Interview: Adam Orth, creative director, Three One Zero
“This is the ultimate environment. I knew looking down at all of humanity would touch people”
Three One Zero creative director and game designer Adam Orth has a striking CV, having held positions at Lucas Arts, Electronic Arts, Sony Computer Entertainment, Pop Cap and, most recently, Microsoft. Here, the Adrift creator discusses the process of bringing a very personal project to life, and why he doesn’t mind comparisons to Gravity. Adrift was designed for monitors and VR – was it a challenge to create both versions simultaneously? We’re a team who’ve basically made console games our whole careers, so we approached Adrift like we would a console game. There are a lot of animations in the non-VR version where you get up close to a door and you open it with your hands, or you go into a repair station and it turns you around. We experimented with how those things work in VR and changed some animations [to make it more comfortable]. How did the SAS Relief mechanic come about? There’s this effect in VR called tunnelling, which shrinks the screen you’re looking at into a small window and then blacks out the rest of it so that your peripheral vision settles in and you’re looking at a concentrated version of the full screen. We tried that, and it just didn’t really have the impact that we wanted. But we thought, ‘Let’s just make this part of the fiction and have it be a function of your helmet where an overlay comes down almost like a sun visor’. It was inspired by some of the things in Metal Gear games where they break that wall, y’know? The idea was to ‘pull a Kojima’ there. Was there debate regarding Alex’s movement speed? The first 40 minutes is supposed to feel like you’re fragile and broken, and right on the edge of everything falling apart. So being at a particular speed, and how that increases throughout the game, was intentional. Did you have any concerns about the tension between the game’s contemplative pacing and mechanical urgency? Yeah, we did, but the idea was to play with those things. And we’re seeing that it was a divisive move from some of the comments and reviews of the game. But I look at it this way: if I found myself in a destroyed space station and needing to get home, I don’t know if that’s a smell-the-roses kind of moment, right? Your oxygen capacity, and the way that you use it and it depletes, is a lot slower than I think people perceive it to be – I think the psychological effect of suffocation has an effect. I think the tension between those two things is very interesting. We made a really personal art game – it’s not meant to be Call Of Duty. We really wanted to do something fresh and unique, and I feel like we did that. How did you go about designing the game structure? We’re a super-small team, and we only had X amount of time and Y amount of money to make the game. We wanted to make the best experience possible. I didn’t approach it like a game, but almost like a big level in a game. While you have to do those same four things, we felt like each of those objectives exist in four or five very different environments. And that’s how we chose to differentiate the task of building this system back up so that you can safely get home again. I feel pretty strongly that the experience of getting there and doing those things is much different to just doing it. Floating out of the station above Earth is certainly a moving experience. Yeah, we wanted to be able to tell a story without having any story. This is the ultimate environment. I knew just being in space and looking down at all of humanity would touch people. The narrative in Adrift is broken, just like the station, the suit and the main character. It’s supposed to be messy and out of order and discovered in the way you discover it. I approached the narrative like seeds: I want you to hear a bit, get a little chunk and then hopefully when you’re going across those great divides and no one’s talking to you, you start thinking about what you just heard a couple of minutes ago. Gravity came out just a few months after you founded the studio – how did you feel about that? What happened was, after the Twitter incident where I made some ill-advised remarks while working at Microsoft, I just kind of disconnected myself from the world and started working on this game. Gravity had been announced, it was in production and due out at the end of the year, and I just wasn’t aware of it at all. When I plugged myself back into the internet, I very quickly discovered Gravity while researching, and so I was like, “OK, I can’t make this game now…” But some developer friends of mine who’d read my elevator pitch for it convinced me to keep going. Then Gravity came out and I went to see it. I was relieved because our game is very different to what the film turned out to be. And I realised how helpful it was going to be – people come to the game with an idea of what the setup is so I don’t have to explain it. Plus, people are comparing the game to an Oscar-winning film, so it’s a compliment! All in all, it added up to an hour of bad feelings over time, and I accepted it early on, so if people need to bring up Gravity as a descriptor for our game, I’m totally fine with that.