Technolust is the virtual reality experience that part of the VR community has always wanted. An exploration-focused "visual novel" released for the Oculus Rift this week, it’s a clearinghouse of cyberpunk fantasies, shameless fanservice to anyone who’s ever imagined visiting the Sprawl mega-city of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. This kind of wish-fulfillment is dangerous in fiction — it’s a recipe for dense in-jokes and uncritically reproduced cliches. But Technolust gets things right so often that it’s still delightfully hard to resist.
Technolust is a simple adventure game, with most of its mechanics designed not to make players solve puzzles but to encourage interacting with a world. In this case, that world is a society of hackers in a repressive corporate-owned metropolis, jacking into cyberspace and trying to crack the secrets of some deadly stolen software. This ought to sound familiar, because the whole thing is a deeply self-conscious pastiche of cyberpunk tropes.
Minor spoilers for Technolust ahead.
As the game’s many pop culture references remind us, Technolust is Blade Runner rolled into Snow Crash, Max Headroom, Transmetropolitan, and several other cultural touchstones, topped off with an increasingly popular kind of ‘80s retro-futurism. Cyberspace neural rigs sit next to boom-boxes and televisions with VCR slots, you jack into sophisticated computer backups using pay phones, and your toaster is "smart" because it’s got a black plastic keypad tacked on. Its visual style is a smoother modern callback to the muddy graphics found in late ‘90s computer games, particularly Deus Ex: it’s the look you get when you stretch photorealistic textures onto simple 3D models and make the whole world gunmetal gray.
Modern nostalgia means fondly remembering what happened 15 minutes ago
What saves Technolust from being generic is its recognition that modern nostalgia means fondly remembering what happened 15 minutes ago. In its dystopian far future, real-life virtual-world celebrity Jon "Neverdie" Jacobs is still running for president of virtual reality (a campaign he "won" in a poll earlier this year), plastering the world with posters that feel designed for an ‘00s steampunk convention. And closer to home, the game is a time capsule of virtual reality history. Technolust’s first demo launched in early 2014, and it’s since become retro simply by persisting in VR’s quickly changing landscape. This starts with the Oculus Rift headsets that are scattered throughout the levels, albeit branded with a different name. It’s not just that the consumer Rift, which Oculus readily admits is an early piece of VR hardware, will look old decades from now. It’s that the models are already old: they’re based on the earlier DK1 and DK2 development kits.
Even Technolust’s basic format is subtly archaic for a VR game. Its mechanics — walking around a virtual world with a controller, using a first-person viewpoint — were utterly unremarkable for VR in 2014, but the potential for motion sickness was great enough that most Rift games have since moved players to a third-person perspective or replaced walking with teleportation and motion tracking. Two years later, keeping the style actually makes Technolust stand out.
And the motion sickness issue is complicated. Playing the original Technolust demo on a DK1 made me so sick that I had to turn the game off, but playing the final version on a consumer Rift, I went through Technolust in hour-long chunks with almost no ill effects. I may just be getting better at avoiding nausea (breathing through your nose and looking at walls while walking seems to help), but the game also seems designed on a small enough scale that you’re usually not moving long distances at a time. There’s a "comfort mode" that changes your movement to a more teleportation-like stutter, but while I was certainly conscious of fighting nausea for most of the game, I never needed to use it. It’s enough to make me take another look at VR walking games, a genre I’d all but written off as inherently miserable.
Perhaps because it’s working on such well-established territory, Technolust is an unusually well-paced short exploration game, especially for something working within the new world of VR. It spends its few hours of playtime gently leading players through a series of self-contained levels, each one just large enough to hold a handful of interesting character interactions, Easter eggs, and arcade cabinets with fully playable mini-games or video art installations. Its obscure collectible items incentivize poring over every detail of a level, even if it’s just to point your head at everything in sight while tapping the "interact" button. Technolust even manages to do something the vast majority of VR and non-VR games can’t: wrap up with a denouement instead of an abrupt halt. Without getting specific, the game’s apparent ending quietly suggests retracing your steps — it doesn’t exactly fill in the sketched-out plot, but it’s emotionally satisfying nonetheless.
Featuring a remarkable number of playable VR arcade games
As in many similar games, Technolust’s blank-slate protagonist is a largely solitary figure. Beyond short monologues from minor characters, your main source of human conversation is live-action transmissions from anarcho-hacktivist leader Glitch. It’s a standard "voice on the radio" trope, but Glitch turns out to be one of the few parts of the game to break from the hyper-stylized cyberpunk aesthetic. Actress Laura Steponchev delivers a refreshingly earnest and low-key performance, swapping leather and mirrorshades for the nondescript look of someone who genuinely lives mostly online. She’s the super-hacker as slightly frazzled sysadmin, the resistance champion as college political organizer in a high-stakes world.
The weakest element of Technolust (besides a name that sounds far too much like the 2002 Tilda Swinton film Teknolust) is that there’s not more of this down-to-earth specificity. Cyberpunk’s foundational texts were groundbreaking partly because of how they extrapolated pieces of ordinary life into the future. Technolust includes its share of characters eating ramen or loitering on the street, but it’s too fond of stylistic flourishes and references to develop its world as a human space instead of a stage for acting out our shared cultural scripts. Depending on how you interpret the plot, this kind of stilted unreality is the whole point of Technolust, and the environments’ off-ness can be funny — why does everyone keep so many spare PC graphics cards lying around? But at worst, it means intentionally using hackneyed ideas that are simply too far gone to be interesting on their own.
But I’m only saying this because Technolust is solidly constructed enough to make me want more. It’s a game that throws itself headlong into a tired genre, distills the best parts, and manages to never lose its soul.