by Ewan Wilson
reviewed on PC
CYBERPUNK IS DEAD
Cyberpunk is dead – or so they say. It’s easy to understand why such statements are made. Androids and jacking into cyberspace was new and exciting back in the 80s. “Neuromancer” and “Blade Runner” were igniting the imagination while the internet and microcomputers were blowing real holes in our social consciousness. However, often what’s labelled Cyberpunk these days is simply pastiche: rainy, neon lit streets plus “nanotech” this and “ICE” that. It’s an easily marketable aesthetic combining cool clichés. While the idea that counter cultural “punk” has been re-appropriated by everyone from Hollywood to fashion manufacturers, the real critique comes from the idea that it has lost its historical strength. The zeitgeist has come and gone and Cyberpunk no longer has anything meaningful or authentic to say about the world. Except that isn’t the case. Technobabylon is proof that we don’t need the yellow crime scene tape or chalk to outline the body of Cyperpunk just yet. Whilst there’s plenty of recognizable genre iconography, Technobabylon is also full of vigor and new ideas. It spins a fascinating, modern science fiction tale whilst having an abundance of social and historical efficacy to boot.
Technobabylon is a point-and-click adventure game set in 2087. The game takes place in “Newton”, a metropolis home to a hundred million and administered by an artificial intelligence that can calculate the probability of a crime happening. You play several characters. As the world-weary hard boiled detective Charlie Regis and his secret police colleague Max Lao, you’re responsible for investigating the mysterious “mindjacker”, as well as more generally keeping the streets safe from terrorists genetically designed to explode. You also play as Latha Sesame, a young unemployed hacker addicted to the “Trance” (the internet), who is suddenly targeted for assassination.
The game moves between crime scene investigations to daring escapes. Each of these events is an elaborate puzzle with superbly crafted set of clues and objects that need to be slowly pieced together. Left click picks items up and interacts with things in the background, whilst right clicking on objects give you a short description (text or dialogue). Puzzles not only tie together logically, they make use of the setting and draw you deeper into the world. The investigations feel like real casework, never guesswork, and there’s very little redundancy as you carry out tasks and slap together, DIY-style, the tools needed for the job. If there’s a shotgun hanging on the wall, you can bet your crypto currency it’ll be important at some point. When things can’t be solved conventionally, you can utilize wetware (organic computing) to interface directly with machinery – jumping into the matrix in order to rewire AI personalities or read peoples emails for hints.
There are shorter sequences, bursts of dialogue, intriguing exposition and even car-travelling vignettes between each of the main puzzle scenes. Technobabylon’s narrative grips, twists and turns. The interwoven tale of blackmail, corruption and conspiracy explores all manner of big ideas. Dialogue is voiced, which adds a lot of personality and humanity to a great cast of characters. There’s also plenty of humor, laughter inducing moments grounded in everyday occurrences. Visually, Technobabylon has plenty of bright neon on top of its muddy urban landscapes. Sometimes it can be difficult to make out important objects in the sprawl or even read text due to the blown-up pixel art and low resolution, but more often than not the smudged neo-noir visuals serve as a great impression of a dark and uncertain future.
LONG LIVE CYBERPUNK
One of the most impressive things about Technobabylon is its contemporary feel. Cyberpunk’s lack of potency in recent years is often blamed on the fact many of its themes are now more real than fictional (for a start, you’re reading this through cyberspace), but Technobabylon makes a habit of exploring important, relevant issues profoundly while simultaneously extrapolating on them. Take Latha as an example. She lives in a tiny government-owned apartment, on social benefits, and initially apathetic and disengaged – a position many a millennial can relate to. Similarly, a young lab assistant you meet during your journey partakes in a counter cultural fad that involves injecting the symptoms of “old” diseases and syndromes (HIV, Parkinson’s etc.) It’s bizarre, but plausible. Like J.G. Ballard’s novel “Crash”, where deadly car accidents are simulated, people will do anything to feel something. When you meet a young Trance-addicted man who spends his spare time getting off by re-enacting the worse nuclear bomb blasts from history, you may well sit up and ponder your own hobbies.
There are hundreds of tiny details in Technobabylon that draw you deeper into the fiction and relates cleverly to issues we face in our own time. Every line of dialogue and off the cuff remark is a portal into its world. Beyond being a well-crafted adventure, it beautifully expresses many of the pent up anxieties we have regarding the future. This is a post-modern tale that salvages and subverts what’s current in order to reinvigorate the Cyberpunk genre. It passes comment not just on your usual mega-corporations, AI and biotechnology, but also surveillance, the media, the welfare state, poverty, addiction, religion and even gender. This is a game that shows there’s still plenty of power in punk.
Logical puzzles that are tied to the story, an intricate and multi-layered plot, powerful contemporary themes, fascinating world full of detail
Some things are difficult to make out due to the pixel art