When I first heard that a game inspired by the life and works of the prolific science-fiction author Philip K. Dick was being released this year, I was as pumped about the prospect of stepping into the warped realities of one of my favorite authors as any other Dickhead. With the exception of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke, few other writers have so singlehandedly fashioned our vision of the future as Dick, and the possibilities for trippy, otherworldly gameplay based on these visions was tantalizing.
In the lead up to Californium’s release on February 17, only a few screenshots and short walkthroughs offered clues as to what to expect: a groovy '60s color palette; interdimensional travel; some drug called Crystal8. The mind ran wild at what it could all mean.
Yet for all the potential latent in a game based on the life and times of PKD, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed when I booted up Californium for the first time.
Released on Steam by the French companies Darjeeling and Nova Productions, the premise of Californium is pretty straightforward. You play as down and out sci-fi author Elvin Green. At the game’s opening your wife has just left you, your daughter is gone, and your literary agent has given you the boot. Everyone you encounter reminds you of how strung out you look, and to make matters worse, the televisions start talking to you.
Everywhere you go, televisions are broadcasting a signal that looks like the Greek letter Theta. You’re not sure what it means, but a disembodied voice convinces you that this mysterious signal offers a way out of your increasingly shitty life by providing you a portal to alternate realities.
If that’s not a solid hook for a storyline, I don’t know what is.
The only problem is that what follows is unable to maintain the sense of urgency and adventure that colors the first episode of the game. As you navigate alternate realities and different planets, the game can start to feel repetitive and at certain points just downright tedious—pretty much the exact opposite reaction that reality hopping should evoke. This seems to be a side effect of the puzzles all being simple rehashings of previous puzzles, which basically boil down to finding the Theta sign hidden in the environment.
As far as the actual gameplay goes, there’s little room for complaint. The controls are simple and intuitive, and although the game was heavily bug-ridden when it was first released, the Nova and Darjeeling crew has done a standup job of fixing most of the bugs in the week since its release. The only truly irritating part of playing Californium was the inability to save your progress within a level—you either finish the world in one go, or have to start all over.
That said, there are a number of redeeming qualities to Californium. For starters, I was super impressed with the design of the thing. The '60s retrofuture aesthetic is beautiful to play through and the attention to era-specific detail was obvious and appreciated. Moreover, it’s hard to argue with a $10 price tag—I’ve definitely paid more money for worse games on Steam.
I think my biggest point of contention with the game is that there is simply not enough Dick in it. Sure, the parallels are there: you’re a drug addled, paranoid science fiction writer in Berkeley; your wife has left you (Dick himself was divorced five times); the game is laden with motifs of uncertain realities and simulacra. The problem is these epithets could be applied to any number of Hugo winners.
Yet in the lead up to the release, the game was riding on its association with infamous science fiction author PKD for cred, but there were barely enough parallels in the actual game to warrant this connection (unless of course you are familiar with obscure biographical facts from Dick’s life). The reason for this is obvious: the creators of Californium were not actually affiliated with the Dick estate and so could not legally use his name or works for promotion.
In the end, it seems that the link between Californium and PKD is tenuous, although I’m sure it did wonders for marketing purposes. Yet that in itself is not reason enough to avoid the game. If you come to Californium looking for Dick, you’ll be disappointed. Rather, Californium seems more about reveling in the aesthetic and mood of the thing, which has enough presence to nearly offset the lackluster puzzles and conspicuous absence of anything explicitly Dickian.
If the appropriate response to reality is to sometimes go insane, then perhaps the appropriate response to Californium is to enjoy it for what it is without needing to play up its connection to a science fiction genius.