Dopefish Reviews Technobabylon

It’s time to talk about the hottest cyberpunk game of 2020; Technobabylon, which came out in 2015.

Since it’s too big for the home computer I mainly use to play late-90s Sierra city-building games, and it’s not coming to the GameCube any time soon, I haven’t been paying attention at all to Cyberpunk 2077 other than occasionally seeing people make fun of their repeated PR blunders on Twitter. It might be fantastic and silence everyone who ever criticized it, it might be a critical and commercial failure that tanks the company, or it might never be released at all, and it would have no effect on me.

But that’s a bit of a selfish attitude; just because I don’t have a horse in the race doesn’t mean that there aren’t hundreds of thousands of fans desperate to play an engaging cyberpunk thriller that blends realistic and well-developed characters with human conflicts, based in an exciting futuristic setting where technology has advanced but attitudes have largely remained the same, leading to a world where qualities like compassion and empathy feel ideologically opposed to cold, logical, machine-like efficiency.

But then, maybe I can still afford to be blasé about Cyberpunk 2077, because if that sounds like your kind of thing, you could just play Technobabylon instead.

Technobabylon was my introduction to the works of Wadjet Eye Games, and since then, I’ve played the entire Blackwell series – five traditional but very well-made games starring Rosangela Blackwell, a spirit medium and her guide, Joey Malone, the wisecracking ghost of a 1930s New Yorker – A Golden Wake – which is to estate agents what Phoenix Wright is to defence attorneys – The Shivah – in which you are a rabbi investigating the recent death of a former member of your congregation who left you a substantial amount of money – and Gemini Rue – a game so Blade Runner-y that I knew it was Blade Runner-y despite having never seen Blade Runner. I also played Kathy Rain, which is actually by the completely different company Clifftop Games, but is very much in the same vein and is likewise a really excellent point and click adventure.

I should point out, because I frequently lump them all together in my head, that Wadjet Eye Games were the developers of the Blackwell series and The Shivah, and the publishers of Gemini Rue (developed by Joshua Nuernberger,) A Golden Wake (developed by Francisco González,) and Technobabylon (developed by Technocrat Games). But whether they’re developing or publishing, the Wadjet Eye Games library is one of the most impressive collections of point and click games you could find in the industry, and I haven’t even played their latest entry Unavowed yet. But from what I have played, which, again, are all excellent games that come highly recommended, Technobabylon is definitely the greatest that I’ve played so far.

You might expect from the gushing about Technobabylon that I’m a big fan of the cyberpunk genre, and weirdly enough, the reason I’m so eager to recommend the game is that I’m not. I don’t know why, because I’ve never had a particularly bad experience with any cyberpunk games. I’ve never had a particularly bad experience with a cyberpunk anything, other than not really enjoying The Fifth Element very much, so I can’t really explain why I’m so apprehensive of the genre, but for whatever reason, I am.

It might be because I’ve just generally never been into sci-fi stories or futuristic settings, and I think it would be extremely easy to write a cyberpunk story badly. The protagonist would have the kind of name that even Elon Musk would think was stupid, and their job would be the general overseer of the RAM transmogrification field in Sector XVIII of the Quadrangle Universe, and their world would be turned upside down when they discover a plot by the… Gnosticene Ancients to infiltrate the… mainframe initiative and… bypass the firewall of… I’m already too bored to finish this hypothetical scenario.

And while I wholeheartedly acknowledge that it’s completely unreasonable for me to be wary of a genre because I pre-emptively think that it has the potential to suck, it is true that most cyberpunk stories deal with futuristic societies and technology so advanced that it’s basically indistinguishable from magic. And both of those things can make me have trouble getting invested in a story and relating to a character, when their goals and the world that they live in are so far removed from my own that we basically have no common ground.

And the reason – well, one of the reasons – why I was so impressed with Technobabylon is because it took all of those worries, wrapped them up into a neat little ball, doused the ball in gasoline, set it on fire, nailed the ashes to a frisbee, and flung that frisbee over a rainbow. In other words, it immediately acknowledged and alleviated them via good writing and strong characterization.

Let’s talk about the first character we meet – not counting the sinister blonde man in the opening cutscene who seems to suffer from frequent headaches and is watching a seemingly ordinary apartment building with vested interest – Latha Sesame, who we meet via her online persona, Mandala. Mandala is in ‘Trance’ when we first meet her, and rather than trying to explain this concept myself, I’ll just steal her introductory dialogue directly.

“There’s nothing like being in Trance. A world built of abstracts and intellect. Of tangible thought, where every part has been crafted by an individual soul. It’s the purest form of contact a person can have, mind to mind. It’s the pinnacle of human achievement. Some might say that achievement in the physical world is somehow more meaningful. To them I say – ‘join the future, or be surpassed by it’. Within the Trance, we are millions of minds, as one.”

