I’ve always preferred post-cyberpunk to traditional cyberpunk. The majority of the works I’ve come across in the latter genre have just been, in my opinion, far too cynical. If they aren’t trying to copy Blade Runner or Neuromancer, they almost always seem to follow the same template: a gritty, neo-noir tale about a dystopia where one or several revolutionaries (usually hackers) take a stand against the corporations that have taken control of the world and subjugated the rest of the populace. Post-cyberpunk, however, is a refreshing alternative to the “dark and edgy” depiction of a digital future.

Rather than depicting a world ravaged by greed and unrestrained technology use, these stories have a much more optimistic outlook on humanity’s evolution. Characters have active social lives rather than living as loners, technology strengthens society instead of leading to oppression or alienation, and if there’s a problem with the social order, the protagonists are focused on correcting or improving the situation rather than taking an anarchic “burn it to the ground” approach. In my opinion, it’s much deeper and more mature than conventional cyberpunk. Technocrat Games’ Technobabylon is a perfect example of how post-cyberpunk surpasses its progenitor genre by providing a unique analysis of how humanity will be affected by scientific advancements in coming decades as well as an intriguing mystery and complex character drama.

The year is 2087. The metropolis of Newton is a beacon of technological prowess. Genetic engineering has been refined to levels previously unheard of, artificial intelligence is evolving to manage even more complex tasks, and the majority of its populace lives in comfort and peace. Yet not even this idyllic metropolis is immune from danger. A sadistic criminal known as a mindjacker has been targeting the city’s scientific elite, ripping the knowledge directly from their nervous systems in a process that inevitably proves fatal. Drs. Charlie Regis and Maxine Lao, law enforcement agents for Centralized Emergency Logistics, are assigned to track down the murderer and bring him to justice, yet he always manages to elude them.

The case becomes more complicated when the mindjacker blackmails Regis into performing a domestic terrorist attack which, unbeknownst to him, almost kills an innocent woman – Latha Sesame, an unemployed shut-in who spends most of her time online under the pseudonym “Mandala.” Miraculously she manages to survive the assassination attempt, going on the run to learn why she was marked for death. Regis soon goes into hiding when he’s framed for murdering the recently-paroled killer of his wife, and Lao is assigned to track him down and hopefully clear his name. None of these three individuals know that they’re being used as pawns in a deadly game where the future of Newton itself is at stake.

The world envisioned by Technobabylon is fascinating. Much of Newton is run by a civic-coordination AI called “Central” which regulates city utilities, assists law enforcement by quickly processing case information, and even monitors those wired to the system, sending them daily e-mails with its recommendations for how to improve their health and well-being. Incredible leaps have been made in biotech. Almost all of Newton’s citizens have neurological wetware implanted in their bodies to allow for easy interfacing with the machinery they use in their careers and personal lives. Medical breakthroughs have virtually eradicated all disease and made complicated surgical procedures much easier, to the point where rebellious youth intentionally give themselves the symptoms of various illnesses just for kicks. Clothing and even food can be created in seconds using the correct organic material, a process which would have been a pipe dream decades ago but now has some grounding in reality thanks to 3D printing.

 

 

As with every scientific breakthrough, however, the potential for misuse and abuse is rife. Latha is a shut in who shuns the outside world because she prefers to spend as much time as possible wired to the Trance, a much more advanced internet people can mentally connect to. Like a number of other Newton youth, she finds it far more interesting than the real world, though her social anxiety plays a greater role. The game isn’t subtle about its parallel between Trance addicts (dismissively referred to as “thralls”) and illicit drug users, with one frail, disheveled woman sprawled out on a dirty couch as she remains oblivious to the world around her. Latha shows contempt at the sight, remarking that women like her make all Trance users look bad, oblivious to the problems her obsession has caused.

