Adrift

Adam Orth’s cathar­tic videogame re­birth breaks or­bit

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PC, PS4, Xbox One

After post­ing the in­fa­mous Xbox One al­ways-on­line #deal­withit tweets in April 2013, Adam Orth faced so many demons that it took a zero-g en­vi­ron­ment to lift his spir­its. He walked away from his job as a Mi­crosoft Stu­dios cre­ative di­rec­tor, re­vis­ited an old idea about a fe­male astro­naut try­ing to sur­vive a space sta­tion dis­as­ter, and forced him­self to spend most of that sum­mer in the Seat­tle Pub­lic Li­brary to flesh out the game’s de­sign. He de­scribes th­ese vis­its as be­ing “half re­search”, by which he means study­ing NASA books, Bru­tal­ist ar­chi­tec­ture, com­puter de­signs and min­i­mal­ism, and “half the need to be some­place where I had to put clothes on, ad­here to a sched­ule and get some work done”.

Almost two years on, the idea that started out as a per­sonal re­demp­tion project is a game that feels like Grav­ity’s un­of­fi­cial tie-in. Your goal as the sur­vivor of a cat­a­strophic in­ci­dent is to re­pair seem­ingly dead sys­tems, power up an es­cape shut­tle, and re­turn to Earth. “There’s a bunch of puz­zles in the game that re­volve around pick­ing up pieces and putting them where they be­long in a se­quence at the right time based on mu­sic, which I know sounds to­tally weird,” Orth says. “I’m a mu­si­cian and my part­ner, Omar [Aziz], is also a mu­si­cian. It’s def­i­nitely ab­stract, but our game is ab­stract in places. We’re OK with that.”

Keen to cre­ate a firstper­son ex­pe­ri­ence that nei­ther in­volves guns nor can be la­belled “a walk­ing-around-and-look­ing-at-stuff sim­u­la­tor”, Orth wants you to in­ter­act with the world as much as pos­si­ble. Though the ac­tion but­ton is dis­abled in the most re­cent build (“to be to­tally frank,” Orth ad­mits, “it was a last-minute demo”), you’ll even­tu­ally be able to grab, ex­am­ine and move ev­ery piece of float­ing de­bris, and op­er­ate ev­ery func­tional com­puter you find. Zero grav­ity also en­ables you to ma­nip­u­late ob­jects you wouldn’t or­di­nar­ily be able to shift, mov­ing gi­ant struc­tures around with your hands in the weight­less en­vi­ron­ments. But the most im­por­tant el­e­ment of all is your own propul­sion through Adrift’s float­ing tomb, the de­stroyed North­star IV space sta­tion.

“Re­cently, we switched our con­trols to be a lit­tle more, I would call it, ‘ca­sual-sim’,” Orth says. “In­stead of just tra­di­tional firstper­son move­ment, it’s evolv­ing into a re­ally in­tu­itive Tony Hawk vibe, where you’re con­stantly us­ing the shoul­der but­tons to move up and down and brake your­self.”

The key to suc­cess­fully cre­at­ing a skil­lbased nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem in a zero-grav­ity en­vi­ron­ment in which the player has com­plete con­trol over their pitch, yaw and roll comes from lim­it­ing the num­ber of in­put com­mands. Your ex­trave­hic­u­lar ac­tiv­ity suit is dam­aged early on, and the only way to main­tain its power is to feed oxy­gen into the tank. That’s the same oxy­gen you need to breathe, giv­ing rise to a re­source-man­age­ment metagame. “There’s all th­ese lit­tle mo­ment-to­mo­ment de­ci­sions,” Orth ex­plains. “If you’re float­ing there and there’s de­bris float­ing by and there’s an oxy­gen tank you need, you have to ask, ‘When do I go? How do I get there? I have to time it just right. Am I go­ing to make it be­fore I run out of oxy­gen and die? Or do I need to thrust to get there? But if I thrust, it de­pletes my oxy­gen faster…’”

Sur­vey­ing the scene with an Ocu­lus Rift re­veals LCD in­di­ca­tors on your left fore­arm, but, after ex­per­i­ment­ing with Dead Spaces­tyle on-body feed­back, Three One Zero has opted for an in-hel­met HUD to avoid awk­ward ‘Look’ but­tons for non-VR play­ers. “You’re pretty much ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the en­tire game inside a hel­met, and that just works bet­ter.” And through this hel­met, Adrift looks ev­ery inch the game Three One Zero set out to make when the stu­dio formed in late 2013. Free of the pres­sures of his time at Mi­crosoft, Orth is in re­laxed mood. “There’s a lot of risk in­volved in what we’re do­ing, but there’s no pos­si­ble out­come of fail­ure for us, be­cause we got to make the game that we set out to make. And that’s hard enough.”

Adam Orth, co-founder and cre­ative de­signer at Three One Zero

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