Lost in a Trance

Technobabylon1Charlie Regis lives in an urban environment straight out of a Phillip K. Dick novel so, inevitably, he is having a terrible day. The aging detective finds himself two steps behind a vicious Mindjacker (particularly nasty breeds of criminals who steal their target’s memory shortly before murdering them), the precinct’s all-knowing AI is breathing down his neck, and the petri dishes containing his unborn children are being leveraged against him as blackmail. Inevitably, Regis is thrust into dire situations that will decide the future of Newton, a truly “cyberpunk” city whose lack of restrictions leads to advances that are both fantastic and horrific. In a lesser game, this would all feel predictably rote and lead to some telegraphed fable about the dangers of technology. Thankfully, Technobabylon upends this expectation at nearly every corner, delivering laughs, haunting moments and multiple worthwhile perspectives, all wrapped in one remarkable story.

Despite being relegated to the well-trodden world of two-dimensional, side-scrolling adventures, Newton is far more fleshed-out than its 3D relatives. The downtrodden apartment owned by one Latha Sesame conveys most of the necessary information about this dystopia: the poorest residents are subjected to 3D-printed gruel, tissue-paper jumpsuits and downright disgusting living conditions. Residents like Latha are encouraged to drown their worries in the Trance, a VR-esque world that uses artificial wetware (neural connection that avoids the goofy glasses of today) to immerse the user in their idealistic setting. Aside from the delightfully quirky artificial intelligence and neon nightclubs, the Trance proves to be a handy tool for solving problems back in the “meatspace,” from opening complex locks to infecting a chatty food dispenser with malware.

I could spend all day talking about Technobabylon’s bizarre vision of the future, but the moment-to-moment writing is what really makes it shine. Aside from some silly swears (it isn’t possible to hear “go nuke yourself” without smirking) and one soldier’s ludicrously convenient way of inadvertently giving you hints, the clever dialogue and lack of simplistic motivations help foster interest in just about everyone on screen. In particular, Regis’s partner, Max Lao, is a downright praiseworthy representation of the LGBT community: this trans woman is treated with the utmost respect, happens to be an electronic genius and wields the sharpest tongue on the force. Her optimistic perspective on CENTRAL, the AI that practically runs the city, is never presented as naïve or blind; in fact, as the story winds onward, Max primes you for moments where CENTRAL proves to be more than the soulless bundle of numbers Regis makes it out to be (though there are plenty of on-hand reasons to treat CENTRAL with an equal amount of caution).

Technobabylon2The voice cast in particular ought to be commended: each character is played with such conviction and energy that you can’t help but gravitate toward even the rotten individuals. From one man’s memorable verbal tic (“Oh, my, YES!”) to Regis’s nasally southern drawl, Newton’s residents are brought to life with the same vibrant energy as the glowing city itself. These are the sort of performances that games with vast budgets often struggle to attain: here, they enrich a story that already stood well on its own.

Technobabylon is also of the few adventure games I’ve managed to finish without resorting to a single walkthrough! Granted, some of the puzzles operate on the moon logic that makes this genre infamous (using a makeshift fishing rod to retrieve a handgun from an ankle-deep pool of blood is an odd way to conduct an official investigation), but if you can wrap your brain around this unique future, you’re well-equipped for most of its challenges. The puzzles are also wrapped in some of the strongest humor I’ve seen since Zork: Grand Inquisitor—playing Frankenstein with an android’s brain (don’t worry, the process is completely reversible and always harmless) can turn a French maid into an annoyingly chipper chef or a surly bartender. Crucially, Technobabylon gets that breaking technology can be even more amusing than putting it back together, which leads to a number of giggle-worthy scenarios.

I came away from Technobabylon without a strong opinion for or against its AI-driven megacity, but for the right reasons. Rather than saddling itself with the same “both sides” rhetoric that sunk BioShock Infinite, it presents most of its inhabitants with a sympathetic point of view. There are no mustache twirling villains here (well, there’s ONE mustache twirling villain, but the game recognizes his condition as an aberration): everyone has their own ideal for the perfect city, and while their methods can be rather insidious, their motivations make sense. It may take place in a futuristic society filled with androids and bossy artificial intelligence, but Technobabylon might just be the most human game you’ll play this year.