Californium is the game that Dick heads deserve
How one surprise game at EGX nails what makes Philip K. Dick so special.
What's the best Philip K. Dick adaptation? There are countless to choose from, but it's Total Recall that always gets my vote: so many mirthless movies miss out on the schlocky, ludicrous sense of fun that's shot through Paul Verhoeven's gaudy film. Californium, a new first person exploration game that's on the show floor at this year's EGX, gets that. It gets so much more besides, too - playing through a short demo, I felt the same mind-expanding excitement I got devouring so much Dick when I was 17. Quiet at the back there.
Californium isn't explicitly a Philip K. Dick adaptation - the difficulties and cost of navigating the Philip K. Dick estate put paid to that - but it's more than merely inspired by the work of the laureate of shifting realities. It is, in fact, releasing alongside a new documentary that's airing next March on French TV network Arte, and the game is being developed in tandem by a small team in Paris. Dick's always gone down exceptionally well in France - again, shush - so it's apt that one of the better explorations of his work hails from our Gallic friends.
You're a sci-fi hack, Elvin Green, struggling over a manuscript in your apartment, and once you stir from your writing chair you're free to slowly explore a stylised, psychedelic take on the 1970s Berkeley that would have been Dick's haunting grounds as he was penning some of his most famous work. There's a lysergic colour palette at play that's perfectly unsettling, while the cardboard cut-out characters you encounter on the streets also help engender a whoozy feeling. It's an odd cast that nails the strange humour and ironies of Dick's work: the irate landlord hassling the hard-up writer for rent, the kid selling drugs in the plasticky diner and the editor coming down on you for your sloppy work as the world slowly tears itself about.
Which gets to what Californium is really about, as multiple realities unfold and layer on top of each other. It was a pet topic of Dick's, probably best explored in the 1981 novel Valis which, somewhat disturbingly, was partly autobiographical, chronicling his experiences in the Spring of 1974 when he believed he was both a struggling science fiction writer and a Christian living in first century Rome. Slowly, then, the Berkeley apartment reveals itself to be another place entirely, with small pockets of unreality exposing another co-existing timeline. It's something that bleeds out into the rest of the city, beyond your apartment; there's a great sense of mystery beneath this gaudy realisation of acid-hazed 70s California.
Californium explores one of Dick's big themes in a way that only video games can, basically, corrupting space and making you question the fabric of what's around you. It put me to mind of one of the quintessential Dick scenarios, reaching for the lightswitch in your bathroom where you instinctively know it to be, only to find it's on the other wall, where it's always been. It's a moment of magical mind-bending wrapped up in something that's outwardly mundane. Californium's capable of capturing that, and I'm hopeful it'll be able to capture much more besides. It doesn't carry Philip K. Dick's name, but right now it's looking like one of the best adaptations his twisted philosophies and fictions have ever received.