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.