Friday, February 7, 2020

Real To Irreal : Californium

For once, I did exactly what I said I was going to do. After I finished blogging yesterday I popped off to Steam to buy Californium.

Not! Of course I didn't. As soon as I hit "Publish" I forgot all about it and spent several hours futzing around in EverQuest II .

It wasn't until late in the evening that I remembered and finally went and did it. By then I only had time for a quick look. I played for about forty-five minutes. This morning I logged in again and played for a couple of hours.

That's not enough for a full review but it's plenty for a First Impresions piece. And my first impressions are very favorable.

Let's start with the best part: the art design. It's gorgeous. I've taken over fifty screenshots already. I'm seriously considering grabbing several hundred just so I can use them for randomized desktop backgrounds.

It's a good thing the art's as well done as it is because the game relies on it extremely heavily for gameplay, which consists entirely of spotting anomalies, while the narative relies almost equally strongly on visual contextual disparity. Some weight is carried by the soundscape but it's down to the art department to handle the heavy lifting.

The controls are just about the most minimal I've ever seen in a game. WASD for movement and left mouse button to interact. That's it. Oh, and sometimes you have to type the words you see on screen in a simulation of typing on a typewriter, which is how the game begins.

Absolutely nothing is explained extrinsically. You're left to work out for yourself what to do by context. It's not difficult because there are only a tiny handful of things you can do. You can walk around and look at things - and by "look at" I mean you, the player, can stare at the image on your monitor. Your character, a writer named Elvin, who analogs Dick himself, can't perform any of the typical adventure game tricks - no examining things, no picking things up, no interaction of any kind.

Except when you see something glitch. This, I think, is where the game really earns its right to invoke the name-recognition of PKD. All the gameplay I've seen so far consists entirely of noticing something that's not right and looking closely at it. That's something that drives the narrative in many of Dick's novels and here it's replicated beautifully.

Reality is not what it seems. As you pan the camera maybe something will flicker and catch your eye. Perhaps you'll notice objects juddering or changing place. There might be a glow where no obvious light source exists.

When you spot one of these you'll notice an icon. Left-click on it and hold and reality will change, overwriting the late-summer light of Summer of Love era California with a colder, bluer, altogether more 1950s aesthetic.

I wandered about, looking for glitches, opening holes in reality, listening to the rather good soundtrack. Once the phone rang and I listened to a message from Elvin's publisher. He didn't seem very pleased with his work. Then the television sputtered into life and started talking to me. When the static cleared all it showed were roman numerals. They turned out to be a countdown of the glitches I needed to find before I could move on to the next stage.

Eventually I found all the tears in reality and pulled them open. That in turn unlocked the door to my apartment. I moved outside to do the same in the street, the yard, my publisher's office, the local diner...

And that's all there is to it. Oh, except for talking to people. Listening, I should say. Elvin doesn't speak. He listens. And listening is a pleasure because the voice acting is very good. Up to radio drama standard, very nearly.

Once you leave the apartment you get to meet all kinds of folk; hippies, policeman, federal agents, store owners, draft dodgers. They stand around in the form of cardboard cut-outs, something that has a particularly Dickian resonance, although I think it's just a visual trope not a representation of how your character perceives them. Although, just as in a Dick novel, you can't quite be sure...

Californium claims to take its inspiration from both the life and the work of Philip K. Dick, which is why I was interested in playing it. From what I've seen so far it fulfills that promise quite convincingly although not everyone agrees.

Perhaps the author of that piece was insufficiently "familiar with obscure biographical facts from Dick's life", as he suggests players need to be if they're to get the most out of the game. Having read more than one biography of the great man as well as most of his non-SF works, several of which are semi-autobiographical, I thought it made a pretty fair fist of getting the existential nuances right, which is the hard part. Homicidal androids and funny talking doors, well, any game can manage those.

As for the plot, it's too early to say. There seems to be one. In the hippie reality Elvin has writer's block and his wife has walked out; in fifties fascist world he's a respected Patriot Writer but his wife, the same wife, now estranged, has just been arrested for terrorism. There's a third reality starting to open up. I don't know what that's going to be. But I'm curious to find out.

Clearly I'm enjoying myself so far but Californium does have its problems, the biggest one being an inability to save your progress when you'd like. You have to complete each level (the game actually calls them "levels") to have your gamestate retained at that point. If you quit before then, when you next log in you'll have to begin again from the start of the last level you didn't finish.

That's hardly conducive to natural play, particularly since it's far from clear when a "level" has ended. The television sets scattered around the locations keep a tally of how many glitches you've uncovered but sometimes there's more than one TV on the go.

Spotting the glitches can be quite challenging, too. They vary a fair bit in how they appear. The ones I find most convincing reveal themselves by some movement or lighting effect but others only show themselves momentarily as you pan the camera, emulating the sensation of catching sight of something out of the corner of your eye. They can be hard to spot. 

Then there are those that only appear when you mouse over them. Some only appear when you mouse over them while Elvin is moving. Some are concealed behind behind furniture, which glitches to reveal them, then covers them again. It's immersive when it works but frustrating when you've been wandering around for ten minutes without spotting anything.

That's adventure games all over, though. Which is why I always resort to a walkthrough in time of need. I'm playing to enjoy myself not to raise my blood pressure. 

I made it about two hours in before I got completely stuck. Fortunately there is a full walkthrough on Steam. It's in video form but given the nature of the game that makes sense. It means you could also watch it like a movie if you wanted. 

I might end up doing that but I think it's more likely I'll play all the way through. The way the layers of reality peel back is intriguing. I'd like to find out what's at the core. And I want to know who the sarcastic guy is who keeps talking down to me through the TV. And punch him in the throat.


  1. You might like The Witness too, it's interesting how intuitive the game without text and even narrative can be.

    1. Thanks for the tip - it looks interesting and the graphics are beautiful. I'll put it on my list.


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