Californium, created by Darjeeling and Nova Productions, is a first-person downloadable game based on the complex, paranoid writings of sci-fi prophet Philip K. Dick. The game begins with you, the player, typing an eerie nursery rhyme to someone named Alice.
Once you’ve written the poem, you wake up at your desk, the desk of writer Elvin Green. In the first moments of the game, you find out by voicemail that you’ve been fired by your editor and evicted by your landlady.
A note slides under your door informs you that Alice was your daughter, but she’s died and now your wife Thea has left. Hippies on the street accost you about Crystal8, a designer hallucinogen you are apparently too fond of.
Everyone comments that you look terrible. But they don’t look so hot themselves: every NPC is a motionless, two dimensional cardboard cutout. The scene is Berkley California, 1967 and just when things couldn’t seem to get any worse, your television starts making fun of you.
Californium is a stunningly beautiful, engaging but ultimately slow to reveal game. The soundtrack subtly and expertly manipulates your mood (as a good soundtrack should!) and the level design for the different worlds are fascinating. Take the time to look around and play with the boundaries of the world. You can talk minimally to the NPCs to learn a bit about each universe you find, but most of the story is left to your imagination.
The voice that emanates from the televisions is your primary guide, like a male GLaDOS. The most concrete information the voice reveals that he reports back to…something. At one point the television voice hisses: “I am no Virgil, you are certainly no Dante and this is not Paradise.”
There’s one mechanic: you seek out the sigils and reveal the worlds within worlds. That’s it. This isn’t a game for adrenaline junkies or button bashers. This is a game for patient problem-solvers. There’s no risk of death or failure in Californium; Elvin Green’s destiny has always been out of his hands. If you’re still playing Myst, Californium has a similar appeal.
For legal reasons, there aren’t as many obvious Philip K. Dick Easter eggs as you might hope, but any astute fan will see where they put the parallels. (Crystal8 is probably a stand in for Substance D, for example.) The appeal of Californium lies in the creeping dread of untangling a mystery far beyond your ability to comprehend. In this way, Californium truly captures what continues to make Philip K. Dick’s work so vital.
Are you alive or dead? Are you lost in time or space, or something far worse?
Download the game here!