The future as predicted in the ‘70s was a strange highway. Full of groovy disco, free love, and psychedelic colors, there was a distinct melding of the modern day with the Golden Age of Science Fiction from the ‘50s. Sexy astronaut suits and huge helmets, snarky boxy droids, and the beautiful vision of a hippie future in space. All these things are alive and well within the confines of the wonderful, trippy and just plain fantastic Headlander.
Headlander was developed by Double Fine, who have a history of mixing the sublime and the absurd with games like Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, and Broken Age. But it was published by Adult Swim. It’s the network’s first game on a video game console (mostly they’ve made phone games until now). It feels perfectly in line with Adult Swim’s tendency for satirizing known commodities and genres to create something that ends up with its own definitive personality. Headlander, for instance, takes the genre that Metroid made and envelopes it in that groovy ‘70s futurism with trip hop flavor.
(It’s a shame they didn’t get Morcheeba and the Supreme Beings of Leisure on the soundtrack, but the inspired score is pretty spot on anyway and worth listening to all on its on.)
The grand joke of Headlander—and the premise upon which all the rest of it is based—is the very literal nature of its name. You play a body-less head, contained in an astronaut helmet (complete with a jetpack and vacuum), that can take over any of the robot bodies you find.
There are a lot of robot bodies to find, not all of them unoccupied, and you’ll be switching (or stealing) bodies often. There’s not much set-up. You, as the head, awaken to discover your horrifying new state, but there’s no time to mire yourself down in self-pity. A rogue AI is up to no good and must be stopped!
It’s a safe bet that Double Fine was worshipping heavily at the altar of the 1968 psychedelic sexual sci-fi classic Barbarella here (for proof or just an affirmation that life has always been weird, check out the movie’s trailer:
One of the major locations is a pleasure space station, for instance, where robotic humans just party all the time or stand around staring at glowing crystals, while vocalizing thoughts that (to a completely stoned mind) probably sound deep and amazing. You can talk to any of these strange denizens—unless they’re shooting at you—and the more time spent with them, the weirder things get.
Headlander’s bizarre view of the future is populated by humans who have all had their consciousnesses transferred into the machine and they just aren’t right anymore. Take one of the early side missions, where a particularly upscale robotic lady is quite perturbed about her missing dog. The dog is also a robot, of course, complete with a removable head. Unfortunately, it simply won’t follow you across the space station to its owner.
In properly ludicrous fashion, you simply pop off its little doggie head, land your own head on its four-legged body and scoot on back. The dog’s owner doesn’t even notice that she’s left with a headless robot dog, because that would require more self-awareness than these former humans can muster. The game is full of little touches of insanity and made all the better for it.
In a society where physical limitations are no longer an issue, mankind has simply settled into a robotic haze of nonsense and a meandering lack of purpose. There are a lot of layers here, if you care to give it enough thought.
The surface jokes of the drug-addled ‘70s ideology mix with the snark and cynicism of the best work of Douglas Adams. Doors hate you, but hate themselves more, and can be sometimes be goaded into apathy with a well-placed shot. Janitor droids just want to be left alone and everyone seems intent on finding the illusion of busyness without actually doing anything.
While the gameplay is heavily puzzle and shooting based—there’s a lot of finding the right body for the right job kind of things here—the atmosphere, the reds, oranges and yellows of the color scheme, the soundtrack, everything about the aesthetic design of Headlander just sets the mood to groovy. That the game manages a palpable sense of something disturbing simmering underneath that hipster veneer speaks volumes to the skill of Double Fine.
Headlander is Barbarella meets Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the result is just as fantastic as it sounds. It’s one of the most cohesive and entertaining mash-ups of two related, yet distinct styles of sci-fi futurism and easily one of Double Fine’s best games in years. Hilarious, clever, and somewhat disturbing, there’s nothing else quite like this.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.