in Unpoint/Unclick

Unpoint/Unclick #4 – Technobabylon


Technobabylon, developed by Technocrat Games, was somewhat around long before its release by Wadjet Eye Games.

Developer James Dearden originally released it as a series of free adventures on the Adventure Game Studio community. I admit, much to my shame, that I have never put my hands on it before.

This is to say that, unfortunately, I can’t tell anything about the differences in the actual puzzles and game world. Anyway I’m pretty sure that everything that may have changed, it all changed for the best. I know for sure that it’s more complete than it was before.

The game features amazing graphics by Ben Chandler and original music composed by Nathan Allen Pinard. Both build a masterfully crafted cyberpunk/sci-fi setting that bring us a long and detailed story for us to dive in. It doesn’t really matter if you’re into the genre or not (even though you may enjoy some references a little more – i.e. “The Gibson”).

Other than including some of the puzzle types as described by Scarpia, this time I decided to go one step further in my analysis. Also, I have to thank the feedback I received about my previous analyses.

This time I included:

  • HINTS (dotted lines): who or what gives the player hints about a specific puzzle solution.
  • ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS (thicker black arrows): different ways to solve the same puzzles.
  • STORY AND GAME WORLD DETAILS (white boxes): who or what gives the player
    • W – more info about the Game World.
    • B – more info about the Backstory. Why things happened in the game?
    • C – more info about a Character.

The result was that the Puzzle Dependency Chart was so HUGE that the software I’m using is having difficulties to export it properly. So, for the moment, I’ll just use the “sliced” parts as I always do anyway.

If you haven’t finished the game yet, I really suggest you to check out this detailed walkthrough written by selmiak, which also has other useful links about the game for you to browse!

“There’s nothing like being in Trance”

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Escape puzzles are fun because we know the answer lies right in front of us, but we just can’t see it. There is no risk of frustration due to walking between locations, talking to the same characters over again, etc., since the solution is obviously there in that one location. – (full definition)

As I have already mentioned, an Escape Puzzle is a really nice way to begin an adventure game. Technobabylon does this in an amazingly clever way.

Having to go back and forth from the Trance, gave me the feeling that I wasn’t confined in a single room, but at least in two rooms. Also, having the chance to actually engage in conversations that are part of the puzzle, makes the whole chapter even more enjoyable.

The hotspots available here let us discover many elements of the game world, that will come up often later in the story. Elements such as: wetware technology, the sconto apartments, the house-AIs and the pros and cons of the Trance.

And of course, introduces us to one of the main characters, Latha Sesame, that goes by the name of Mandala when in the Trance.

Reading through her mail you can understand the most “evident” traits of her character. She lives on welfare, she is addicted to the Trance and almost never leaves her sconto apartment.

Escape puzzles (sometimes more, sometimes less wide) will be sprayed throughout the whole game. Still they will always appear interesting enough not to feel boring, thanks to the amount of information that is available to you, if you are willing to explore the world.

Thinking about it, I suppose that by looking at the game’s structure you can probably figure out that it was made out of different pieces originally separated, even without prior knowing it.

Of Choices and Consequences

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By looking at this chart you will easily notice that if you don’t care about anything else other than progressing in the game, you’ll find that it’s no difficult task to get – at least – through this chapter. The major puzzles, here, serve also as an introduction to two of the features that this game has:

  • Sometimes you can choose a path to follow
  • Most of the times, these won’t give you the expected results, though this won’t lead you to a dead end

Stopping the suicide bomber is the first “big” choice-driven scene, but it should be said that the choices you are able to make in the game don’t ever really appear to be “black or white” and they actually represent more of a chance for you to address a specific problem with a certain approach. It’s something more personal, than related to the game itself.

The way these choices are designed reminded me of one of the best choice-making puzzles I ever faced in a videogame. I’m talking about a specific puzzle in Primordia (also published by Wadjet Eye Games, developed by Wormwood Studios) in which you have to choose the right last name for a robot since its two owners are debating over who has put more effort in building it.

To use Dearden’s words in a tweet, while debating over choices in adventure games:

This chapter is also important to catch up with the nuts and bolts of Regis’ backstory: his dark past before meeting his wife, their relationship and hints about her death; his feelings about Central and its surveillance.

Also sets up the main plot on its route, by introducing this mysterious individual who blackmails Regis, threatening to destroy his embryos, who is apparently linked to the case he and his colleague, Max Lao, are working on.