 

Online addiction is far from the only problem that plagues this brave new world. Androids known as “synths”, once restricted to performing hazardous jobs or only available as toys to the incredibly wealthy, have replaced human workers in several occupations because of their efficiency. Unemployment and poverty are still issues in Newton, but the plight isn’t caused by a corrupt oligarchy keeping the lower class from ever advancing and leaving her to fend for herself. Aside from the issue of using synths in place of humans for certain professions, some people simply can’t find a job or refuse to look for work (Latha has been out of work for two years because of her Trance addiction), but they’re supported with public housing and welfare while being encouraged to seek employment, though the amenities they’ve been provided with are incredibly basic.

 

The advancements made in genetic engineering (referred to as “gengineering” in the game) have also been corrupted for malicious use. One NPC mentions that the company she works for, as well as several other industries in Newton, are regularly contracted to conduct experiments which are illegal or too expensive to carry out in other countries. Mostly this is done to bypass regulations and deliver cheaper products, but occasionally the procedures carried out have disturbing implications, such as the cloning of humans without nervous systems for experimental or culinary purposes. Far more troubling are the radical groups which have learned how to manipulate humans into biological weapons, cultivating a legion of living suicide bombers with explosive compounds in their skeletal systems that are indoctrinated for years until sent to carry out their deadly tasks. This atrocious practice deeply affects Regis as he’s had prior experience with such extremists, sickened by the lives ruined and the amoral scientists who willingly turned children into time bombs.

Central does an effective job overseeing the city’s functionality, far surpassing what Central Operations had expected from their AI’s capacity to learn and adapt. As it’s grown, however it’s become resistant to certain programming instructions and edicts issued by the city’s system administrators. In certain situations it overrides their orders and instead authorizes its own protocols based on what it determines is “best” for Newton, even if it must violate the rights of others to achieve this goal. Considering this system has information on everyone living in the city, it raises troubling implications about what it may do and who it may deem acceptable or expendable to keep Newton running smoothly. The possible danger Central poses serves as a cautionary warning about the risk of unrestrained artificial intelligence as well the danger of giving too much power to a government entity with hardly any oversight and expecting it to govern well.

While most of Newton is thriving, its level of prosperity and freedom isn’t shared by other nations. The European Federation and Japan are doing well, though the latter is suffering from a population deficit brought on by decades of restrictive immigration. The Greater Han Republic (this game’s future incarnation of China) is an industrial powerhouse, yet its government is responsible for atrocious human rights abuses. Nations still wage war with one another, and sadly atomic weapons are much more commonly used when the conflicts escalate. North America is still reeling from a nuclear strike nearly 40 years ago that left the United States divided into two warring factions. Most of this information is revealed through expository dialogue and news articles appearing in each new chapter, but players also encounter NPCs from these countries to get a stronger idea of what life is like outside Newton. It’s a simple yet effective tool for building a more concrete world.

Much of what I’ve described in the previous paragraphs may make this future appear less appealing, but I found that it keeps the setting more grounded in reality. It occupies a middle ground that keeps it from drifting to either extreme of being either overly optimistic to the point of saccharine utopia or the harsher gloom of edgy cyberpunk. Like our current world, life in 2087 has its share of problems and tragedy. For all the ills of society, for all the corruption, there are good people like Lao and Regis who are fighting to make the world better.

 

While the story is mostly linear there are some segments where players have a chance to affect the outcome of a situation. The one that stuck out most to me was when Charlie Regis is negotiating with a potential suicide bomber. He can either try to talk the would-be terrorist into surrendering or ask his partner, Max Lao, to take the man out with a sniper shot. The bomber dies no matter what choice is made, but how it was handled affects Regis greatly. I managed to persuade the bomber to surrender only to learn back at headquarters that Central ordered him euthanized because he still posed a risk. Regis felt like he’d failed the misguided young man, but much of his ire was directed at Central as he felt the AI did this to demonstrate its authority, to teach him a lesson for not “neutralizing” the threat as he was initially ordered. It offered more insight into why Regis has such contempt for the system. Moments like this don’t affect the final outcome of the game, but they expose layers of the characters that may have otherwise been glanced over.

