Exclusive Interview: Technobabylon Creator James Dearden
In playing the new PC adventure game Technobabylon, you might think you’ve fallen into a wormhole that’s taken you back to the ’90s. After all, it’s a point & click cyberpunk adventure game with pixel art. But while this makes this PC game sound retro, the game’s creator, writer, and programmer James Dearden says it’s actually using those retro elements in new ways.
Let’s start with the basics: What kind of game is Technobabylon, how do you play it?
Technobabylon is a point-and-click adventure in the style of the early ’90s, when that sort of game had its heyday. It’s played almost entirely with the mouse; the player can move their character, interact or examine objects and people within the environment, and try to use the things they find to overcome larger obstacles.
What other games do you think Technobabylon is similar to, and what do you sets it apart from them?
It definitely draws inspiration from the classics of adventure games, with many people immediately noticing the similarity to Beneath A Steel Sky in terms of its graphical approach and its minimalist control system, but without the large array of verbs you might’ve gotten in a LucasArts or Sierra game. However, it’s not just adventure games that it draws parallels to, but such later role-playing games as Deus Ex as well. Not for its gameplay, but for style and the structure of the plot. Conspiracies everywhere, always nighttime, moral choices affecting the outcomes of the story, that sort of thing.
Fortunately, it’s not just a rewriting of existing ideas. Thanks to twenty years of progress in terms of concepts like user-friendliness and changes in the landscape of games — particularly who plays them — we’ve been able to make our game sufficiently streamlined that it isn’t so taxing for the patience of modern players as the classics might be.
In terms of the gameplay, why did you decide to go with a point & click mechanic, as opposed to something else?
For the last few years, the engine I’ve chiefly worked with has been Adventure Game Studio, a framework that is geared towards making games in this style. Granted, my first three games made with AGS were a puzzle game, a lander game, and a turn-based strategy, but an adventure seemed like the best idea for a longer narrative in this case.
It also allowed me to get on-board with talent with whom I knew I could work well. Wadjet Eye are an adventure publisher, and they seemed like a good avenue for getting the game out to the public.
Did you ever experiment with another kind of mechanic?
Technobabylon has had various incarnations over the years, but it’s always been a point & click adventure game. Part of the obstacle to changing from AGS over the last few years had been the cost, since AGS has always been free. Though, with Unity and Unreal going free, I’ll probably be moving on from it for the next project. If Unity had been free in 2010, Technobabylon may well have been a first-person game, something more directly akin to Deus Ex. However, I knew I had a story I wanted to tell, I knew how to operate AGS, and I knew that with it, I’d be able to produce a result that closely resembled the picture I had in my head for Technobabylon.
Though I would no doubt have experimented with other styles, I think an adventure suits the concept of the game quite well, since it’s very story-driven. Previously, I’ve build arcadey minigames, and a turn-based strategy, but an adventure best suited what I was capable of making at the time to tell a story.
The game also boasts a somewhat retro look about it. Again, why did you decide to go that route as opposed to something more detailed?
The great thing about pixel art in games like this is it’s both a matter of convenience, and a tool to make the game evocative of a particular style. Personally, my hand-drawn art is ghastly, so I’ve used pixel-art as a way of being able to draw in a style that’s both credible and straightforward. However, when I was able to get Ben Chandler on-board as an artist, his pixel art is so much richer and more detailed than my own, and allowed us to absolutely nail the look of older games, while also retaining the detail that modern art techniques and software allow for. Our style of pixel art is designed to feel like it came from a particular era of gaming, while also avoiding being as resource-intensive as high-resolution art can be.
Cyberpunk is a common motif in games, comics, and so on. In deciding how it would look and take shape in Technobabylon, what movies, books, comics, and other games did you look to for influence?
Deus Ex was a tremendous influence on the gameplay and style of Technobabylon, in the way it created its world through NPCs going about their business and the little details of the world, plus the choices that it afforded players. Choice is an important part of games to me, since otherwise you might as well just watch a movie.
Outside of games, Ghost In The Shell was another formative influence. As in Ghost, the main characters of Technobabylon are themselves working for “the establishment,” and the technology of cyberspace and mind-machine interaction is an everyday concept, almost mundane to the characters of the stories, but the plot goes on to explore the implications that these things have on us, and what it means to be human when the “mind” can be compartmentalized and digitized.
Were there any cyberpunk books, etc. that you guys specifically said, “We don’t want our game to be like that”?
I can’t think of any specific works that I wanted to avoid sharing themes with. They all have something to say on human nature and society.
But one common feature of cyberpunk that I did hope to avoid is the pessimism. In a lot of these future societies, things have gone quite drastically downhill: poverty, pollution, class divides, and oppression. I’m not quite as resolutely downbeat as that. There will always be people working to do the “right” thing, while a lot of cyberpunk characters are looking out for nobody but themselves, and would burn the world for their own gain.
Technobabylon is set in 2087. Why did you set it 70 years in the future as opposed to 20 or even 200?
In a way, the specific date is quite immaterial to the plot. I could have confused people by setting it in the 1980s, raising implications about the different development of the world. Part of the problem of setting specific dates when writing science fiction is when the world catches up with them. Just look at Back To The Future. So, for the sake of picking an arbitrary date in the future, I opted for my own 100th birthday.
That’s funny. Technobabylon has been praised for its writing. Did you hire an author or other kind of writer to script your game, or did you do it in-house?
People liking the writing is, I think, what makes me the happiest about the project. I wanted to write it myself, since a lot of it’s based on small ideas that were stuck in my head and needed an outlet. For getting ideas out of my brain, I don’t think it’d have worked as well to bring someone else in for that. Though if I make a sequel to Technobabylon with more meat to its plot, I may seek to enlist help.
Technobabylon currently only available on PCs. Are there any plans to bring it to Macs, tablets, or consoles?
Wadjet Eye have been going through a process of converting their games Gemini Rue, The Shivah, etc., to Mac OS and Apple’s tablets and phone for the last couple of years, since it’s been quite a profitable venture for them, and touch-screens lend themselves quite well to point-and-click adventures. Ideally, it would have been nice to get Technobabylon out on Mac and Linux at the same time as PC, but health issues for our chief converter at Wadjet Eye mean that we’ve decided to hold back for a while.
As for consoles, I don’t really see the game lending itself to Xbox One or PlayStation 4 very well in its current state. Perhaps at a far future stage, after considerable upgrading — like maybe redoing it in 3D — but not within the near future.
Lastly, Technobabylon is not the first game you’ve made. If someone really liked Technobabylon, and was looking for something new to play, which of your games would you recommend and why that one?
It would depend why they liked it. If they’re a fan of sci-fi adventure games, then The Rail might be worth their time. Plus it’s free. If they enjoy fully-voiced adventures with a British kind of approach to humor, then The Perfidious Petrol Station might be up their street.