Right, let’s just get this out of the way: Philip K. Dick has ‘dick’ in his name. Yeah, like a penis and everything. That means I’m a fan of Dick, I love Dick, I got my hands on as much Dick as I could during university. Insert your own preferred dick joke here, and let’s just all get it out of our systems, OK?
Now maybe I can talk about Californium properly. The game, you see, is all about Philip K. Dick and his body of work, though it’s nothing so literal as an adaptation of one of his stories. Instead it’s an attempt to embody the themes and tropes that dominate his oeuvre, an attempt to capture the ineffable sense of Dick (quiet at the back) without drawing from him directly. That means soured marriages, human/android relations, pharmaceutical mood enhancers, and the odd total collapse of reality.
I’m Elwin Green, a struggling sci-fi writer in Berkeley, California, wracked with regrets and more than a couple psychotropics. Then again, perhaps I’m Patriot Writer Green, noble chronicler of the ever-so-slightly fascist Republic of California. Or maybe I’m Emperor Green, inventor of artificial intelligence, ruler of the first Martian colony. I’m all three, and none, and no doubt countless others besides. Dick would be proud.
As I navigate the faded world, peopled by cardboard cutouts, perhaps I can perceive the holes in the world, the cracks where the light gets in. Was that lamp really there a minute ago? Did the room always glow like that? Since when did everything flicker quite so much?
With each discovery, heralded by the static glow of a nearby TV set, I tear down reality’s paper-thin walls a little further. I see glimpses of worlds beyond, lives unlived, futures never meant to be. Find enough cracks and I cross over, enter a brave new world, only to immediately set about tearing it apart anew.
In terms of gameplay (as if you’re worried about something so prosaic in your first-person Philip K. Dick simulator) this essentially translates to a pixel hunt crossed with a puzzler, the challenge each time to discover just how to reveal the next gap in space-time. There’s a beautiful matching of mechanic and meaning here, the key to progression often involving the player’s discovery of the exact byzantine rule or point of view that corresponds to (and reveals) the gap in question – as always with Dick, it often really is just a matter of perspective. Of course, the synchronicity feels less insightful when that translates to spinning around wildly hoping to trigger that last little glowy light in this section, but I guess you can’t win ‘em all.
Dick’s particular brand of genius was sparked by a cocktail of a philosophy degree, a need to write, a few illicit substances, and a smattering of mental health issues. It’s a set of circumstances I share for the most part, though perhaps with not quite the same outcome. He was obsessed with the idea of a world beyond, a hidden reality beneath the surface. At times that world possessed a deeper truth than our own, at others it was just as flimsy. Either way, this world was never enough, could never be all that there was.
To that point I agree, but it’s here that he and I tend to diverge. Laboring under the requirements of narrative fiction, Dick’s worlds are fantastical and science fictional, transformations that shake the world to its core. I suspect the truth is more mundane. I see more of the same. More insurance premiums, tax statements, and weekly shops. There are other worlds, but they’re no more privileged than our own, no more fanciful or exciting. This dreary lot is about what we get across the multiverse, I fear.
Californium’s worlds begin to ring shallow then. I understand the problems of Elwin Green: overdue deadlines, mounting bills, crippling grief. These are my experiences, and they grip me. But I’m cold to the Patriot Writer’s battle with Californian McCarthyism, or the Emperor’s efforts to keep his A.I. population in check. The best of Dick grounded his fantasticism in the mundane, as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? grapples with keeping up with the Joneses, or Ubik the ubiquity of the infomercial.
By contrast, Californium floats free, untethered from reality, paying lip service only to its most human problems in the rush to ask hollow questions about existence itself. It’s a frustrating experience, the hallucinogenic highs of the world’s crumbling edifices let down by the rote sci-fi tropes the world beyond contains. Like Dick at its worst, it floods its story with more outlandish concepts than it can possibly support, scarcely giving each a moment’s thought. They’re there simply for us to nod at sagely, to recognize, as if recognition itself has value.
The first woozy hour of the game feels like a stumble through Dick’s own life – or at least the imagined version of it conjured up by his fans, myself included. But as Californium strays from studying the man to mimicry of its work, it loses its way, the game’s impact crumbling just as its own world does. While the illusion lasts, Californium is a joy. And if it breaks, so what? It just has all the more in common with the worlds Dick made.