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‘Headlander’ Brings the Weird to a Groovy Retro-Future Adventure

You’re a flying, rocket-powered head in a space helmet in this oddball game

'Headlander’ falls face-first into a kitschy, modern future.

'Headlander’ falls face-first into a kitschy, modern future.

Headlander

Headlander’s future is as kitsch as Adam West’s Batman and as modern as Tom Baker’s Doctor Who. Its title screen judders and blurs like a warped videotape; its logo wouldn’t look out of place on the side of a View-Master. Like the best science fiction – as well as the worst – it’s a vision of tomorrow that’s saturated with nostalgia for how we imagined things would turn out yesterday; for things we’ve already lost.

You can probably count on one hand the number of games set in the future where you’re not humanity’s last surviving hope, but as the latest game from the offbeat Double Fine Productions, Headlander has a simple and characteristically warped answer to that. In this future, all that’s left of mankind is your decapitated head, clad in a rocket-powered helmet with a vacuum attachment, zipping around a space station that looks like it was last decorated in 1973. “Look,” they say, with a familiar, inclusive wink, “no hands.”

Double Fine has been messing around with our minds and bodies for years. Their first game, 2005’s Psychonauts, unleashed you into the heads of the residents of a psychic summer school, obliging you to scamper about in them as if psychological baggage was nothing more than a level to poke around in with a boss to beat back to sanity. More recently, Stacking deposited you in the body of a Russian doll and tasked you with hopping in and out of the other dolls you met in order to use their abilities to solve puzzles. For Double Fine, bodies have long been things to be worn for play and then discarded; mental maps are literal playgrounds to explore.

So it’s little surprise that, before I’ve even had a chance to ask the disembodied voice that woke me up how arms and legs went extinct, I’ve managed to suck the head off a passing robot guard, stolen their body, winced at a pun that’s older than video games themselves, and then escaped in a pod that’s shaped suspiciously like a cock and balls.

Not that I can ask ERL – the voice in my ear that’s the closest thing Headlander gives me to a companion – I’ve got no lungs, have I? And, now I think of it, does a preponderance of dick jokes even make sense in a universe where genitals have ceased to exist? But hey, why worry? Humanity’s destiny may be bleak and full of anachronistic colored laser-gated puzzles, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun.

What fun means for Headlander is Stacking‘s body-swapping puzzling dressed up in retro-futuristic duds and stuck rather uncomfortably on the body of a Metroid-lite world of unlocking areas, abilities and secrets. For a little while, it’s not hard to get pleasantly lost in the rhythm of popping off heads, lining up shots and flying away through a bullet-hell to grab the right body for the next door. But the rhythm never changes – it just punctuates the ever-growing map and upgrade-tree in a way that fails to disguise the familiarity of every element. And it soon becomes clear that the dull reality of things like having legs is only ever as far as the next mandatory robot away. It’s funny how often the future is somewhere you’ve already been before, isn’t it?

The characters I met are an equal mix of mournfulness and whimsy. One moment, I stopped to talk to a trapped soul yearning for real butterflies; the next, a world-weary door opened with a joyously weak pun, I plopped my head on a robot dog’s body and then spent a few relaxing moments lolloping endearingly across a maroon, shag-pile rug. Wandering into a mauve and orange-lit disco room, Plexiglas walkways overhead and blinking lights underfoot, I’d even be excused for mistaking mass extinction for Sega’s Sixties-inspired rhythm game, Space Channel 5.

But in this very familiar future, it turns out to be far easier to get used to having no body than to having no voice, or the nagging feeling that something else is missing. For all the solidity of the central mechanic, there’s less sense of a connection to the world you’re in. For all the chunky, compulsive rhythm of the gameplay, there’s something unsatisfying about the areas the game gives you no reason to return to. And for a developer that’s a byword for dialogue and humor, this isn’t a game where you’ll go back to characters you met in the hope of a joke so much as one where you’re always just passing through on the way somewhere else. 

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