Wot I Think: Californium

Alice previously told us we should be excited about Californium [official site]- she wasn’t wrong. I’ve finished the short-ish (maybe two hours) game, and have intersected my conflicting realities in such a way to be able to tell you wot I think.

Californium, in its cold, quiet way, has a lot to say. You’re Elvin Green, failed writer, failed copywriter, bereaved father, and increasingly distant husband. Living in 1960s California, you’ve turned to booze and pills rather than – well, rather than anything else. And in quick succession your wife leaves you, your publisher fires you, and your friends walk away from you. What happens next can only be interpreted through this lens. What happens next is the TV starts talking to you, holes start appearing in reality, and you begin to distort the world to reveal other worlds beneath it.

This is all presented in a glorious art-deco-ish style, a technicolour California, complete with Cadillac-alike cars roaring back and forth along the roads, diners, odd stores, and psychedelia invading the mundane architecture. Dotted around the world are 2D sprite characters, of a style that I didn’t particularly care for, but with which Alice was very taken, who will talk at you when approached. (Being talked at is both a knowing reference to the worlds of gaming, and a deliberate narrative tone.) Hidden around the various parts of the small section of world are televisions, which will display a number telling you how many glitches there are in that region of the level. You then go looking for them.

Glitches take some finding. They’re often indicated by oddities in reality, objects that flicker in and out of existence, or jiggle up and down. They indicate that nearby, or if you’re in the right spot, or moving in the right direction, or not looking at them, or… a symbol will appear. When clicked on, it causes a bubble of an alternative reality to break through. Find all of them in a location and the voice on the TV/in your head/God/someone trying to sound like the narrator from The Stanley Parable will speak to you some more. Find every last one in the level, and your reality, well, I won’t spoil any more.

It then, rather annoyingly, becomes one of those games that’s far more interesting to talk about to someone who’s finished it, than to describe to someone who’s yet to start. It becomes about personal interpretation of the Philip K. Dick inspired unreality, possibly exploring topics as varied as grief to writers’ block. The farther you get, the more of an exploration of ego vs super-ego it might be. Or it might not. So let’s instead talk about how pretty it is.

The invasion of bubbles of another reality are done with aplomb. They slowly grow into the world, showing something that might be past or future or alternative or something else, and then once full size, gently pulsate, letting the previous reality and this portion of a new one gently replace one another in undulating waves. And they’re not neat fits, either – this isn’t Zelda swapping dark for light. A portion of a flight of stairs appears where stairs shouldn’t be, shelves protrude from doorways, floors don’t match up. The resulting effect is extraordinary as a piece of level design, and brilliantly strange to explore.

Also, occasionally, frustrating. As you might imagine, two awkwardly overlapping diners can make for a lot of furniture, and a little too often you’ll find yourself struggling to move around things. I never got trapped, but there were annoying moments of having to wriggle through indistinguishable gaps. Other blips and bloops pop up here and there, with weird moments of recorded dialogue repeating, being absent, and the subtitles sometimes appearing in French. There’s definitely a lack of last-minute polish here.

The other repeated gripe is the annoyance of being one glitch short of a target, and missing the clue or action needed to cause a(n often) tiny symbol to pop up. There are cues delivered by light level changes that are crucial to spot, but I wish more had been done with the audio, some interesting ways of communicating glitches through sound. If anything, it’s a missed opportunity for more variation in the puzzles, which can often feel solved more through stumbling luck than inventive skill. I think that’s my overall disappointment with an otherwise fantastically inventive and deeply strange game – that more brains weren’t needed to get through it. At the end of a level there’s a lovely spacial puzzle where finding the right angle to line up elements of a symbol offers a neat – if simple – challenge, and it feels like a lot more could have been made of this, especially with the intersecting realities.

However, this is a smart, gorgeously presented game, novel and peculiar, and as I mentioned at the start, with a lot to not quite say. I’m not convinced by the ending, I think it aims for too much “Ahhhh but ahhhhhhhh” and not enough, “Oh.” But the journey toward it had me intrigued, and the game’s final sequence is utterly stunning – level design you won’t have seen elsewhere. It steps on The Stanley Parable’s toes a little too often, and doesn’t have the chops to withstand that comparison – it would have been a lot more sensible to have avoided the seemingly deliberate comparisons altogether. But it remains wonderful just to look at, the rest a bonus treat.

Californium is on Steam for £7, and GOG for $10.09. Or if your brain has a French mode, you can pick it up episodically for free from funders Arte.

7 Comments

  1. caff says:

    Really wonderful game. Glad I played and completed it over the weekend, despite seeing some mixed reviews on Steam.

    As someone who has dabbled in 3D level mapping, I found the mash up of geometry wonderful, and done so beautifully too.

    Like you I found some of the puzzles and the strict adherence frustrating in parts (I cheated on a couple). But everything else about it as a package absorbed me.

  2. leeder krenon says:

    Have they sorted the bugs? I played it a bit last week and fell through the floor within 10 minutes. That was pretty trippy. Look forward to going back to it though.

  3. li says:

    Didn’t try yet, but will without any doubt.
    In French. Arte is a fantastic TV network, the only one I would watch during a period, no ad, fully supported by the taxpayer, high quality shows, delicious female voices for interludes.
    Them funding a game, this game’s world taking roots in Philip K. Dick’s work, is the best news in many years..

  4. xaphoo says:

    I think this is better than The Stanley Parable. It is remarkably effective at conjuring up a Philip K. Dick mood and feels loyal to his style throughout (and the first episode adds a bit of Pynchonian California whimsy too). I played it in one sitting and walked away with its feeling unreality encroaching on my world. When a game changes my waking life, even for just a little while, it’s worth playing. The art is inspired from beginning to end.

    Yes, there’s not so much of a puzzle game behind it all. Nor is it packed with wry metacommentary on choice-making and game-playing like the Stanley Parable. It’s something else. Play it.

  5. John O says:

    You can also pick up the German version here

    link to californium.arte.tv

  6. Rumpelstiltskin says:

    A word of warning though: it has no save except for what chapter you are in, and there are just 4 chapters, each taking 0.5-1 hour. Granted, once you’ve found the anomalies, replaying a chapter would take a lot less, but not having a decent save system is a huge pet peeve of mine, since it’s indicative of the author’s disrespect for the players.