Exploring around, you can learn more about what routes has technology development undertaken (both good and evil) in Technobabylon’s portrait of the future, how is crime handled or just how stuff works in the late 2080’s.

“So… You’re old fashioned?”

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By this far in the game you may have got used to the “closed compartments” in which each chapter puts you in. I’m tempted to describe each of those as “Escape Puzzles”, but as I already mentioned, they don’t ever feel like one.

In the Elysium Tower we keep controlling Regis, which we learned to be kinda skeptical about the wetware technology and all things related. This means that there’s no Trance for us to go into, but there are different rooms, instead, and lots of information to learn.

Here, Lao and Regis’ bond as friends and colleagues is more evident and it’s actually used to convey even more information about the characters other than some interesting food for thought about future, possible technologies we may have in the real world. The contrast between an up-to-date tech enthusiast such as Lao and the “old-fashioned” Regis seems to work in such a way that every remark and critique thrown towards him actually is something thrown towards us.

In fact, in this chapter there’s a lot we can wonder about a possible, real future. From the simplest thing, such as instant-searching something we don’t know on the internet and claim to have understood every aspect of it (something we already do), to more important matters, such as letting an AI operate in a mostly-human field involving the understanding of human nature when committing crimes.

By looking at Van der Waal’s apartment features we can understand that, while everybody has access to the same kind of home technology, there is still a fair amount of difference between those who are rich and those who are poor. Both Latha and Van Der Wall have a Food Helper AI (the “annoying” Cheffie), but while the first can cook just some protein sludge which “makes starvation a little more appealing” every time you eat it, the latter has all sorts of gourmet recipes available and it’s actually “snob” enough that it won’t even try to make some of that protein slop.

By examining the crime scene we will get information about the social evolution in the portrayed 2080’s. Specifically: the Van der Waals are a same-sex couple and Lao had a sex-change operation years before and you can tell how this has grown up to be a fairly common thing by how Regis (as a former gengineer) is far more interested in the techniques used for the operation. As Dearden said in this interview for TechRaptor: “The game’s set seventy years in the future, and I think that a lot of what I’m aiming to show is just how routine and normal these things are by this time.”. This gets even more true if you consider that Lao’s past doesn’t ever come up if you don’t talk to her or perform some actions unrelated to puzzles, being actually tagged as “small talk” by Lao herself.

We will also learn about synthetics (or synths, yet not to be confused with things like this): how people make use of them, how sophisticated and common they have become. Lao will more then once hint at Regis’ not growing up with synths and, later on, we will also notice some hints of other projects she may have in mind for the synth maid found in Van der Wall’s apartment.

Here, puzzles get more interesting and tougher. They may actually lead you to investigate the surroundings and talk with Lao and Central so to discover more information before knowing exactly what to do, which is perfectly fine in my book. Also, tweaking the cooking gel temperature to get it right requires that little everyday, basic real-world knowledge about your average body temperature.

This chapter serves also as an introduction to another feature that will be used again later on: the Personality Splitter to use on synths (something that it’s often fun to play with and also shows the amount of work that was done by the developers). Then, by the end of it, we will experience firsthand that the outcome of our previous choices may not actually change how things are gonna end up. So, if back at the train station you saved the suicide bomber, you will discover that Central has “neutralized” him anyway.

Finally, as the plot thickens we are actually more and more aware of how evil this blackmailer seems to be, as he forces us to place a bomb into an apartment without no clear reason, after showing us how did he destroyed one of Regis’ embryos.

“Paper? What is this, the dark ages?”

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Much more like the very first scene in the game, we play as Latha, stuck in a room with the need to get out. A great focus is given to her Trance addiction: she won’t mind spending eighty minutes watching her wetware grow back again, after having messed up the room of a police station so to create the environment to make it possible.

Also we get more acquainted with her – at the moment – simple background as a “City Kid”, born and raised as an orphan in the city of Newton and so much wired to the Trance that she didn’t even ever see a fire in real life, nor have any use for paper. While we learn this, we also learn more about the game world: tigers are now extinct and there’s a “radioactive hot-zone” in the so-called “old world”. If we happen to read the news, we may find out pieces about a huge cloning project, linked to several “ethno-fascist” ideas, happening in Japan.

Then, as we get connected to the Trance again, the “escape room” widens once more and we find out that lots of things are happening simultaneously. We first hear of the Jahiliyyah organization, which supposedly opposes the Chishiki news network and what seems to be nothing more than a huge misunderstanding will lead Latha to grow more and more suspicious about Regis, who was tricked into bombing the apartment above her.

