Always Wanted to Do LSD With Philip K. Dick? You’ll Love Playing Californium
Never let it be said that science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick didn’t grapple with big ideas. “The two basic topics which fascinate me,” he once wrote in an essay, “are ‘What is reality?’ and ‘What constitutes the authentic human being?’”
During his prolific career, Dick obsessed over those two questions in nearly every way imaginable. It’s no mistake that, for the past few decades, Hollywood, television, and videogames have adapted, referenced, and blatantly stolen from his catalog. If a writer has an idea for an off-beat story about worlds that don’t quite fit together, Dick probably did it first.
A new game from French developers pays tribute to that mind. Californium, available this week for PC, is a deep dive into Dick’s broken worlds and surreal landscapes—a cover song in videogame form, an attempt to distill the author’s ideas to their chaotic essence.
You play as Elvin Green, a drug-addled, burned-out writer living in Berkeley, California in the late ’60s. The sun paints everything orange, the heat bakes Elvin’s apartment through the windows. His wife slides a note under the door to say she’s leaving him. His publisher cuts him off, saying “a writer who doesn’t write” is of little use to anyone.
Then things get interesting. Elvin’s television starts talking, and arcane glyphs begin boring holes through reality. As the holes grow wider around Elvin, flowing like spilled ink, portals to new realities open. Californium plays like a hidden-object game on acid: Find the glyphs hiding in Elvin’s surroundings and watch reality crumble.
Even at the game’s beginning, Elvin lives in a paranoid world reminiscent of A Scanner Darkly, with mysterious hallucinogens and bespectacled G-Men floating up and down the boulevard. It’s a place of over saturated colors and caricatured, sketch-like faces—everything slightly off kilter, the visual style recollecting a druggy dream. Berkeley soon dissolves and devolves even further—into a blue-tinted alternate history that worships Abraham Lincoln. More worlds, stranger still, lie beyond. All the while, an off-screen voice taunts you.
The game is an elegant, fictionalized snapshot of a man who didn’t merely create stories about fractured realities, but lived one. Late in his life, Dick had a series of hallucinations, a corpus of visions he called “2-3-74,” after the period in February and March in 1974 when they occurred. He saw a “pink beam” that invaded his mind, and had encounters with God. He came to believe that the world he lived in was not real, but a veil pulled over the actual world—one in which he was a Christian from the time of the New Testament—and that human history beyond that point was just an illusion.
There are hints of these ideas in Californium, pointing to the idea that something transcendent is happening to Elvin. Late in the game, some characters begin speaking in religious koans. “The time of restoration is nigh,” one of them says. “The future will retreat into the present, where it will become truth. Or maybe Elvin is simply ill—schizophrenic, with a brain damaged by years of drug abuse. The same was likely true of Dick as well.
“I have a secret love of chaos,” Dick wrote in that same essay. “There should be more of it.” Californium’s greatest strength, fittingly, is a single-minded, methodical devotion to its own entropy—in its design as well as its themes. It’s not a masterwork of game design; it has some nasty bugs, and its lone game mechanic can get laborious over its three-hour runtime. But it functions beautifully as a loving dive into the ideas of one of science fiction’s greatest and strangest.
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