The World To Come: Technobabylon is Clever, Engaging, and One of the Best in its Realm of Cyberpunk Storytelling.
Well call me a glitchy AI, because my clever lead-in drive is malfunctioning. Seriously, I’ve written more reviews than I care to count at this point, and I pride myself on being fairly good at giving each one some kind of decent, occasionally funny opening to lead readers in. Not today, though. Today I am finding it very hard to avoid the cybernetically-augmented elephant in the room, so let’s just go right up to him and give him a big ol’ hug.
This metaphorical elephant occupant is Technobabylon, a cyberpunk futuristic point-and-click adventure game, and the newest production of Wadjet Eye Games. Originally conceived as an episodic project by Technocrat Games, the project was picked up by Wadjet Eye and given a fresh coat of paint while just a couple episodes in. Regardless of which studio had more influence on the final product, Technobabylon is quite frankly a near-masterpiece, and possibly the best game to ever come out of Wadjet Eye. Let’s power up the wetware, hop into the future-internet, and talk about Technobabylon.
The year is 2087; the place, the sprawling city of Newton. Here, law enforcement requires a PhD in order to deal with all manner of futuristic synthetics and mechanical entities. Here, the human brain can double as a computer system, able to connect to other interfaces around it via globs of physical “wetware,” putting the internet – known here as Trance – is in your mind itself. Here, the entire city, from the police force to the self-driving cars, is kept running by the governance of an enormous, super-powered AI known as Central. The vibe is very Blade Runner, but also all its own. Despite all the docile Trance addicts and AI-controlled civil services, things in Newton are less than stable.
Technobabylon rotates between three distinct characters, starting with nigh-religious net addict Latha Sesame. Latha, or “Mandala” as she goes by in the Trance, feels far more at home in the virtual world than the real one. Living her adult life in a government-paid housing complex for the unemployed, Latha has no patience for even the thought of getting a job in “meatspace.” However, when a sudden security lockdown in her apartment cuts off her connection from the Trance, Latha is set on a journey of conspiracy and discovery, finding out that she has more enemies in the real world than the virtual one could have ever prepared her for.
Playing as Latha is a lot of fun, mostly due to her savant-esque proficiency with the Trance. Players will be able to interface with various AIs around her, such as a door security system or a food-vending system. From there, Latha will hop into the Trance, coming out on the other side as Mandala in her own little cerebral hub. Manipulating AI in the virtual space can affect Latha’s meatspace circumstances, and vice versa. The dynamic between Latha’s access to both worlds is used as the building grounds for puzzles that are consistently innovative and clever. Latha can even use her wetware to access other peoples’ minds, which can (and will) be used for communication and sabotage alike. Goals in one world can only be met by changing things in the other, showing just how closely connected the two have become.
Where Latha is something of a one-woman duo between herself and her online Mandala persona, the other two starring members of Technobabylon‘s cast are actually something of a team of their own. Charlie Regis and Max Lao are CEL agents, a sort of future-police force issued orders by Central itself. Max, like most other operatives, has a direct feed to Central hooked up in her brain, but her senior officer and partner does not see the governing intelligence in quite so keen a light. Charlie has a clear and deep-rooted dislike of Central, of which Max only knows bits and pieces when the game starts out. The pair is on a tough case, tracking down a serial killer commonly known as the Mindjacker. After a near-miss encounter with the murderer himself, Charlie finds himself manipulated, threatened, and eventually pushed as far as he can go. Max wants to help her partner and friend, but discovers that she may not know him nearly as well as she thought.
Charlie and Max are both subject to multiple chapters of playtime, but Charlie gets a little more of the bulk. That said, he and Max aren’t that different; neither can connect to the Trance like Latha, but both have more tools in the physical realm at their disposal. Max has her own wetware like Latha, which can be used for various hacking purposes. Charlie, meanwhile, is best suited for handing potential combat situations. Some chapters put the player in control of one, with the other around for help and banter. Max and Charlie have a really entertaining and well-written dynamic, showing the comfortability of a pair of partners who have worked together for a while, but also the curiosity and ignorance of people who still have some things to learn about each other. Making the pair converse while together will frequently give clues on how to move forward, as well as providing new information about the world around them, and what their lives have been like within it.
