Before I even purchased Californium, I knew it would be a gaming experience that would leave a distinct impression on me. Inspired by the life and works of sci-fi author Philip K Dick, there was no way that I was going to come away from playing this title thinking “well that was a standard affair”; that’s just not how a Philip K Dick experience works.
Whether you know it or not, chances are you’ve had some kind of experience of the author’s work in your life, whether it’s through his books like VALIS or Ubik, his philosophical essays, or though on-screen adaptions of his works like Blade Runner or A Scanner Darkly. Your experience could have left you filled with love or loathing for the author, but it’s highly likely it left a memorable impression at the very least.
Developed by Darjeeling and Nova Productions, Californium is a first person exploration game that asks “will you find what’s behind the simulacra?”, taking the idea found in many of Dick’s works that reality is a fragile open to interpretation, interference, and existing in multiplicity and running with it.
The game is set in Berkeley, California in 1967 and puts you in the shoes of failing author Elvin Green, whose professional and personal lives aren’t in the best shape from the outset. Your wife leaves you, your daughter is gone, your editor dumps your work, and everything seems to be crumbling around you. With your mental state deteriorating you become increasingly aware of a signal called “the Theta”, which offers a way out through another reality.
The game is essentially a hidden object walking simulator with extremely simple mechanics where you have to find runic symbols that signify tears in the surface of reality until you find enough to enter a new version of your world. Finding the symbols, like firmly grasping a complex concept in one of Dick’s novels, is a frequently frustrating but still enjoyable experience. Many of the symbols require that you be standing in a certain position and viewing the room from a specific perspective before they’ll reveal themselves.
This has the capacity to be infuriating and it did initially annoy me but when you bear in mind Dick’s personal writings and the experiences of his characters it perfectly puts you in the shoes of someone who feels like they’re so close to uncovering a deeper truth that keeps sliding our of their grasp – that feeling that you’re going mad when you see something flicker out of the corner of your eye but when you turn around it’s gone. It’s chaotic, it’s frustrating and it’s kind of perfect.
Clicking on the symbols causes portals to other worlds to spill like ink across the game world until you uncover enough of them that reality is pulled away entirely to be replaced by another on the exact same street. Your location never changes, just the nature of reality of that location.
Each reality has its own distinct colour scheme and its own story to tell from the warm orange and green hues of 60s California, to the cold blues of a dystopia with a 50s aesthetic, to muted martian pinks of a future world. Each of the realities is a visual pleasure to explore which is pretty key since you spend the entirety of the game inspecting them and if you have a sharp eye you can frequently spot little references to Dick’s works.
Californium’s setting is heavy with atmosphere that’s achieved not just by the distinctive colour schemes, but also by the strange music which switches between bright and futuristic and dark and unsettling often without warning. There’s also always a technological crackling and an unsettling disembodied voice which speaks to you and you alone, attempting to analyse your state of mind, amplifying the sense that something’s not right.
It’s in its visuals and immediate creation of atmosphere that Californium most does credit to Dick’s work and way of looking at things; this is a game world that’s completely ambiguous, both mundane and magical, where there’s a sense of silliness tinged with foreboding.
Californium is also populated by other characters vaguely recognisable as being similar to the kinds of people that populate Dick’s novels, but they look like two dimensional cardboard cut-outs; they’re well drawn but flat with blank eyes and lips that don’t move when they speak. This can feel a little unsettling and really adds to the feeling that you’re completely alone and beyond help, but it’s also a great visual reference to Dick’s ideas of our involvement of others in the construction of our own identities and perceptions of what humanity is. The characters are mostly there to tell you a little more about yourself, and there’s no way to interact with them other than to stand and listen.
Where Californium falls down slightly is in its bugs; more than once I slid through a wall or got stuck in scenery and had to go back to the very start of a level. There are few things more frustrating than losing progress and it does considerably mar the experience of the game.
Californium is a game that’s confusing, frustrating, beautiful and enjoyable all at the same. The developers have in some way managed to capture the feeling of reading one of Dick’s novels in their game as well as celebrate his ideas and talent for world-creation. If you’re a fan of Philip K Dick, it’s a game that’s worth checking out.
Californium is available to purchase now on Steam. Right now a 10% discount means the game will cost you £6.29 but the usual price will be £6.99.