Other than these informations, the whole puzzle sequence is pretty clever and realistic. I found it really enjoyable to go through this chapter, as both the Trance and controlling the drone were a nice touch that provided depth to the “escape puzzle” structure.

Probably also thanks to its natural pacing (and I mean it in a good way), at this stage the game seemed to me like a constant “deep breath before the plunge”, adding more and more to the plot as chapters went by as well as generating more confusion about what’s going on and about the different people you are dealing with.

“So, what other diseases have you tried?”

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As we play impersonating Lao, this chapter features lots of dialogue in which we are able to collect more information about Adam Baxter and his involvement in the death of Viksha Regis and about Central and its role as a city coordinator, “tutored” by Dr. Vargas and Galatea. As you may imagine, as the two step into the picture, the plot shows no sign of being near completion.

In this chapter we also face another of those evolution of society, which won’t be the last one, but surely enough shows an interesting take on how younger people “rebel against the establishment”. In the future portrayed in Technobabylon, where medical science is advanced enough to be able to cure many diseases such as HIV, aphasia, botulism and Parkinson’s, giving yourself the symptoms of those diseases through wetware is a “cool thing”.

Again, other characters in the game may “not get it” (both Lao and Chigwa) but will also relegate their judgement into their being probably “old fashioned” in some ways.

Probably aware of the potential difficulty (or of a potential hesitancy by the players) of searching for the correct specimens, there are lots of hints for us to take and make use of.

Personally, I really enjoyed this as well as the variety of puzzles and their “rewards”. A nice example of a good reward, for instance,  is having a whole character that was “disabled” – Niester before you cure his aphasia – to be “enabled” once you found the way to do so.

Also, I enjoyed the alternative take on the usual distract ‘n’ grab puzzle. It felt pretty refreshing, since it’s nothing similar to a more common: “Look behind you, a three-headed monkey!”.

“It’s either me, or the guys with a kill-on-sight order.”

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This chapter in my opinion serves as a nice break from the huge amount of information we had been exposed to in the last few chapter.

The stealth-ish action in which we will control Regis provides a good amount of entertainment in what could otherwise look like as “yet another escape puzzle”. Here we find first two timing puzzles in the game. While the first – shocking the guard with the jolt gun – is pretty easy, the second one takes a little more skill on our side in order to be able to have us get across the room without being noticed.

These kind of puzzles, when designed in a good way, in my opinion provide a nice break from the usual point and click gameplay. Technobabylon does this greatly and also doesn’t punish you hard when you fail: if you get spotted by the guards you will restart from the same room right away.

Most of the information we gather in this chapter is related to the game world, rather than the main storyline: world federations and wars between them, the Aurora catastrophe and other hints at how the synth technology grew up.

“Before the net was just… The net.”

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The first part of this chapter puts us in control of Viksha, 24 years before the current action, and we can begin to tie up together all the plot elements we found scattered throughout the game: Viksha and Charlie’s relationship, Baxter’s personality and Central’s creation. Also, if you have been raising suspicions about people you’ve met until now, you may find some elements to better elaborate these thoughts.

These flashback sessions start here and will appear more as we go on through the game. Having only to talk with the people in the laboratory, these scenes serve the purpose of slowly wrapping up the events that preceded the current action and will also help us to better figure out more about some characters such as Nina Jeong and Vargas.

After the first flashback we’re put in charge of Latha, as she reaches a Trance Den where she’s supposed to meet with Jinsil.

Side note: this area has probably my favourite soundtrack of the whole game.

This area of the game is great in providing you different ways to solve a specific puzzle, like the one to get into the Den. Actually some of the solutions make it so easy that I wondered if it was made on purpose or I just uncovered some kind of bug. On second thought, anyway, maybe they’re supposed to be there, because they involve a different attitude on your end than most of the other puzzles in the game. To put it in different words, “come on, it’s not like I can smash the antenna with the crowbar… Or is it?”

Visiting the Trance Den feels like visiting a sleazy opium den or one of those often portrayed abandoned places where junkies gather to space out and lose consciousness. It’s a depressing place indeed, yet perfectly fitting the setting and mood.

Again we are exposed to another amusement that younger generations seem to like in the 2080’s: nuke simulations. Apparently in the Trance you can find simulations of real atomic warfare scenarios in which you can first-hand experience what it feels like to be in the middle of a nuclear explosion. A “good” aspect of it is that the 25% of the profits the developers of these simulations make are donated to victims of nuclear warfare (even if the one we encounter is actually shareware).