 

A few decisions even manage to test the player’s morality. In an early chapter when Latha had to escape from police custody she formed a Trance connection with Guy, a young man trying to fight off Greater Han malware which was attempting to make him into an obedient slave. He offered to help Latha if she could get him an epinephrine injection, giving him the strength to overpower the program. I didn’t know how to get the desired drug on my first playthrough, so I simply filled a syringe with water and lied to Guy about the injection, claiming it would be some time until it took effect. Later when I asked one of Guy’s colleagues about his situation, I was informed that he boarded a plane for the Greater Han Republic. I truly felt guilty having exploited him for my benefit, knowing that my shortcut condemned him to a life of mindless servitude. Near the end of the game there’s another difficult moral choice when Regis must identify a murderer. He can either call out the true culprit or direct the blame to another person who, while innocent of the crime being investigated, is a much more reprehensible individual. Again, while these choices don’t factor into the end of the game, they add depth by making players contemplate their own ethics.

This brings me to my biggest issue with the narrative – the ending. It runs into the same problem Deus Ex: Human Revolution had by making the finale dependent only on the last key decision; either keeping Central intact or allowing a group of conspirators to replace it with another system. No matter which choice players make, or which ones were made throughout the game, events play out the same for the protagonists in both possible endings. Incredibly the only people whose fates are significantly altered are two secondary characters, three if you count a sapient AI. Even if Central is substituted, there’s no mention of whether or not the new system is causing any problems in Newton. While it’s said that years were spent perfecting the system, I still find it hard to believe that some issues wouldn’t arise. Don’t get me wrong; the endings are well-written, and it’s nice to see Latha, Lao and Regis get a happy ending, but they simply feel hollow.

The only area where Technobabylon wavers in quality as a conspiracy thriller. When Regis is suspected of murdering Adam Baxter, the man who killed his wife Viksha, it’s clear that he wasn’t responsible while the identity of the killer is already known. The true mystery is in discovering why this stranger who had never met Regis before had such a vendetta against the man, the motivation driving him demonstrating one of the great dangers that can be brought about by reckless use of wetware technology. There’s also some very effective foreshadowing about the identity of Latha’s online ally Jinsil which shows she isn’t helping the girl purely out of the goodness of her heart, as well as a brief interaction with another character that will clue observant players to the eventual truth of Latha’s past.

Conversely, it badly falters in creating suspense by making the antagonists obvious to identify. As soon as they first appear and their occupations are revealed, I knew they would turn out to be villains in the end. It’s become far too clichéd to have those in high office be connected to a conspiracy that their subordinates are wrapped up in, though admittedly this problem extends beyond the cyberbpunk genre. There are also short sections set 20 years before the game proper that explore the shared history between Charlie, Viksha, and Baxter, but after the second flashback it becomes easy to determine what drove Baxter to kill.

 

Technobabylon’s complex protagonists further help the game stand out from its cyberpunk peers. Latha initially comes off as a stereotypical jaded loner endemic to this genre, shunning human interaction so she can better enjoy the freedom offered by the Trance as Mandala. Whenever she needs to interact with other people she’s very standoffish, either limiting her time spent with them through short, curt conversations, or getting so frustrated with their attempts to connect with her that she tells them off, usually suggesting they “get nuked” (this future’s euphemism for another four-letter expletive.) As more information about Latha’s past is revealed, her disdain for the real world becomes understandable. She’s a child of the city, abandoned at birth, passed around between social agencies without ever having a chance to build significant relationships, and finally relegated to public housing. Why wouldn’t she want to avoid reality considering the hardships she’s endured? Her affinity to the Trance is also expanded upon in a very surprising revelation at the end. Crystal Lonnquist’s performance conveys Latha’s disillusionment, frustration, and inner turmoil with a natural depth.

