Sunday, February 16, 2020

Transmitting Live From Mars

According to Steam it took me exactly five hours to complete Californium. That seems remarkably precise. It's also remarkably slow compared to most people who've finished the game, at least according to some of the "mostly positive" reviews, where three hours would seem closer to the norm.

I like to take my time, look up, smell the rosewater. Also, finding some of those glitches wasn't as easy as all that. Mostly I managed it on my own but I'm very glad someone took the time to record a full playthrough for the handful of times my search threatened to stretch from fun to frustration.

So... was Californium any good?

At just over £5.00 for exactly five hours play I thought it was reasonable value as entertainment goes. A little less expensive than the average movie, a little more than a medium-length novel. If I'd paid for it with my own money I wouldn't feel short-changed.

It doesn't have a great deal of replayabilty although I guess, technically, it has as much as any Philip K. Dick novel, in that both tell a linear story with multiple possible interpretations. I've re-read most of PKD's novels, though, some of them many times; I can't see myself playing through Californium again.

The game's greates strength is its aesthetic, which is rigourously and successfully maintained throughout. I never once tired of looking at it. Indeed, at one point I wondered what it might feel like to "play" the game without playing it.

There's a mysterious voice that occasionally chides the protaganist, Elvin Green, for his apparent inability to know when he's well off. As Elvin peels away the layers of reality, finding a less satisfactory version each time, the voice suggests, with reason, that Elvin doesn't know when to stop.

And in fact each iteration begins by putting him in a better place. He starts as a failing writer, behind on his assignments, whose publisher is about to "let him go". In the second chapter he's much more successful, feted as the "Patriot Writer", the biographer of Abe Lincoln. When he tears the veil and steps through yet again, he becomes the political leader of an entire planet, or at least the boss of a mining colony on Mars.

It's only when he starts pulling at the threads that everything unravels, always leaving him in a worse situation than when he began. He has a very nice apartment, which gets nicer each time, and it occured to me that, as a player, I could refuse to engage with the process, let the glitches glitch, just log in to spend a few minutes staring out of the window at the scenery. It's nice scenery. Elvin doesn't appreciate it but I did.

But no, we all have to do our part. So I worked through all of the chapters, saw all the changes, spoke to all the people... or not. I thought I had but the game has Achievements (because of course it does or it wouldn't be a game, apparently...) and one of them is Speak to Every NPC. And I didn't get it.

So I missed someone. I have no idea who. I spoke to everyone I saw because the writing is not bad and the voice acting is a bit better than that so I wanted to. Also you never know when a Philip K Dick reference might pop up.

I thought about that, too. Californium is a game predicated on a knowledge of or an interest in the works of a particular author. Thematically it does a fair job of evoking a few of the great man's better-known tropes. It also drops in the odd reference that seems to have no function other than to give the player warm fuzzies of recognition.

Is that Fan Service? If it is, is that a bad thing? What's wrong with servicing the fans, anyway? If you weren't a fan of Philip K Dick, would you be playing at all? I know it's why I bought the game.

Even when the references seemed to be crowbarred in (and there were only a handful that I spotted) I appreciated them. Would I rather the developers had taken their own game more seriously and resisted temptation? No, I don't think I would. I'm a fan. Serve me.

The final chapter, in which reality comes unglued along with physics and topology, was probably the best part of the game as a game. It was also the part with the least story. I do still struggle with the interface between those concepts. I've seen Californium referred to as both a "walking simulator" and a "puzzle game" and it is both of those things, although the walks are very short and the puzzles mostly easy.

I was satisified with it as a "game" but I'm easily satisfied on that front. I was a lot less staisfied with it as a story, largely because of the ending. It was all going rather well until then.

I'm not going to say the ending was bad. It might have been. There's one interpretation - and it was the first one I came to - that, if true, would make it a very bad ending indeed. One of the worst kinds of ending, in fact. But I'm very far from sure that was the ending.

Or the meaning of the ending, anyway. It was definitely the ending of the game in a practical sense; everything stopped and there were credits. Whether what had happened was what I first thought had happened, though, I somewhat doubt.

In which case I didn't understand the ending. That's not great, either, although it might be my problem. Or it might not. Maybe it wasn't as clear as it should have been.

Or maybe that was the point. Maybe it was clever Dickery, a touch of postmodernist humor. Maybe it wasn't supposed to make sense because, y'know, reality isn't what you think. If you can understand it you've misunderstood it. Except I've read, as I mentioned, an awful lot of Philip K Dick and I never once got to the end of a novel and found myself thinking "what was that all about?". Granted, I still haven't read Valis, let alone The Divine Invasion, but the point holds.

Would I recommend Californium? For PKD fans and sympathizers, yes, definitely. I felt it was five hours well spent. I enjoyed it. I strongly suspect it isn't anything like as smart as the creators probably imagine it is but it's certainly smart enough. It doesn't disgrace its source material and that's a lot more than not nothing.

For anyone who hasn't read Dick, I'm less sure. I'd say about a quarter to a third of my enjoyment came from resonances the game kicked up, stuff I remembered from the novels and short stories. Half was from the look of the thing and the rest from the voice acting and the narrative. Whether that's enough for someone unfamiliar with the original texts is questionable.

But, as I said, who else is going to be interested? Probably not a problem.

According to the best review of the game I read, everything Californium does right the much better-known and vastly more successful The Stanley Parable did better. Maybe I should try that next.


  1. I wonder if you'd get more out of Californium than Stanley Parable - the latter is very much more a meta-commentary on video games, while I gather from your description that Californium is more about Philip K Dick.

    Would love to hear your take on it though. Me, I've got 6 months 10 days and counting for a legit "Go Outside" achievement before I can revisit Stanley Parable again.

    1. I suspect my biggest problem with The Stanley Parable, if it revolves around a knowledge of video games, would be that I'd miss most of the references. I have a lot of accrued hours in gaming but in a very limited segment.

  2. The Stanley Parable is an all-time favorite game for me. Definitely recommend giving it a try.

    Got my wife Californium (among other things) for Valentine's Day, as she is a casual PKD fan. Not sure whether it's going to stick; she got started, but I haven't checked whether she's still playing.

    Thanks much for the detailed reviews of this game!

    1. Glad someone found it useful. Everyone else at least gets to look at the pretty pictures.

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