I thought it would never end, that I might leave grumpy old Regis stuck for eternity on the second floor of a pixellated building somewhere in downtown Newton. Not that he would mind, I’m sure, as Regis’ whole life seems spent outside of time itself, the world conveniently paused, awaiting his next decision.
The last few weeks had been spent making peace with the fact that I might not finish the game, my guilt slowly dissolving with each passing day. Things had been shifting quickly in my life, and it felt wrong to put time aside to play a video game when I had so many important tasks on my to-do list. “Lame excuse,” said the little voice in the back of my cortex. “You’ve taken the time to read and watch movies, not to mention the hours spent procrastinating in dark corners of the internet, so why would gaming offend your sense of virtue?” The truth is, I just wasn’t addicted. Not anymore.
Tonight, as I lie 9085 kilometers away from home, in my underwear, on a giant bed in my still-empty new apartment in downtown LA, eating chips and salsa off my belly, I’d like to tell you about my love-hate relationship with Technobabylon.
The first time I launched the game was on a sweaty July day in the South of France, and I was hunched over my laptop in my underwear (again). Something immediately lit up in my brain. The bewitching soundtrack. The pixellated view of the blue cityscape. The mysterious blonde-haired guy with a bazooka (editor’s note: she’s referring to the Technocrat Games logo, which features a woman. Holding a wrench.) I felt like a mesmerized child entering a new world. Wide-eyed and fearless. And I hadn’t even played yet. It was just love at first sight.
Now you may think I’m being cheesy and overly dramatic, but please keep in mind that I rarely (if ever) play video games. The only game I’ve played recently is Civilization: Beyond Earth, which ended up being a disappointment (it refused to let me create an alien petting zoo). Anyways.
There are many things I love about Technobabylon. For one, it came at a time when I’d been fiending for decent science-fiction movies. Turns out a video game can be an excellent substitute. Secondly, it’s reminiscent of Blade Runner. That is a very, very good thing. Thirdly, the game’s nocturnal urban atmosphere came as welcome break from the strident chant of Cicadas and the mid-summer, sun-drenched swimming pool. I’m a creature of shadows. Pale. Sweaty. Very sweaty.
So I started playing. And the game really hit me in the nostalgia bone, reminding me of hours spent during a bygone summer holiday playing “Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror” (the French title was way more badass, something along the lines of “The Shield of Quetzalcoatl”). It was also a point-and-click adventure, but with an archeological theme that spoke directly to my 10-year-old heart. Same as then, I spent hours with my character stuck in a room, wondering how the combination of a towel, a fork, and a coin was going to get me out of what seemed like an inextricable situation.
The truth is, point-and-click games aren’t really about coming up with creative solutions. The best approach is to project oneself into the mind of the game’s creator and attempt to figure out what they’re thinking. I find this dynamic alternately comforting and frustrating. On one hand, it relieves me of creative responsibility, but on the other it causes me to yell at my laptop. I resolved this by admitting my powerlessness and considering the game as an interactive movie within which I was allowed to entertain the illusion of free will. (Wait… am I just now realizing the nature of video games? Don’t judge me.)
Technobabylon is a movie I’d very much like to watch. The story-line and dialogues are beautifully written, especially if, like me, you get wet when you hear things like “interface system connected to an organic circuitry”, “synthetic cognitive development”, and “angiosperms”.
One of the things I liked, in sharp contrast with the white-macho-male-supremacist video game mainstream, is that most of the key characters in the game were women of color, some of which were non-cisgender and/or gay (one of the three characters you embody in the game — Max Lao — is an Asian post-op trans female). Whether representing “nice guys” or “villains”, the game is all about female power. The only traditional “white hetero male hero” is Charlie Regis, the grumpy cop you come to love because he’s sad, lonely, and out of sync with his time-period — caught in a state of constant rebellion against the omnipresent technology. Turns out in 2087 not being “wired” is a minority status, and Regis constantly experiences discrimination and marginalization.
So after a few days of playing I started to dream about the game, reliving the moral dilemmas and attempting to modify their outcomes based on feelings of guilt that had arisen in the meantime, experiencing IRL game-inherited reflexes, staring at the objects on my desk and imagining how they could be combined to solve a problem… sleep-talking to my boyfriend, half-awake in front of an episode of X-files… “agent Mulder takes Tabasco from the waitress so he can use it later against the bad guy”…
Much like the villain I was investigating in the game, Technobabylon ended up mindjacking me, and I quickly found myself bewildered, lost in its infinite but separate space-time continuums. It’s an ideal game-movie that addresses fascinating present and future issues surrounding technology and the human condition, all without sacrificing action and thrills. Plus it has no bullshit sentimental romance. All of this to say that I was hooked.
Really I could go on and on about how beautifully designed the game is, how engaging the characters and dialogue are, how it manages to elevate science fiction tropes (predetermination, weaponized bodies, youths addicted to virtual worlds, genetic engineering, the city as artificial intelligence, neural data theft, global surveillance, disgusting processed food…) but then I wouldn’t have enough words left to tell you about how I drifted away from Technobabylon for the sake of my own mental health.
I blame this on my discovery of “walkthroughs”. See I had it all figured out. The deal was that I would only use them when I was exceptionally blocked, desperately stuck, back-against-the-wall and ready to abandon the game altogether. The first time I looked up one of these guides, I felt immediately relieved. I was able to continue with the story-line! Then I immediately felt like shit. “If I need to cheat, does it mean I’m too stupid to solve this puzzle, and ultimately play this game, which according to people on the internet isn’t even supposed to be difficult? What does this say about my patience and resolve?” I had opened the door to all kinds of negative voices. As a “fuck you” to these voices, I began using walkthroughs constantly. “You know what? I don’t care anymore! I just want to be a spectator! I’m gonna use every fucking guide I can find! So there!”
But something had changed. I began losing track of my saved games (I was playing on different machines) and forgetting where I was in the plot. What the hell was I supposed to do with a piece of meat and a bottle of toilet-cleaning product? The puzzle-solving had become repetitive and, while I continued to appreciate the story-line and characters, I stopped caring about my role in their destinies.
The game had triggered my ego issues, and I hated to feel intellectually diminished. The teenage-rebel part of my brain grew annoyed that I had even accepted to write an article about the game, because it turned the whole experience into some sort of mandatory assignment. The truth is, the obligation to “produce something” (aka the masterpiece you’re currently reading) had been gnawing at me throughout, keeping me from the simple pleasure of just playing the game.
After weeks with no contact, I opened the game and made a final effort to finish it. I found my character Latha tied to a table, surrounded by evil people doing their best “mad scientist” impressions, and I had no clue what was going on anymore. I did my best to figure it out and finished the game in what I would describe as an honorable way, all things considered. As is often the case with movies, the end felt a little phoned-in and rushed, including the melodramatic revelation of previously-unknown family bonds.
But hey, I didn’t use the walkthrough that much. And now that I’ve finally finished my homework, it’s time to get out of here. Do you know how uncomfortable it is to have chip crumbs stuck in your bellybutton?