 

Regis is another individual who could initially be mistaken as a clichéd character based on first impressions. He’s mistrustful of advanced technology like Central, concerned that over-reliance on artificial intelligence and unrestrained genetic manipulation will diminish humanity. His fears aren’t rooted in irrational Luddite-like beliefs, however. Regis has a background in gengineering and he personally saw how the science could be abused to harm others, including those close to him. The trauma of his past have left him bitter, leading to several outbursts of aggression against suspects while on the job. Yet behind his abrasive exterior is a good person who, driven by the traumas of his past, works hard to protect other people from suffering like he did. Additionally, since he’s unfamiliar with more recent technology, there’s a more solid reason to have the workings of the game’s world explained to him rather than just coming off as a forced exposition dump. I only have one issue with how the character is portrayed; Regis is supposed to be from Texas, and is even said to have a Texan accent, but Eli Green voices him with a dialect that makes him sound more like he hails from New England.

 

Lao, voiced by Arielle Siegel, regretfully has the least amount of time as the central focus. It’s a shame because she has a very compelling personality. She’s quick-witted, snarky, doesn’t mind bending CEL’s rules if it’s to her advantage, and overall has the most positive attitude of the central trio. Get on her bad side or go after one of her friends, however, and she is quick to anger. Lao can also be seen as Regis’ conscience, bringing out his better nature when they’re working together. She keeps him from flying off the handle, and even manages to get him to crack a few jokes by taking some of the pressure off him. She knows Regis is a good man, which is why she’s so adamant to clear his name when he’s accused of murder. Lao is also one of the few positive depictions of a transgender woman in video games. She’s never treated as the butt of a joke or made to feel less than human; she’s treated with respect and dignity. Not only is this a step towards better LGBT representation in gaming, it again helps build the world by showing how socially progressive Newton is.

 

Just about every NPC manages to leave a strong impact with their presence. Jayam Kriesel, the Mindjacker responsible for giving the protagonists such grief, is an unbelievably reprehensible individual. He’s murdered dozens of people for profit and he takes a sadistic pleasure in tormenting Regis. Why Kriesel has such hatred for a man he’s never met before is a mystery, though his motivation can be determined early on. Central itself could be considered a prominent character considering its almost constant presence. One of the major conflicts concerns Central’s rejection of orders issued by the city council in favor of its own pragmatic solutions, some of which have fatal results like the aforementioned situation with the bomber. As it’s explained, however, the system is constantly evolving, and over the course of its growth it rejects human morality for the most logical actions. It’s not an antagonist so much as it’s an entity lacking proper guidance. Despite the overall serious tone there were a few comedic characters such as Liam Stepford, the foppish representative of a synth company, and Chantelle, a synth programmed to act as a very suggestive stereotypical French maid.

Puzzles design reflects the setting with the majority focused around manipulating advanced technology in order to progress. Latha’s segments are strongest in this aspect since, as a Trance expert, she frequently needs to hack into other systems in order to corrupt them or extract information, or to manipulate them for aid in carrying out some other task such as when she needs to escape a CEL holding room. When she’. Regis and Lao’s sections also rely on using advanced tech to their advantage, but they’re more centered on gathering evidence for their case, such as when they must reprogram a synth to obtain information about a murder it witnessed. The scenarios do get a bit ludicrous at points, most notably when Lao needs to decipher an audio file that was encoded into gene samples from different plants (it makes sense in context), but they’re a rare exception.

One aspect I greatly appreciated that I want to see from more adventure games in general is how a few puzzles have multiple solutions. For example, in the third chapter Regis and Lao need to interrogate a suspect but are unable to contact him or open his door. To get around the problem, players can either use Lao’s wetware connection to interface with the door’s controls and override it, contact Central and have it remotely open it, or have Regis simply disable the controls by shooting them with his jolt gun. Similarly there are three different ways Latha can enter a Trance den where she needs to meet up with a contact: do a favor for the den’s owner, shut off the power and slip past the nearsighted bouncer in the dark, or get in through a connecting sewage vent. Once inside the den she’s then tasked with clearing everyone else from the server, and some of these objectives can again be carried out in more than one way. It offers variety in gameplay as well as highlighting Latha’s street smarts and improvisational skills.

 

Technobabylon is an incredible game. Its clever puzzles, complex characters, and unique setting make it a welcome change from more gritty, nihilistic cyberpunk stories. I’m not saying those stories don’t have their place or merit, but sometimes it’s refreshing to look into the future and experience a world that hasn’t gone to hell.

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