Future Imperfect

I love point-and-click adventure games. I love walking around their worlds and clicking “look” on each piece of background scenery, I love talking to every character I come across, and I even love obtuse inventory puzzles that leave me wondering how the hell a rubber ducky is supposed to help me get on a subway train. This is not a rational love but one born from the nostalgia of a person who played a lot of Sierra adventure games as a kid.

But art does not exist in a vacuum. Audiences always bring their prior experiences with them when encountering a text. Keeping in mind my partiality toward its genre, I must say this: I likeĀ Technobabylon.

Mohawked bouncer with the mohawk: The arm's great, but the eyes they gave me ain't worth shit.

Part police procedural, part conspiracy thriller, and wholly a sci-fi cyberpunk journey through a decadent city of sorrow and sin, Technobabylon is a pleasant return to the old adventure and puzzle gaming formula. You play as three main characters: a curmudgeonly police detective hostile to the newfangled AI that governs his city (like a white Bill Cosby, minus the rape), his younger and more enthusiastic post-op (actually post-genetic-engineering) female-to-male partner who’s down with the hacking and the tweeting and the bipping and the bopping, and an unemployed shut-in on welfare addicted to the Internet who subsists on protein sludge extruded from her shitty apartment’s food machine. Also there’s a murderous plot which could lead all the way to the top.

Today is not the heyday of adventure game blockbusters,  but the tools for producing an adventure game have become so commonplace that anyone with half an idea and copious enthusiasm could produce such a game all by themselves. A network of hobbyists and independent developers has sprung up creating numerous variations within the adventure game template. We are, it is said, in an adventure gaming renaissance.

Of course, one lone enthusiast generally cannot hope to match the output of what took a team of dozens during the high point of adventure gaming in the 90’s. Hardcore Gaming 101 argued that the second coming of adventure gaming has yet to produce a classic on par with the golden age. I concur, for simply in terms of length, Technobabylon cannot compare to your King’s Quests or your Longest Journeys. It’s longer than other recent adventure games such as Memoria and Primordia, but I still finished the game in less than a week.

Towering skyscrapers and shining lights dominate the night sky as in the front a futuristic airship waits to take off.

Still, I enjoyed playing through Technobabylon‘s grimy cyberpunk world. I’ve found that adventure games tend to be more iterative than original in their writing – which is to say that they tend to be influenced by outside properties but tend not to be very original themselves – but I was struck by the creativity in the story at several points. In particular I was quite effectively squicked out at the cyberpunk version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s Ameglian Major Cow (the Dish of the Day which addresses some moral objections to eating meat by being a sentient creature who consents to being devoured).

Inside a red-carpeted and luxuriously-appointed hallway one detective asks her partner,

For me, the game’s greatest narrative flaw is its differing viewpoints. Your perspective shifts between three main characters, and while you certainly do learn quite a lot about each character, I think the story would have been stronger to have a single protagonist to move the plot forward.

My other criticism, which to be fair is just a nitpick, is that you never really see what the Internet looks like a century from now. The closest you get to the real Internet is visiting the equivalent of a private chat room but you never see what’s so great about this futuro-web that Internet addiction has replaced drug addiction.

Inside a glowing virtual space stand a woman in leather punk gear and two men in futuristic sportswear, one slumped over in defeat and the other arrogantly introducing himself as Domino, the Den's reigning King of Sport.

Far more substantial is the issue I have with the game’s art style. As you can see above, it’s got pixels the size of golf balls. This is probably a deliberate stylistic choice to emulate the appearance of adventure games from the 90’s, but that style came about due to technical limitations of the era’s computers. I’d prefer it if today’s adventure games looked forward instead of being stuck in nostalgia. Compare the images above to something from Memoria, where the art looks stunning at modern screen resolutions.

Related to the art issue is the low screen resolution of Technobabylon.  The game was made with Adventure Game Studios, a freeware tool that has a maximum screen resolution from the SVGA era. If you play on full screen like I did then the resolution problems will be magnified, warts and all – or rather, you won’t see any warts but will instead see giant brownish pixels that may or may not be skin.

I have one last criticism, but it encompasses more than the game itself and extends to cyberpunk in general. Despite its punk roots, I’ve found that a lot of cyberpunk sidesteps the political in their resolutions. They show worlds full of inequality and suffering but never address the root cause of that suffering or even attempt to ameliorate it.

I realize that cyberpunk’s gritty realism means that there are no convenient dragons to slay nor evil wizards to defeat, no simple solution to the problem of political and economic disparity, but at least bullshit me something vaguely hopeful in the ending. Maybe there’s a social worker trying to improve the lives of some of the downtrodden, maybe there’s a new city councillor who implements a job-training program for the chronically unemployed. You know, something. But please don’t end a story with, “Well, this person’s life improved because they’re the protagonist but the rest of the world stayed super-shitty just like how you saw in the game”. That’s not a happy ending for me. In fact I find that kind of message rather depressing and conducive to engendering political apathy.

Anyway, that’s what I thought of that. Technobabylon: pleasant adventure game, some criticisms. Cyberpunk: politically suspect, many criticisms. Make of those opinions what you will.

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