Technobabylon is a cyberpunk point-and-click adventure. Unfortunately, as cyberpunk is as nebulous a concept as “roguelike” in certain circles, that’s probably not as simple a description as I’d hoped.
To me, cyberpunk as a concept relies on a few specific things. It needs to be a vaguely dystopian near-future Earth. It needs to have a serious social divide, with a mix of the mega-wealthy and the ultra-poor, as well as some sort of look at social change. It needs a focus on computers and AI influencing everything, usually underscored by some sort of virtual reality version of the internet, and – inevitably – hacking… which often falls into that social change area of things. Ideally, it’ll have a degree of hard sci-fi to make the world believable.
Megacorporations, massively powerful AIs, and a focus on capitalism gone wrong are also nice, but not something I’d necessarily consider essential.
Technobabylon has pretty much all of these things in some way, shape, or form, and it beautifully paints a picture of a very believable futuristic world and the sort of issues that might arise from the advancement of technology.
It starts off as a murder mystery. An unknown culprit is “mindjacking” people: invading their minds, pulling out their knowledge, and leaving them dead. As technophobic CEL agent Dr. Charlie Regis, you’re dispatched by Central – the omniscient computer that runs the city of Newport – to investigate this crime, and bring the mysterious Mindjacker to justice. This simple premise quickly evolves into something much more complex, comprising conspiracies, revenge, blackmail, mistakes of the past, genetic engineering, the ethics of science, and the future of the city itself.
You don’t just play as Regis, either. His tech-savvy partner, Dr. Max Lao, takes centre stage for various parts of the game, and a third character – an agoraphobic net addict called Latha Sesame – offers up another perspective on the events as they unfold, giving a broad and complete look at multiple sides of the unfolding plot.
All of this is great, but my absolute favourite thing about Technobabylon is… actually, it’s probably the name. I mean, it’s a portmanteau of “technobabble” and “babylon”, and the more I look at it the more I like it.
That aside, my absolute favourite thing about Technobabylon is the writing, which is beautiful and subtle. It conveys characters and motivations superbly without venturing into stereotypes, and everyone has a unique voice. Everything is painted in shades of grey, too. Most of the “villains” – and that’s a word that doesn’t quite sum up most of the antagonistic characters – have good reasons behind what they’re doing, and it’s possible that you’ll sympathise with some of their aims. The future is a place where technology means that morality is rather adaptable, and I don’t really want to spoil most of the specific examples of this.
It’s the subtlety that really gets me, though, and it’s something that’s been sorely missing from games writing for quite some time. This time, I do want to look at an example.
One of the characters in the game has undergone a gender change. This is not a major point, or even a major defining characteristic of that character; I don’t recall, but it might even have been revealed in a purely optional conversation. It’s not treated with much in the way of shock, or more questions, or anything else; it’s basically three lines of dialogue as a conversational aside.
These three lines (or however many it is) show not only a degree of maturity and subtlety sorely lacking from, say, BioWare, but it also says an awful lot about the characters and the world. It indicates that, with the advent of genetic engineering and the like, this isn’t really anything major or surprising; the world has better things to worry about. Mentally, it opens up a lot of possibilities: perhaps this is common. Perhaps gender is considered differently in this technologically advanced future. Perhaps lots of things. Like I said: a very subtle way of building up a sense of the world. It’s hardly the only example, but it’s the one that sticks in my mind.
Most everything else about Technobabylon is also pretty praiseworthy. The puzzles tend to be smart and logical, although there’s enough silliness that it’s never dry; an early crime scene has you using a fishing rod to mess around in a gore-filled jacuzzi because your characters (understandably) don’t want to shove their hands in there.
Again, though, there’s enough cleverness with the puzzle design that I was regularly impressed. The puzzles often use techniques and objects that have no easy analogue for us because they’re from the future, but there’s never a sense of “what the hell does this do”; the game does an excellent job of explaining everything as much as is needed. One puzzle revolves around information hidden in the genetic code of plants and it makes perfect sense, while others require you to delve around in the game’s equivalent of the internet, and there’s rarely any confusion about what items do or how things work. It’s all nicely balanced in that puzzles are still regularly difficult, but for logical reasons rather than because of a lack of understanding.
Good writing: check. Good puzzles: check. The audio and voice acting are the standard for Wadjet Eye, in that they’re decent and never out of place, although rarely mind-blowingly impressive. The backgrounds are sumptuous and beautiful, which remains quite a feat in the creaking and low-res AGS engine.
Not everything is perfect, though, and there are a couple of large-ish problems. The pacing is occasionally a little iffy, particularly around the mid-game; one section offers very little guidance on what you’re meant to be doing and requires a bit of stumbling around investigating everything before you finally find your way to the next slice of game. Another section actually offers the exact opposite problem, with the game unexpectedly moving on when you click on one thing, and as it’s an occasion when you’re poking around for information on the story, that can come as a bit of an unpleasant surprise.
The plot suffers a little bit from this, too. It’s a very in-depth story with a lot of different characters and factions, and understanding everyone’s motivations and the ramifications of their actions requires you to pay quite a lot of attention. A few fairly major players only pop up once or twice, and in an ideal world the game would be a touch longer and would introduce a few characters and a few ideas a little bit more slowly.
The biggest issue is one that will hopefully be fixed very, very soon, though, and that’s the end of the game. The very final section is, quite honestly, a bit of a mess. Without spoiling anything, Technobabylon expects you to do things in a certain order, and doing them in any other order leads you to… well, to getting very confused. Characters will chime in and talk about things you haven’t even done yet, as though you’d already completed several other puzzles or conversed about other topics. The very first thing I did was click on one puzzle-related object, and this put me into a conversation with someone I wasn’t aware was even involved as though I’d clicked it on their behalf, because of a conversation we hadn’t had yet. Hopefully this’ll be smoothed out quickly; a couple of issues I spotted while reviewing it were patched up within a day or so of playing, and I imagine this will follow suit.
None of this is problematic enough for me to caution avoiding Technobabylon, though, because it’s a triumph in pretty much every way even with these few issues. It’s got a complex and clever story, a realistic and believable world, and a set of sympathetic characters with understandable motivations. It’s an interesting take on the cyberpunk theme and is one of the better and more serious adventures I’ve played in quite a long time, and those with an interest in either quality point-and-clicking or a very well assembled cyberpunk experience should give it a look sooner rather than later.