Technobabylon review: Do androids dream of point-and-click adventure games?
By Hayden Dingman
PCWorldJun 10, 2015 12:38 pm PDT
At a Glance
Takes on complicated issues, couched in science fiction
Excellent filler dialogue and multifaceted perspectives
Puzzle design is occasionally overwrought or hindered by art
Occasionally hammy voice acting
Technobabylon’s cyberpunk world isn’t groundbreaking, but there’s still plenty to love in this point-and-click adventure.
It’s 2087. You get off work—if you’re lucky enough to be employed—and melt back into the dark, dingy city you call home. If you’re younger, maybe you head to your one-room apartment and slip into Trance—a virtual reality world where anything is possible. If you’re older (and a Luddite), maybe you retreat to a rooftop garden—one miserable, genetically engineered speck of green amidst grey urban sprawl.
And if you’re rich, maybe you head to a restaurant that serves human meat. Cloned human meat, of course—to keep things legal.
This is the world of Technobabylon, a cyberpunk point-and-click adventure that’s about as well-written as it is retro—which is to say, very.
In many ways it’s your standard cyberpunk set-up. There’s a too-old-for-this cop pushed to his limits. There’s an addicted-to-the-Internet hacker type. There’s a global conspiracy. There’s neon and synthesizers and seedy city blocks. Stop me if you’ve seen this literally a billion times.
But where Technobabylon succeeds is in manipulating perspective—in framing the same ideas through different lenses.
There’s Regis. He’s the “too-old-for-this cop” I mentioned earlier, and boy is he too old for this. If Regis could wear a Rage Against the Machine shirt to work, he would. Assuming people remember Rage Against the Machine in post-nuclear 2087. Surveillance cameras, computers, phones, cyborg-style implants—Regis hates the whole lot, and most of all he hates the city’s overzealous artificial intelligence, Central.
Contrast that with the twenty-something Latha, an unemployed woman living in the city’s slums. She’s wired head-to-toe and spends more time in Trance—basically the Matrix—than the real world. Only her apartment’s exploding drives her into the distasteful realm she not-so-fondly calls “meatspace.”
Then there’s Lao, Regis’s partner. She’s in between the two, with some amount of reverence for real life tempered by extraordinary hacking skills, deference to Central, and her own set of cybernetic hardware.
My favorite aspect of Technobabylon is the way it shuttles you between these three viewpoints. The game’s not incredibly long—maybe six to ten hours, depending on how long you’re stuck on some of the more egregious puzzles. But it feels like we learn a lot about the world, thanks to our split perspective.
And what a world. Eating cloned human meat is just the most notable example, but Technobabylon touches on a number of challenging/taboo science fiction subjects—from mass surveillance to the ethics of teaching an artificial intelligence to scientific experimentation on humans to digital escapism.
On some of these subjects, Technobabylon takes a hard stance. For instance, cloned human meat—well, let’s just say Regis doesn’t have much good to say about the merits of eating John F. Kennedy’s leg, “legal” or not.
It’s in the grey areas though—the subjects where Technobabylon’s script debates itself—that the game’s at its best. Is the escapism provided by Trance a blessing in a world gone to hell, or is it merely enabling people to give up on the real world? Where do we draw the line on genetic engineering? How much control are we willing to cede to a centralized intelligence?
These are not new questions for cyberpunk, of course. Anyone who’s read Neuromancer or Snow Crash or seen Blade Runner will recognize quite a bit that’s familiar. But rarely do we get to see the same ideas through different perspectives within a single story, and that’s where I think Technobabylon has a lot to offer.
Latha’s attitude towards Trance, for instance, is one of optimism and embracing opportunities. In Trance she can be what she wants, she can do what she wants, she can build. Regis just considers her a junkie.
It translates to the puzzle side of things, too. Take an early puzzle involving a locked door. You’ve got a few options here. You could, of course, have Regis simply bust the lock with a stun gun. Or you could take a more subtle approach and have Lao hack the lock open. Or you could “play by the book” and have Central give you the apartment’s access code.
Not every puzzle has the same wealth of approaches, but in general things adhere to each character’s skills—low-fi investigation from Regis, high-tech hacking from Latha, and a bit of both from Lao. It’s a clever conceit that helps make each character feel functionally distinct even within the limited mechanics of a point-and-click adventure game.
That being said, this is definitely a point-and-click adventure game. What do I mean by that? Well, if you’ve read any of my other point-and-click reviews you’ve seen me harp on puzzle design before.
Technobabylon is exceedingly retro, and I don’t just mean in terms of its gorgeous pixel art. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself scratching your head at three in the morning, debating whether it’s time to consult a walkthrough. While most puzzles follow some sort of logic, there are a few interactions I think are poorly explained, and more than a few hotspots that could’ve been better highlighted in the artwork.
The final chapter is particularly overwrought in its design, but it’s only the most egregious example of a persistent issue. And don’t get me started on the game’s few “action sequences.” They weren’t good in Gemini Rue and they’re still not any good here.
One last complaint: Trance is underutilized. We get glimpses of Trance’s potential, especially in a chapter where Latha is constantly swapping between the virtual and physical worlds to solve puzzles. But in general the game doesn’t do enough with a world that has literally zero rules. This seems to be a recurring issue for cyberpunk games, considering Shadowrun Returns had the same issue.
Technobabylon’s no Blade Runner or Neuromancer, but at the very least it proves some of the most talented storytellers and world builders in the gaming sphere are still working in point-and-clicks. With enough skill, you can wring something decently fresh from both an overused setting (cyberpunk) and genre (point-and-click adventure).
It’s not easy, and even Technobabylon stumbles along the way, but there are interesting ideas at play here. I’ll take that over another beautiful-but-empty experience any day.