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Californium: This weird new video game takes you inside Philip K. Dick's head

Based on the life and writings of author Philip K. Dick,
Based on the life and writings of author Philip K. Dick, "Californium" takes place in 1960s Berkeley, California.
Courtesy Arte/Californium

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Fans of Philip K. Dick know him as the reality-bending author who helped elevate mid-century science fiction from pulp to respectable literature.

His visions of artificial intelligence were scripted for the screen with "Blade Runner," he foreshadowed the rise of the modern surveillance state in "A Scanner Darkly," he wrote the book that inspired "Total Recall."

Now, there's a new video game which the makers say was inspired by the life and work of Dick. 

The game's called "Californium." It's available on PC and Mac computers through Steam. In it, you play strung-out, deadline-skipping science fiction author Elvin Green. Here's a trailer from the game's creators:


You begin the game exploring an apartment — a voice coming through a static-filled television gives you instructions. Eerie ambient music plays in the background. Walls melt away to reveal portals to alternate realities. Menacing figures stare up at you from the street below. It's all very Philip K. Dickian.

"It's kind of a trick we tried to do with this game. Because we can experience it like a story, but there is also some uncomfortable mood that is raising when you play," said Olivier Bonhomme, who worked with Arte, a European company, in crafting the look of the game. 

Still from
Still from "Californium"

Readers of Dick's sometimes chemically-enhanced, paranoid novels will feel right at home in the world Bonhomme has created. But the game doesn't pull its aesthetic from any one novel or movie adaptation.

"I didn't want to be, how you say, 'over-brained' by the already existing adaptations," said Bonhomme. "So I had to create something new. The idea was to be quite opposite of science fiction fans, and Philip K. Dick fans used to see when there is an adaptation about one of his books or his world."  

For Bonhomme and the rest of the game designers in France, "Californium" is less about a particular storyline than it is a PKD state of mind.

"We grew up with his mind and his inspiration, and Philip K. Dick is very, very famous in France and in Europe," said Bonhomme. "We felt this making the game. That Philip K. Dick was a big part of our cultural inspiration all along our childhood, when we began to play video games and watch American science fiction movies and to read his books."

Still from
Still from "Californium"

Dedicated fans will quickly realize that your avatar in "Californium" isn't so much one of the writer's characters, but the author IRL. The game takes place in Berkeley, where Dick once lived and wrote. 

Your avatar is confronted with relationships that recall the writer's failed marriages, the landlord yells at you for your drug habit and paranoia seeps into every corner of your world — all aspects of Dick's own life.

The game even resonates with people who knew Dick. Marc Haefele worked at Doubleday in the early 1960s, one of Dick's early publishers — there, he edited "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" and "Ubik." 

"You know, in every Philip K. Dick novel, there's a character that is Phil," Haefele said. "It's not necessarily like the Phil we know from his personal history, but Phil as he saw himself. It's a regular guy who does a regular but maybe oddball, not-that-distinguished job and who tries to be as honest as he can."

Bonhomme admits the idea of making a PKD video game was daunting at first, but he also says — only half-jokingly — that maybe there was a little something magical going on during the process. Maybe we're all a little haunted by the spirit of Dick.

"It's like a big, big supernova with a lot of stars who are on the circle around his mind," said Bonhomme. "Something with a lot of possible inspirations, possible ways to explore, and we had to choose one."

The world's been without Philip K. Dick for over 30 years now. He can't play "Californium," we can't ask him what he thinks of it. But if the universe created in the game is familiar to his friends and fans, it must be doing something right. 

"We are living in a computer-programmed reality and the only clue we have to it is when some variable is changed and some alteration in our reality occurs," Dick once said at a 1977 science fiction conference in France. "We would have the overwhelming impression that we were re-living the present. Deja vu."

 Maybe we've all been characters in a PKD video game all along.