I do like a good dystopian fiction, but I’d also quite like it to stay, well… fictitious. It’s quite remarkable just how relevant some of the old dystopian worlds have now become, as some of the dark futures that science fiction envisioned come closer and closer to reality. Of course 1984 is at the forefront of all of this – just see how the British police are trialing facial recognition (badly) for a baby step down the slippery staircase of a totalitarian police state – but there are countless examples to be found in film, television, books, comics, tabletop RPGs and now video games. It’s always nice when the developers of a new game explain the reasoning behind picking up the license to their game by saying how suited it feels to the modern day.
Enter Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory, a video game adaptation of the tabletop RPG of the same name, coming to PC and consoles sometime in 2019. First published in 1984, it’s set in a futuristic city of Alpha Complex that’s completely controlled and monitored by the AI computer known as Friend Computer. It should be idyllic, shouldn’t it? Every whim and wish catered to by an omniscient computer designed to look after the humans in its care? Obviously, when there’s posters around the place saying that “Happiness is mandatory”, it’s not going to be like that. Quite the opposite, the AI has grown paranoid and society completely dysfunctional and detached. Nothing typifies this more than the fact that you’re not allowed to have any friends outside of Friend Computer – this is a dystopia with tongue planted firmly in cheek, where the nonsensical reigns supreme.
With Friend Computer’s cameras everywhere, watching your every move and action, you’re constantly being monitored for acts of treason. All of the inhabitants of Alpha Complex have a colour-coded security clearance, ranging from infrared through to ultraviolet, and even something as slight as stepping across the coloured lines on the floor and into yellow level territory when you’re merely red level will bump your Treason level up a notch.
These limitations on your freedom lend themselves well to a tight and focussed RPG experience, which feels in keeping with a tabletop RPG campaign. Instead of being given a sprawling open world to explore and countless side missions dotting your map, it’s a more linear adventure through a series of missions and story beats, as you unravel the conspiracies and mysteries of this world. For one thing, why is everyone cooped up in here? What’s outside the confines of Alpha Complex that is so bad?
The best and fastest way to increase your security clearance is to join and lead a team of Troubleshooters, taking on various missions for Friend Computer and dealing with all manner of things that it finds to be a threat. The first mission in the game has you heading down to the lower depths of Alpha Complex where a cleaning robot that’s been upgraded with an emotion chip by the brilliant idiots in the R&D department has got a bit scared. Think Data’s emotion chip in Star Trek: Generations, but implanted into a street sweeping machine. You’ve been sent down to help reassure it as it goes through dark and scary corridors. You’re also the third team to go…
It doesn’t take long to find out what’s going on down there, as hostile robots come out and attack you. Paranoia’s got a lot in common with classic cRPGs like Baldur’s Gate or more modern games like Pillars of Eternity, with the game playing out in real time with pausing. You can go as fast or as slow as you like, directing your four Troubleshooters through combat, making them take cover and fire at the bots attacking you. Just beware that friendly fire is a thing and your Troubleshooters aren’t particularly fussed about indiscriminately shooting each other.
Outside of gaining a higher security clearance, there’s another good reason to join the Troubleshooters, because where you’re going might not be in sight of Friend Computer’s cameras. You can get away with more deviant activities down here, whether it’s having to break the rules and hack machines just to get the objectives done, or looting for weapons and gear that are of a higher clearance level than you’re allowed – if FC can see, it’ll send little bots to collect the gear, though you can, at the cost of Treason, blow them up.
Friend Computer isn’t the only one that needs to be paranoid here, because it’s every man and woman for themselves in this place, and Alpha Complex’s citizens are more than happy to trample over each other on the way to the top. While you’re in charge of the mission and can expect your Troubleshooters to follow your orders, they might well stab you in the back when they get the opportunity. It’s not just if they see you doing misdeeds, but if you order them to break the rules themselves, they can just as easily pass the buck and say they were just following orders like good little citizens.
But you don’t need to worry too much about the consequences of your actions. You’re born having sinned, simply from the fact that you have a secret mutation that you need to keep hidden, and you can join some of the many outlawed secret societies that exist in Alpha Complex. If your Treason level gets too high, you might be able to buy your way out of trouble and reduce it, and if you die in combat? Well, everybody has got six bodies, six clones that you can work through (each with a new mutation), and even then you can buy more clones from Friend Computer.
There’s something about Paranoia that’s really caught my imagination. Toeing the line to appear like a goodie two shoes, while breaking every rule you can possibly get away with outside the watchful eyes of Friend Computer and the other humans. Cyanide and Black Shamrock seem to be doing a great job of capturing the feel of a tabletop game, of playing with other perhaps untrustworthy people, not to mention the light-hearted tone of this dystopian world.