Interesting is the Gravball game, which involves a little reflex work on our end. I’m always impressed when I see stuff like this coming up in an AGS game, mostly because it usually requires a lot of work by the developer in order to get right. By the amount of variety found in this game, you can more and more see how much dedication was put into its development.

As you can see, some of these puzzles are incredibly rewarding as they unlock small but amazingly full of “lore” areas such as the “Get Nuked” sim.

Another brief flashback section closes this chapter and lets us find out more about the Central project and the direct involvement that Viksha (and Charlie) had with it, thanks to Nina Jeong’s suggestion. At this moment I thine that we can easily start to get a clearer idea of Charlie’s feelings about the whole project and some of the members of the team.

In the flashback, Dr. Vargas asks Viksha about her opinion on how should the new AI be “taught” and this will actually hint at the whole plot of the game as we will see later on.

“In an increasingly permissive world, it’s the ultimate taboo!”

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We’re face to face with Nina Jeong, now, who has assembled a whole conspiracy in order to “dethrone” Central from its current place. Each member has different reasons to agree and different plans for once this is done. Nina, for instance, wants to free Central from being just a city coordinator and “be everywhere”, as part of the world. For the whole game I think we will have more than a doubt about this being a good or a bad thing.

The phrase I quoted in this paragraph’s title is told by Nina and, while it refers to the fact that we’re in a restaurant that serves cloned human tissue and meat to its customers, actually can be used to sum up all the trends that we have looked at up to now in the game. Maybe can be also interpreted as a satire of the real world, since it wouldn’t be the only one (if you play with the Laser-Paper-Stone app in Regis or Lao’s Traveller, you can easily spot a satire of the free-to-play model that most mobile games have nowadays).

The “closed compartment” in which we find ourselves in, this time, is made interesting by the investigation we have to carry on, in order to find who tried to sabotage the meeting.

Talking to all the conspirators and examining the surroundings reveals, as always, a lot about the backstory and about the game world. For instance, we will find out that Korea is now United Korea.

We will also learn that a politician with a neural governor that prevents him from telling lies doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s unable of being corrupted and do really bad things.

Being in a relatively small area, it’s not that difficult to find out what we should do. Also, we put to use some of the notions we have been introduced earlier in the game, specifically: using the CI Splitter with synths. The results can be hilarious, as every other time we mess with synths’ personalities.

By the end of our investigation, we will have to choose whether we want the lesser of two evils or stick with the tough truth, unaware that will actually lead to the death of one of the conspirators. Again, this is a choice that we as human beings rather than players have to deal with, since it doesn’t really influence the outcome of the game, as far as I’ve noticed.

“Um… Regis? Why does this girl have half your genome?”

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This chapter is a real mind-blower, meaning that a huge chunk of the whole plot finally comes together in a relatively short span of time.

Along with this, the pacing of the game also seems to speed up a little at some stage, even though it’s nothing really more than a feeling, since there are no proper timing puzzles involved.

Here we discover that Jinsil actually leads Latha into the hands of the enemy. This trap is maybe hinted at by a strange warning message in the guard’s terminal we use at the Xanadu entrance. I like to think that it was left behind by the Guy we helped back at the CEL headquarters. It’s something very subtle, yet it felt really nice once I realized it.

Now, Galatea Vargas appears as the main puppeteer of the events of the game, even though her motivations are not yet clear and Kreisel, the Mindjacker, after stealing Baxter’s mind, has grown more and more subject to the repressed hate that his victim had for Regis. This turned him into one of the most evil characters I have ever found in any game I played.

Then the revelation.

Latha, still convinced that Regis is trying to kill her for some reason, shoots him with his own signature jolt gun, something that should not happen since the gun is linked to his DNA. So Lao, after having briefly confused Latha for Galatea, runs a quick scan on Latha and Regis and finds that their DNA matches. Apparently his legacy didn’t end with the destruction of those embryos, and Vargas seems to know more than something about it.

This is probably the longest chapter of the game, in terms of number of short puzzles and things that happen.

We have the chance to control Latha, Regis and Lao and face most of the types of puzzles we faced up to this moment: dialog puzzles, stealth-timed actions, CI splitting and some Trancereal world interaction. None of these will be, of course, exactly the same as those we encountered previously, so they will still feel as they were “fresh”.

Also, none of them is particularly hard to solve, keeping the unraveling of the plot steady towards the last section of the game.

