Reality is changeable, vulnerable to interpretation and interference. It’s an idea that permeates the writing of Philip K. Dick, one of pop culture’s most influential forces. Even if you don’t recognize his work by name, chances are you’ve experienced its impact. Minority Report, knife runner, A dark scanner, Total recall– these are all films that owe life to the acclaimed sci-fi author. Likewise, an arsenal of video games draws content from the man’s fiction, be it so Deus Ex or the upcoming California.
A collaboration between production companies Darjeeling and Nova Productions, California follows the life of a writer named Elvin Green, who finds reality unraveling even as his world collapses around his ears. While far from a direct adaptation, the game is reminiscent of Dick’s beautifully bizarre VALISwho contemplates the possibility that human destiny may be subject to external control.
What makes this particularly interesting is that VALIS was not entirely a work of fiction. In many ways it was autobiographical. Like the narrator Horselover Fat, Dick believed in the idea of pink laser beams being used by an alien source to convey important revelations, such as the knowledge of an undiscovered birth defect in his son.
This surrealist theory was just one of many that came about through a chance encounter in 1974. After contacting the local pharmacy for painkillers, Dick met a girl wearing an ichthys symbol. He asked about its origin and was immediately overwhelmed by a moment of anamnesis, which revealed to him a picture of “hateful Rome” and the knowledge of Jesus’ inevitable return.
Such strange, phantasmagorical visions would follow the author until his death. These experiences were so overwhelming that they caused an obsession. In the years following that first meeting, Dick wrote more than 8,000 pages dissecting and describing his revelations. (Excerpts would eventually be compiled into the Exegesis of Philip K. Dicka ponderous read that has fascinated armchair academics since publication.)
it should be noted that California borrows only from these ideas and distills the author’s convoluted hypotheses into something approachable. Interestingly, it also comes from his writing. While adaptations of his work have embedded impressions of chrome and dystopian beauty in our minds, Dick’s actual prose was often ponderous, with excessive descriptions and the occasional silliness that belied the seriousness of his concepts. California manifests this dissonance in a smear of trippy, acid-kissed colors. His world is bold, striking and a far cry from the stark black and white often associated with Dick’s name.
“When you read Philip K. Dick, you realize that the dystopia is not in the aesthetics, but in the portrayal of people. His books were really fun and we wanted to keep this aesthetic,” Darjeeling’s digital producer Noam Roubah told Ars.
To achieve this, they sought out a French illustrator named Olivier Bonhomme, whose art teems with vibrant colors and psychedelic imagery. The team also actively wanted to move away from what Roubah describes as the “classic, rainy, dark, Philip K. Dick” style and return to what the author put into his novels, which happened to be very colored by its history with recreational use. Chemicals.
The idea for California itself came into being in 2011 as the creators pondered what to make for the 30th anniversary of Philip K. Dick’s death. “It’s really interesting to work on this guy, this writer,” Roubah said. “Everything he wrote in the ’50s and ’60s is now part of our modern world. The dehumanization of human behavior, the internet, it was all in his books.
“Initially we thought about doing something on the internet, since Philip K. Dick talked a lot about virtual worlds and what it means to be human. The internet seemed like the perfect place to find out.”
But finally, after weeks and months of discussion, the team decided they would make a video game. From there, they then took elements from the life and work of Philip K. Dick to create an entirely new story. The result is very reminiscent of the early years of the author. There’s a woman who leaves Green, and a dismissive editor, who draws on Dick’s struggle to be recognized by the mainstream literary community.
Then, of course, there’s the reality shift.
It may sound like a daunting premise, but Roubah tells me anyone can cross California‘s mélange of worlds with ease. “You just have to walk around, talk to people, look around and look for things that are not normal. Maybe at some point you see a pair of glasses on the table to have it turned into a book. When you find such anomalous things, you expose a different reality.”
A simple conceit, but also rooted in Dick’s philosophies. In an essay titled “If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others,” he addresses the possibility of alternate presentations happening continuously, all unnoticed except by the subconscious.
“We could reflexively reach for a light switch in the bathroom only to discover that it was – always has been – in a different place,” Dick wrote. “Such an impression is an indication that at some time in the past a variable has been changed – reprogrammed, as it were – and that as a result an alternative world has been branched, actualized instead of the previous one, and that in fact, in fact we are once again living in this particular part of linear time.”
In light of that, it’s no surprise that Roubah is toying with the idea of doing something with virtual reality, something that California‘s gameplay, but not its length. He is not yet sure what form it will take. They are still prototyping, but it seems Roubah is in no rush. With financing from the French broadcaster Arte, the studios are not obliged to commercialize California. It can be art, however esoteric or philical that may be.
Californium will be released on Steam in early 2016.