So, it’s basically The Matrix. And that’s not me making a funny joke downplaying the concept, because if you play the game in commentary mode, the artist directly confirms that they took inspiration for the visual design of the Trance from The Matrix. But it’s a lot more than a shallow reference; being in the Trance is essentially a pure, undistilled form of being online. It can clearly feel amazing and there’s an eternity of possibilities of exciting new methods of communication and entertainment, but also downsides, like a man you encounter in the Trance who has unfortunately met with some Trojan malware which is ineffectively attempting to hijack his brain by repeating propagandist slogans persuading him to fly to Greater Han and work in a sweatshop. This manages to be both unnerving, hilarious, and it’s one of the many great little touches of worldbuilding that Technobabylon sneaks into the plot.

There are also several analogies between the Trance and drug use; Latha clearly puts more effort into staying in the Trance than she does into many other aspects of her life, and when she needs to connect later in the game, without access to her apartment, she resorts to using a shady-looking Trance den, a smelly leaking basement where a bunch of unconscious-looking bodies are slumped around, in contrast to the colourful and exciting online world they’re participating in.

This is some great – and extremely quick – characterization that immediately encourages you to put yourself in Latha’s shoes. While the Trance is flashy and exciting, her actual apartment is cramped, messy, and she turned her bathroom cubicle into a still for developing ‘wetware’, which is blue-grey gloop (professional term) that you can attach to electronics in order to manipulate or interface with them. Latha has also racked up more than 65,700 hours in the Trance, more than seven and a half years (suddenly I don’t feel so bad about spending 200 hours on Fall Guys) and doesn’t seem to have any steady employment, judging by the message she has received near the beginning of the game warning her not to miss her next appointment for claiming benefits.

So, Latha is smart, but something of an underachiever, and she is completely addicted to the internet. In other words, she’s you, and me, and pretty much everyone else. And if you would dispute the ‘addicted to the internet’ thing, then I would just like to point out that you are currently on a website named dopefishblog dot com reading a stranger’s opinion about a video game. (That said, please do keep reading. And check out my other articles. And my Patreon.)

The first gameplay experience is also a pretty fun contrast between the shiny new futuristic setting and the mundane realities of point-and-click games; the power has gone out, and since pretty much everything in the future is tied to electricity somehow, Latha is no longer able to even open her door or contact the building manager to complain. So, with nothing but some ingenuity, a few of the items scattered around her apartment, and some imaginative cyberpunk twists… it’s basically an escape the room puzzle; a classic, traditional tutorial to give you a chance to get used to the controls and the kinds of puzzles you’ll be solving. And once you have successfully escaped the room, there is an explosion nearby and we return to the sinister blonde man from earlier, who silently walks away. Boom (quite literally,) I want to know what happens next.

Then we meet the second and third main characters, Charlie Regis and Max Lao. They are both case specialists at CEL (Centralized Emergency Logistics) which is basically the future-police, run under the watchful highly-advanced AI ‘Central’. I would be in remiss not to mention that, yeah, Charlie and Max are both cops, which in the year of 2020 may be uncomfortable for some, but rest assured that like most fictional cops, they are thoroughly decent. Hang on, I wrote that down wrong; like most thoroughly decent cops, they are fictional.

Charlie is instantly relatable because despite not being particularly old (49) or grumpy, he fits right in to the ‘grumpy old man’ persona, especially compared to his younger, more laid-back partner, Max. What makes Charlie relatable is that he doesn’t really care for these new-fangled technological advances and prefers doing his job the old-fashioned way, which… doesn’t entirely make sense when you consider that he would’ve been a teenager in the 2050s, but it does have the helpful benefit of partnering the player in a mysterious futuristic world with a character for whom a lot of these elements are just as unknown. When you’re a stranger in a strange land, it’s nice to be paired up with someone who is also new to a lot of what you’re discovering, rather than them having access to all of the background of the story that you haven’t been told yet.

And then there’s Max Lao, who is also instantly relatable, because she is totally awesome, and if you own Technobabylon, then you are also probably totally awesome, so good for you! Max is great because unlike Latha, who has an attempt made on her life, and unlike Charlie, a by-the-books cop who finds himself personally compromised, Max doesn’t have any direct connection to the story other than sticking around to help Charlie. The store page plays up the whole ‘torn loyalties’ element – “When she’s asked to apprehend her best friend and partner, she must choose to follow her friend or follow the law.” – but this never really happens; she’s a loyal friend and a thoroughly well-meaning and upbeat person. She’s also trans, for added awesomeness.

Charlie and Max are on the trail of a criminal known as the Mindjacker, named so because he doesn’t just kill people, but also uses specialized neural implants to steal information directly from their brains, but following another close encounter in which the Mindjacker escapes, Charlie receives a suspicious anonymous message asking him to get in touch. When he does, he discovers that someone has stolen something very private, precious and personal to him, and is soon blackmailed into compromising his ethics; first by stealing a piece of evidence from a crime scene, and then by planting a bomb in an empty apartment while its owner is out of town. Pretty shady, but at least it’s an empty apartment, so Charlie reluctantly complies.

And then, after he places the bomb and leaves, the camera pans down to reveal that it was the apartment directly above Latha’s. And that covers the first three of the ten chapters in Technobabylon, so if you want to find out what happens next, you’re just going to have to play it.

