Adam Orth’s cathartic videogame rebirth breaks orbit
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