Futurists have long dreamed about a world where humankind can transcend its mortal coil, and minds can be uploaded like data into bodies that will neither age nor die. Futurama, on the other hand, imagined a world where the greatest minds of history were preserved in glass cases as sentient, disembodied heads. Headlander, the upcoming action-adventure game from Double Fine and Adult Swim, is a little bit of both.
Set in a world where the rest of humanity has uploaded their minds to robotic bodies, you play as the last vestige of meatspace, a disembodied human head roaming a space station in a rocket-powered helmet. Your corporeal nature grants you a special power as well: you can eject the head of any robot body you encounter, and attach yourself to its frame. Imagine Grand Theft Auto, except instead of stealing any car that catches your eye, you can steal the body of anyone who crosses your path.
And yes, this includes robot dogs.
The game is quite simply beautiful, a retro-futuristic blend of '70s aesthetics and laser beam battles that feels like a cybernetic Logan's Run beamed into the stars. Since the space station you're exploring happens to be a robotic pleasure palace, Headlander leans heavily into the hedonistic side of the '70s, as your head rockets its way through jewel-toned hookah rooms and "fondlariums."
Because your consciousness is still bound to a meaty cranium, you're a bit of an interloper in this fully digitized society—or indeed, as a threat. Watch out for the gun-toting security robots known as Shepherds who police the floor of the space station; if they catch you meandering from body to body, expect them to greet you with lasers. You can respond in kind, of course, and this is where headshots become unusually important: if you're able to destroy the robot craniums of the Shepherds but not their bodies, you'll be able to take over their bodies as well, and gain access to their weapons.
Weaponry is color-coded in Highlander, proceeding along a ROYGBIV spectrum where red is the weakest and violet is the strongest. Red lasers will bounce off the walls once and keep going, while orange lasers will bounce twice, meaning that the further you get into the game, the more colorful and wild the battles become.
There are color-coded security checkpoints as well, and many of the puzzles and obstacles in the game involve finding the right power-ups, weapons and bodies that will allow you to pass through. Where are you ultimately trying to go? Well, you don't seem to know that either, primarily because you begin the game not only without a body but without a memory.
You're left with a lot of questions: you don't know how humanity ended up like this, why you're a floating head, or why malevolent robots are trying to kill you at a psychedelic recreational center in space.
When I previewed the game at the recent PAX Prime event, the developers notes that there are subtler question marks that pop up through the game as well. For example, the robot bodies you encounter tend to be stereotypically male and female, and you'll even encounter men's and women's bathrooms on the space station. In a world where humankind has transcended bodies, why would the performance of gender and even the performance of bodily functions be so unchanged? They said that this was indeed intentional, and that there was more to this robot civilization that meets the eye.
We'll find out more when the game is released in 2016. Until then, here's another picture of a dog with a human head.