Philip K. Dick's Life Is Turning Into a Video Game

Daniel Oberhaus

Daniel Oberhaus

The multiple realities of the 20th century's greatest techno-prophet—in a single video game.

Love him or hate him, it's undeniable that the prolific science fiction author Philip K. Dick has profoundly shaped our visions of the future. Minority Report, Blade Runner, and A Scanner Darkly are just a few of the cinematic products of Dick's literary imaginarium. Now, those, and dozens more of the bizarre alternate realities of the renowned SF author are getting rolled up into a game called Californium, which is sure to be the trippiest of 2016.

Developed by Darjeeling and Nova Productions, Californium is a first person exploration game for Steam where you play a down and out writer named Elvin Green. The game is set in Berkeley, CA in 1967, and right from the get-go, you find your world crumbling around you. Your wife leaves you, your editor abandons your work, and everything around you seems a bit…off. Was it the cheap booze? Too much acid? It's tough to say, but as your mental state continues to deteriorate, you become increasingly aware of a signal (called "the Theta") which offers a way out.

According to the Theta, the world is slightly off. It's unstable, and this feature will allow you to transport yourself to other realities. As you navigate a mid-century Berkeley that is tearing itself apart at the seams, you encounter a host of characters (a pissed off landlord, a youthful drug dealer, etc.) who engage you with a quintessentially Dickian irony. Objects reveal themselves to be portals to alternate realities without warning, continually exposing alternate storylines and an ever-deepening rabbit hole of possibilities. The only question that remains is: Will you find what's behind the simulacra?

"When you read Philip K. Dick, you realize the dystopia is not in the aesthetic, but its portrayal of human beings. His books were very fun and we wanted to keep this aesthetic," Darjeeling digital producer Noam Roubah told Ars Technica. "Initially, we thought about doing something on the web since Philip K. Dick talked a lot about virtual worlds and what it means to be human. The Internet seemed like the perfect place to explore that."

Instead, the team opted to create a video game which draws heavily from Dick's life and work, but is not an explicit adaptation of any particular work by the author (although it is highly reminiscent of the 1981 novel, Valis). Rather it is an amalgam of real elements from Dick's life (such as the recreational use of psychotropic substances and the mental/emotional trauma resulting from his five failed marriages) and allusions to numerous events and themes that run through his work (shifting realities, simulacra, and the breakdown of personal identity).

Although the game can't legally tie itself to Dick's name and legacy, Californium is nevertheless shaping up to be one of the most fitting tributes to the 20th century's infamous techno-prophet.