Since we use one character at a time, it’s nice to have them follow in each other footsteps. We have something different to do each time, but are confident enough to perceive the surroundings as something not completely unfamiliar.

“A gestalt, all-knowing personality for Central!”

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The plot has finally reached its climax: we can finally put the pieces together. Galatea, Latha and Central were secretly cloned by Nina Jeong from the embryo that Viksha donated for the development of Central before she and Charlie decided to remove them. After Viksha’s death and Charlie’s departure, Nina kept working on them with Vargas’ consensus.

Galatea’s plan is to create an all-knowing personality for Central, literally made from the greatest minds of the century scraped off the people who did bear them.

If you remember, in one of the flashbacks, Viksha was asked her opinion about how should Central be taught. The options in the dialog were: naturally or quickly. I like to think that these two opinions were split between her cloned embryos, since Galatea is all for the “quick” way and – maybe – Latha is not (we don’t actually know).

This last chapter is supposed to be kind of a “boss fight” and I think this is partly emphasized by how Central is presented vertically from top to bottom. Here we can switch between Lao, Regis and Latha anytime and the combination of clever timing puzzles and choice-making dialogues makes this a really interesting way to finish our trip in a world so deep as the one that Technobabylon shows us.

I have always associated timing to “boss fights” in adventure games. If you think about it: Maniac Mansion, the first two episodes of Monkey Island, Full Throttle, the hilarious Time Gentlemen, Please! and many other adventure games have timing puzzles in the end or towards it. I think that it’s because it feels like one of the easiest ways to get out of the “point and click” static nature and reach out for some more action.

Technobabylon does a great job in providing multiple, different kinds of timing puzzles. When dealing with Kreisel we can decide whether to stun or kill him by respectively choosing the most hard or easy way to solve the puzzle. Having to block the elevator at the right time so to reach one of the two control panels we have to use is very a traditional puzzle but a one-of-a-kind in this game, so never got old.

All of this is supported by less and more important choices. Only the actual ending of the game is “shaped” by the choice we make about who we will get control over Central. Both endings show us things we may like and things we may not like, but they seem to avoid leaving any plot hole behind, which is great.

If I had a single remark, anyway, I would say that engaging the dialog with Lao and Latha in this last chapter feels a little out of place. By how the chapter is presented I felt like I was supposed to have a very short amount of time in order to prevent Galatea from sabotaging Central’s “brain”, yet I could engage long talks with every character (including Dr. Vargas and Central).

Don’t get me wrong, the dialogues themselves are great to provide the missing pieces to the almost finished plot, since they also show more aspects of characters we didn’t have the chance to explore thoroughly. I thought, anyway, that probably would have been better to have a different place (like there was for the flashbacks, in which you just have to talk with everyone) where you could have Charles and Latha catch up a little more before the actual ending.

Conclusion

In my opinion, Technobabylon has a lot to teach in terms of world design and adventure games design in general.

While I can’t really say that puzzles are very challenging, there are few moments of brain-racking that spice it all up, also thanks to the great variety of the puzzles themselves. I think that whenever I’ll be planning an “escape room puzzle”, I will think of the first chapter of this game.

Yes, the game is linear, but, to put it simply, it provides so many different things to do that one could even fail to see a puzzle structure repeating twice. I think this shows the huge amount of work put together by Dearden over the years and by Wadjet Eye Games once they joined forces.

Even if the world is out there to be discovered, you are no way forced to do so as the games gives different degrees of playability. You can either examine every inch of it or just play through, without caring much about the surroundings and still enjoy the whole plot as it unravels.

But if you go for the latter, you would lose an amount of detail that feels nothing less than a “token of love” thrown towards the adventure games genre and all its aficionados, other than a great way to see how much you can respect your own work (in a non egotistic way).

Almost everything triggers interesting information about the game world, it’s simply amazing how much was conceived without being boring or self-contradictory.

One of the best examples I can describe for this is when you need to have Latha get the code for the keylock at the Xanadu office. Once you hack the soldier’s Gibson with your wetware, and talk to him in the Trance, you have three options to choose. While none of them will result wrong, one of them will have the guard tell a simple detail: the name of Ethan, one of the guards who died before in the game, presumably when Regis was trying to escape the abandoned factory.

Another example is how the Chishiki Weather Forecast always suggests the readers to never leave their homes. This contributes in giving the whole network a more dystopian feel.

As you can see: simple, insignificant (if you want) details, contribute in giving the game a consistency that can’t be anything else than great and that every game, in my opinion, should strive to achieve.

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