-remake of the freeware games and part completing the series. Sounds like the remake part is fine, but the new content is where the wheels start to fall off? Hopefully they spend time patching up the game like Wormwood Studios did with Primordia.

    “Overall, Technobabylon is a superb game, and a game that deserved a better platform than the increasingly aching Adventure Game Studio. I desperately hope publishers Wadjet Eye will be moving on from the needlessly retro engine in the future, and allowing Ben Chandler’s exquisite pixel art to shine in something like Unity”

    Didn’t Dave say somewhat recently that it would cost them a lot more money to make their games if they moved to higher-res graphics? Also, what’s so bad about AGS? Is Unity actually a reasonable replacement? If I recall correctly their 2D support wasn’t so hot a couple years ago but I think one of their more recent versions tried to specifically address that flaw?

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      Hodge says:

      I hear Unity’s 2D support is much better these days, and there’s also this plugin (which I’ve not tried, so that’s not a recommendation!).

      Even if Wadget Eye were to migrate to Unity or something else I imagine they’d stick will the pixel art look they have now – it’s a budget/artistic choice, not a case of being limited by the AGS engine (you could write a game in AGS running in 1920×1080 if you wanted to). The big advantage of switching to Unity would be the better multi-platform support.

      • megazver says:

        Dave just tweeted he’s about to start a Unity course.

      • kalirion says:

        Unfortunately the clunkiness of AGS isn’t even mainly about the resolution support. Weird mouse movement in full screen mode, having to change all the settings in “winsetup.exe”, inability to even toggle between windowed and full screen from inside the game. I find myself wishing SCUMMVM folks would get around to emulating AGS so the games can be run in a better environment…

    • tomimt says:

      There’s always Visionere engine, which is pretty reasonable priced and meant for adventure games first and foremost, and it’s multiplatform as well. I think Daedalic uses it in their games.

  6. Love Albatross says:

    A slight adventure game related tangent…

    RPS, if you are not already I feel you should be aware of Icon Architect 1.0. It’s a 90s style point ‘n’ click from the twisted mind behind windows95tips.com

    Check out some of the visuals, it looks beautiful: link to twitter.com

  7. SteelPriest says:

    I shall be buying this, been working my way through Wadjet Eye’s stuff since Primordia. Gemini Rue was great, and Resonance is pretty good too.

  8. Lacero says:

    thanks for witting this.

  9. G-Lord says:

    That review sounds promising. Couldn’t resist the preorder, thanks to the excellent track record of Wadjet Eye published games and the existence of a demo (which is all too rare these days). Now it will be tough do decide which game to play first, Life is Strange Ep3 or this…

  10. MrNash says:

    Been on the fence about trying this out, but this review is starting to push me over the edge. Really hanking a nice romp through some cyberpunk, and the aesthetic here has really caught my attention.

  11. Michael Fogg says:

    A certain pompous has-been should be exposed to this game in order to show him how adventure games can be made in 2015.

  12. caff says:

    I’m a sucker for anything cyberpunk, and anything that Wadjet Eye are involved with is worth a look. Purchased.

  13. tnzk says:

    Going to buy this game after I finish the last Blackwell game and Primordia. Go Dave Gilbert, unrelated to Ron Gilbert!

  14. BiggerJ says:

    Do you reviewers who complain about bugs ever actually tell the developers about them, or do you just variously assume, “Eh, someone else’ll tell them.” or worse, “Why bother, they’d never patch it anyway”?

    • welverin says:

      What makes you think developers don’t already know about the bugs?

  15. Allenomura says:

    That’s a promising review. Also, the game has a demo: link to store.steampowered.com which is both a nice surprise, and fairly unusual.

  16. chook says:

    Hi. This comment:
    Overall, Technobabylon is a superb game, and a game that deserved a better platform than the increasingly aching Adventure Game Studio

    I am afraid I have to disagree. People go to Wadjet eye games as it is one of the last bastions of this type of game. The pixel art is half the attraction. It is a trip down memory lane, Nostalgia I guess sums it up. I’m afraid depsite Rock paper Shotgun being around since 1983.. it appears your recent reviewers missed the 80’s and early 90’s.

    Other then that good review. A wonderful game and another trip down memory lane.

  17. chook says:

    I meant 1873. Ahh whatever… you know what i mean <3