Their gameplay while together is more traditional than Latha’s, requiring a lot of use of items and environments in the physical space. However, the tasks they face and feats they overcome are designed very well, and never feel like derivative “use X on Y” schemes. Sure, some use of the metaphorical X on Y is inevitable, but not in such a way that players really think about it. It’s like X and Y were born for each other. Other points in the game split the pair up and focus more around investigation, and require exploration and conversation in order to pave the way forward. A couple points even bring some elements of pseudo-combat into the mix, with (mostly) pacifistic solutions that don’t require the need for combat mechanics. Interaction with Newton’s futuristic tech shows up aplenty too, through dealings with synthetic AI-people whose brains can be easily rewired, along with other secrets of the new technological age.
When one has played a fair amount of point-and-click adventure games such as Technobabylon, one begins to notice some patterns. Some kinds of puzzles become very familiar, and easier and easier to solve as more and more examples of them come along. Some design choices are, dare we say the forbidden word, predictable. Technobabylon is not only unpredictable in terms of design, but is actually quite surprising. Just about every puzzle has something new to throw out there, several times even going so far as to include elements of misdirection, clever traps for the clumsy. Unfortunately, this sort of illusionism crops up at a couple particular points in the game that may go a bit too far in obscuring the direction of what the player is meant to do next. Other than those couple instances in Technobabylon‘s impressive 10-hour playtime, the game was consistently clever and challenging in its design, so much so as to make me physically cheer for it in a couple of its best moments.
Technobabylon’s three pivotal characters, and the unique cybercrime in which they are intertwined, are part of a fictional world more well-built and fortified than the vast majority of those on this game’s scale. Every area visited offers new notes of insight inside the city of Newton, and the world around it. By the end of the game, those who have pursued all conversation trees and paid close attention to the space around them will have gotten a remarkably thorough picture of what the state of Technobabylon‘s world is. This fact involves issues of human rights and ethics that are brought to the forefront of the story, but also in other issues that are hinted at subtlety. Even the simple use of context can speak volumes. You will learn about what’s going on in other countries, about who has the most power within Newton and outside its borders, and an impressive amount about the cities culture. Information casually dropped in conversations and background comes along in a steady flow of information, but always naturally adds to the digitally-rendered landscape the game creates of its own world.
Balancing three main characters is no easy feat, but connecting the trio into the larger story, which in fact becomes as wide in scale as Newton itself, is done with ease here. The story told is given to players in even-paced chapters, with new treats at their ends to pull us deeper into the mystery. The earlier-mentioned attribute of misdirection is actually present in the storytelling as well, subverting player expectations and flipping them over. The three intertwined storylines of the main characters are engaging from the word go, and never slow down without brake pads. When things do hit a lull in terms of momentum, such a lull always comes right at a point where the game is ready to show us some more of what’s going on around Latha, Max, and Charlie while they’ve been busy.
Something else Technobabylon does very well, hand in hand with story presentation, is visual design. Wadjet Eye’s art design and direction has historically been great, and this might be some of their most interesting work to date from a visual and artistic perspective. Striking use of color is on frequent display here, from the distinctive glow of the Trance to the cold lighting of CEL headquarters, and beyond. This same visual design also does things for narrative and world design, using the old writing rule of “show, don’t tell” to hint at even more about what lies within characters’ pasts, and Newton’s future.
Cybernetic augments and all, Technobabylon may just be the best game Wadjet Eye has produced yet. It’s one thing to create a cyberpunk future, but quite enough to really and honestly sell it; and selling is exactly what Technobabylon does. The game’s story is gripping and shrouded in mystery much like the city that serves as its stage. Three characters with different skills, spread across a variety of different situations, leads to a game that pushes forward a consistently evolving set of challenges and ideas that do more than most other modern games of its kind. Acts of deception on the part of the game can be occasionally infuriating, but actually add to the sense of reward when the real solutions are finally deduced. If the future is to be built by programmers, let it be by ones who think like the architects of Technobabylon.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Wadjet Eye Games; Developer: Technocrat, Wadjet Eye Games; Players: 1; Released: May 21st, 2015