Philip K. Dick and dissolution in Californium

I have to get meta to account for the philosophy behind this one. I'm a writer in 2016. It's a tough job. Nobody ever believes me when I say this, because my work does not look like work. I use tools that are regarded exclusively as leisure instruments by most people, and at a glance I use them the exact same way. The difference is all internal.

Example: everybody taps on their cell phone at 2 a.m. once in awhile, to connect with a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a drug dealer. But when I do that, it's not fun. I'm not going to get any drugs, and I'm not going to commit any carnal acts of ambiguous legality. I'm usually fixing the structure of a sentence or unpacking a thought I can't articulate right. And when I'm on my laptop, that's not fun either. There are fun things on the laptop, but they're inches away from work.

Basically, there are no external signifiers that I'm working. I'm just lying in bed glassy-eyed like everybody else. Technology has done that. Technology took all the ornament off the job. It took the feeling away. I don't have to go to New York or Los Angeles for meetings. I don't have to call my bosses. I don't really ever have to see a single human being. I could do my entire job from bed. That sounds cool for about 10 seconds but it's spiritually miserable. The rewards of the job were atomized, disintegrated by technology. The pursuit and subsequent necessity of convenience took away the humanity.

And without that humanity, I question what's real constantly. It is very difficult to imagine that, say, a presidential candidate is real. I've never seen a Marco Rubio bumpersticker. I have no real life proof he exists. And if he's not real, then are the primaries real? I've never met a single person from New Hampshire. Is that real?

Sometimes it leads to total cognitive breakdown where I know that sunlight has some impact on my skin but I can't quantify it or explain it. I feel sunlight and I feel my skin, but these soon devolve into separate abstract concepts that I have to will into reality. I even have to will their interaction. Then I wonder how to label the interaction. Is sunlight hitting my skin – is that God? The idea of light and heat and human interacting in this eternal process no one talks about, the idea of something millions of miles away keeping me alive, maybe that's God.

These are all Philip K. Dick themes. Theology by way of metaphysics. The dissolution of society, altered consciousness. Dick knew those things all led to a pure hard question: what exists? Does anything exist? In his own words, "in my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real."

Mr. Dystopia

You know Philip K. Dick even if you don't. Blade Runner. A Scanner Darkly. Minority Report. The Adjustment Bureau. There are lots of popular adaptations of his stories. It's a damn shame so many seem like they sort of star Matt Damon, but never mind. Even if you just saw Hollywood drain the river for blockbusters, you know the kind of stories he liked. It's somebody waking up and saying "oh no, what the hell is going on here?"

I mention being a writer and technology alienating me from my career because Dick would have seen that coming. He saw the dissolution of every social unit coming. He could find dissolution anyplace, putting a noir thematic tradition into a science fiction setting. He saw the virtual taking over from the real.

And I mention it because it's likewise the curse of the protagonist in Californium, joint-developed by Darjeeling and Nova Productions and available now on Steam for $10 and through the game's website in the original French language for free. It's a "first person exploration" game, wherein you wake up in your very sad apartment in late '60s Californian urban decline, discover your woman is gone and your landlord is kicking you out, and get dismissed by your editor over depression. Your reality gets ripped up.

It'd be pretty hip to compare it to Firewatch, but the two have nothing in common. Firewatch is a meditation in the mountains. Californium is an opportunity to walk around an artist's rendition of Dick's worlds. They both survive on atmosphere, but that's where the similarities end.

With that out of the way, the game's artistic direction (and it's an art game so that matters most) is somewhere at the intersection of Psychonauts, XIII, and a late-hippie (of Slouching Towards Bethlehem vintage) drug nightmare. At its best, Californium looks kinda like how Dennis Hopper's nightmares would look if he were a cartoon.

Your character, a guy named Elvin, is an unreliable narrator. He's doped up, he's on substances, his TV talks to him and he talks to drug dealers at diners. He's paranoid and going crazy and his grasp of reality is compromised from every angle. He's the usual Philip K. Dick everyman.

Lamentably, as a game, it's not particularly rewarding. This is a pretty successful art project that captures Dick's personality with surprising success – his prose was nuts and the game looks nuts, it's a cartoon acid noir – but it's not something you play otherwise. You have to enjoy walking around Philip K. Dick's curated brain. If you don't, the game doesn't really exist anymore.

So you have to enjoy going to a derelict diner to meet a drug dealer, and you have to enjoy going into your editor's apartment and having flashbacks to the deterioration of your friendship, and you have to enjoy little TVs in the background with static on them. If you like those things and like Philip K. Dick, you'll like this game. But if you're anybody else, you'll come home thinking "huh, that would have been a really cool little Xbox game I bought for $15 in 2004." And that's fine. This is a niche game. People who want it will seek it out and those who don't won't.

And while it doesn't succeed at literally sweating atmosphere like Firewatch, it's really cool, always cool, to see a game so openly literary. You don't see those enough. But then you run into a unique problem – why play a game about Philip K. Dick when you can go read Philip K. Dick's books? Guarantee there's a few you missed.