The overarching storyline is great, but the game also puts a lot of effort into making every chapter feel like a complete miniature story as well, told from the point of view of whichever character you are controlling at the time; presumably because Technobabylon was initially intended to be a series of ten short episodic games rather than one complete experience. There are a few key moments in the story where your actions will directly impact the way the plot develops – and in real, genuine ways, not that wishy-washy Telltale GamesCharacter will remember that’ crap that always circles back to the same conclusion. The broad strokes of Technobabylon will always remain the same but there are multiple endings, and you can have a pretty radical effect on the future of the protagonists, the city, the law, and the many characters you’ll meet, some of whom will live or die based on the choices you make.

Another cool thing about playing as three different characters is that you’re constantly learning more about them given the way they approach their tasks; remember that escape the room sequence in the beginning? One of Latha’s only belongings is a gaming trophy she won in 2084, and she scraps it without hesitation in order to gain a tool that might help her to escape. Clearly, she doesn’t care a great deal about her past accomplishments, or her past in general.

But the really phenomenal stuff comes from the worldbuilding; there is so much content effortlessly woven into the story that shows what this futuristic society has done with the technological advantages it has, and it’s funny, a little dark, and consistently interesting. There’s an online game in the Trance named ‘Nuke ‘Em’ in which players enter a virtual world (with God Mode on, obviously) in order to experience the variety of nuclear explosions throughout history, which is crazy, and stupid, and… totally seems like something that weird people would do in the future if they were capable of doing that.

My favourite detail is the intern working as a lab assistant in a pharmaceutical lab who speaks entirely in bizarre non-sequiturs – his opening line when you greet him is “I can’t not promise to avoid not doing that thing I don’t do,” and that’s somehow the least-confusing thing he says – and when you talk to the lab director, she casually confirms that he’s a member of a fresh new movement called ‘Maladism’ in which people intentionally give themselves symptoms of awful historical diseases for limited times in an act of… counter-culture rebellion, and so that they can brag to their friends about what they’ve been through. And the reason you can’t understand him is that he’s willingly given himself Aphasia, which is preventing him from speaking coherently. One of his lines (after you’ve jabbed him with the cure,) is “You know someone’s got real nodes on them if they can stand a month with HIV.” It’s ridiculous, and outrageous, and outlandish, and… still somehow less stupid than being an anti-vaxxer.

Speaking of stupid people, I can’t get through this review without highlighting this absolutely incredible post from the Steam forum that I had to screencap as soon as I saw it, because it’s just… wow.

On the one hand, I would like to think that as someone who is writing an article about how Technobabylon is good and you should definitely buy it and play it, hopefully I should be able to persuade you to do that on my own merits, simply by explaining that it is a very good game that is worth your time. On the other hand, if that doesn’t work, just bear in mind that if you buy the game, you’re making this guy *points upwards* very angry, and that’s just as valid a reason to do something as anything else.

It’s also worth noting that once the game is complete, it’s worth playing a second time in Commentary Mode; a staple of Wadjet Eye Games productions. James Dearden from Technocrat Games covers the design and the inspiration of the project, while Dave Gilbert from Wadjet Eye Games talks about the voice-acting and the few instances of executive meddling that took place; nothing serious or argument-inducing – I hope – just the reordering of a few chapters and some scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor. Nathan Allen Pinard discusses the amazing music that he composed for the game, and artist/animator Ben Chandler, who also worked on Shardlight and Blackwell Epiphany, talks about the visual influences on the game, such as The Matrix and Deus Ex.

I’ll be completely honest; the main reason I play through every Wadjet Eye Games production a second time with Commentary Mode on is because they tie an achievement to it – those crafty devils – but every single time I do, I always come away feeling as if I’ve learned some genuinely interesting tidbits about not just the game in question, but the creative process as a whole and how an interesting idea like Technobabylon becomes a finished product.

All in all, Technobabylon was my introduction to Wadjet Eye Games, and since then, I’ve played eight more of their games and would highly recommend all of them as well. In a weird way, I think I’m actually putting off starting Unavowed because it’s rare for me to have a game on my to-do list that I know in advance that I’m going to really enjoy, so I’m saving it in case I ever get hit by a bus or something and need some quick cheering up. I still have Resonance, Primordia and Shardlight to go, so I’m hardly lacking in point-and-click games to play. But no matter how good they all are, I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for Technobabylon; the first game to get me into Wadjet Eye Games‘ work and remind me that traditional point-and-click games with beautiful pixel art and creative stories are still being made and can still be equally successful and enjoyable.

I mentioned at the start of this review that the reason I’m reluctant to get into cyberpunk stories is that they bury you under a wave of meaningless futuristic sci-fi jargon that seems to take precedence over the human emotion that engages me with these kinds of stories, and although Technobabylon does incorporate a few of these elements, it’s done gradually and with enough care to ensure that you’re never left out of the loop and you will be invested by the time these plot points come to fruition.

In short, the game makes it more than worth your time to get your technobabble on. Thanks for reading!

-Dopefish

(You really want to end it with the ‘technobabble on’ pun? You know you’ve said that to like, five people before and none of them laughed, right?)

Hey, shut up.

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