Technobabylon (2015)

About 70 years from now, Technobabylon predicts, nuclear wars will have become commonplace. In that world, the U.S. and China will both have violently split apart. The European Union, interestingly, stays together, but apparently at the expense of some unspecified liberties (an extrapolation, perhaps, of the current European attitude towards GMO). Newton, a new city-state implied to be somewhere in the area of what today is southern Somalia, is a place of refuge both for people fleeing from conflict as well as people aiming to test – and widen – the limits of what science can, and should, accomplish. Even the police detectives there are scientists.

This spot at the vanguard of research where almost anything goes technologically is also a remarkably diverse place, with people from all different corners of the world coming together. Because of budget restrictions and the fact that most of the game takes place at night, there aren’t particularly many crowd scenes where one could really observe this, but the main characters and the handful of NPCs are pleasingly varied in skin colour and sexual identity. As the Technobabylon of the title, the city is the setting for the newest game by point-and-click adventure-game publisher Wadjet Eye (developed by James Dearden from an unfinished series of freeware installments).

With its science-fiction noir trappings, the game’s story is difficult (and would be spoilery) to summarize. Suffice it to say that it involves deception, a string of weird murders, duplicity, a man accused of a crime he didn’t commit, treachery, a digital network more advanced than the internet (albeit looking like an 80’s cyberpunk vision of virtual reality), double-crosses, and a highly advanced artificial intelligence and the forces arraigned against it for reasons that are at odds with each other. All of these elements crisscross in the plot and ultimately prove to be the ripple effects of a decades-earlier betrayal. It’s all very engaging even if I saw the central plot twist coming halfway through (thanks to a painting and a name I correctly identified as foreshadowing and thematically relevant, respectively).

The player controls various characters over the course of the game, of which two can be described as the protagonists: There is a grumpy old genetic engineer, Charles Regis, who hasn’t adapted to the newer technological developments, especially hates the A.I. that basically runs Newton and is essentially his boss at the police force, and who still has some hang-ups stemming from his upbringing and youth in war-torn conservative America. The other lead character is Latha Sesame, a young woman raised by the state who has become addicted to the Trance, an advanced version of the internet reminiscent of V-world from Caprica (2009/10). The main way of slipping into this Trance is via “wetware”, a sort of organic internet router paste connecting devices (and other people!) directly to one’s brain. It’s a neat idea that is utilised well in Latha’s segments, where puzzles often require the player to manipulate real-world as well as virtual-world NPCs (including articifial intelligences embedded in electronic devices).

Occasionally, the player also controls Max Lao, Regis’ partner in a classically odd-couple police unit, a female hotshot who has fully embraced the new technology and used to be a criminal before being taken under the old man’s wing. While her two segments deliver some of the more memorable puzzles of the game, the character herself doesn’t really stand out. She’s defined by her loyalty to Regis, which is somewhat, but not really, in conflict with a belief in the central A.I., as well as two elements of her past that don’t bear any fruit within the confines of the game’s plot. Regarding her conflict, it’s possible it would have been more pronounced had I made other choices as Regis, since the game clearly offers several different endings. (There is a fourth playable character, but that’s only in short flashbacks which provide exposition and background information to the main plot.)

The actual protagonists you spend most of the game playing as, however, are among the more memorable game characters I’ve encountered in recent years. They start out fairly clichéd, but grow more complex and interesting over the course of the game. Regis, for instance, quickly becomes embroiled in a blackmail plot that seems implausible at first but becomes significantly less so the more we learn about his past.

In that, Technobabylon invites generally favourable comparisons to the older Wadjet Eye game it’s most similar to atmospherically, genre-wise and regarding the breadth of the world-building, Gemini Rue (2013), which also featured a very distinctive noir-tinged plot and singular protagonists, and it does so without the gameplay issues I associate with that title.

Advancing the plot mainly involves standard adventure methods like talking to everyone (which is most of the game, probably, which is very dialogue-heavy), taking everything not nailed down and managing one’s inventory (objects in the inventory are cleared out when they’re no longer needed, mostly logically, minimising the incentive to combine everything when stuck). There are a number of time-sensitive mini-games (both involving physical activity on the part of the characters), a pet peeve of mine, but they’re short and not too frustrating. I especially liked some of the more innovative puzzles like rebuilding robot personalities and “hacking” in the Trance.

The puzzle difficulty is mostly fair. There were a handful of moments where I couldn’t proceed immediately, and even one where I thought I’d found a game-breaking bug, but the fault was always mine because I hadn’t thought outside the box or hadn’t scanned the location carefully enough. Twice or so I solved puzzles by accident without knowing how (there’s a math problem late in the game that I’m still not sure how I got it right by the second try).

Lest you think that the entire game is grim and gritty, that’s (surprisingly?) not actually the case. There’s quite a bit of humour to be found in the margins of this world, such as an optional mini-game that satirises the “‘free’ to play” business model (inside quotation marks in the source), or an apocalyptic preacher railing against the evils of Trance addiction who would like to convert the player to use real-life drugs instead. There are also the artificial intelligences in the game, which mostly provide comic relief, such as the cheerful avatars of commercial software like an animé chef (who becomes far less polite and sane when infected with a virus) and a medieval knight (switched, as he tells us, from more modern security personnel because of recent police riots), or the personalities of androids that can be tweaked by the player.

Visually, the game is nice to look at, featuring the most detailed character animations, backgrounds and portraits yet (the latter are not animated, but come with a variety of fitting expressions that change depending on the dialogue spoken). The voice-acting, despite what the trailers lead one to believe, is also really good.

In all, it took me about 12 hours to beat the game, making it the longest Wadjet Eye title so far and probably the best not developed internally since Gemini Rue.

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