The developers of Californium call their game a “love letter to Philip K. Dick.” The game, with its increasingly bizarre settings — from a sun-saturated 1960s California to a totalitarian world presided over by icons of Abraham Lincoln to a retrofuture life on Mars run by robots — is a tribute to the science fiction author’s interest in multiple realities. Your character is hack writer Elvin Green, who has a “brain corroded by mind-bending drugs and dime-store alcohol” and a typewriter that taunts him from a disheveled desk; he’s a stand-in for the late writer himself.
The game was released last month for Mac and PC on Steam, and for free download through the French-German television network Arte. While producers Darjeeling and Nova Production, with support from Arte, openly cite Dick as inspiration, you won’t find his name or actual characters anywhere in the game. Instead, the tone and loose narrative draw on the druggy paranoia of A Scanner Darkly, the fragility of what it means to be human in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later adapted as the film Blade Runner), and the fluid realities of alien multiworld fantasy VALIS.
Adaptations of Dick’s work abound in our current culture; see The Man in the High Castle on TV. Californium grasps some of the strange playfulness that’s often missing from these derivative works. Sure, some of it is bleak: your daughter is dead, your wife has left you, your writing career has collapsed into ad copy drudgery. But then the television starts talking to you, and suddenly it’s just a scratch on the surface of your cluttered apartment and a new reality appears beneath. There, instead of being a failure, you’re a famed robot builder on another planet. Too bad the robots are turning on you …
The gameplay of Californium unfortunately can’t match its absolutely gorgeous graphics, based on art by Olivier Bonhomme. Two-dimensional illustrated characters pop up like specters against the hyperreal settings, whether the murky streets of Berkeley, where palm trees loom over the Art Deco architecture, or a blue 1950s world in which patriotism is on high, with bunting and messages like “I work hard for my homeland” draped across the buildings. Yet all the game really asks of you is to point and click, searching for glitches in the landscape that cause the room to reveal another reality. It gets repetitive, and can be a little dizzying as you swirl around the rooms trying to get your perspective just right in order to open the portal. The intriguing narratives about your missing wife’s political subversion or the robot uprising also never play out in any meaningful way.
Nevertheless, as a tribute to Dick’s embrace of the looseness of reality, where our world is but tissue paper ready to be ripped away, it’s a worthwhile experience. And at just over two hours of gameplay, it will only take you briefly away from your own existence. The game reminds you on its front page that Dick once said, “If you find this world bad, you should see some of the others.” Californium asks you to keep pushing through its worlds, even though the one you were originally fleeing may be your imperfect home.