The To­mor­row Chil­dren PS4

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We cheer­fully made a bee­line for the slid­ing tile puz­zle when the spi­der bots ar­rived. If we hadn’t al­ready re­alised that The To­mor­row Chil­dren does things a lit­tle dif­fer­ently from most games, that might well have sealed the deal. If not that, then how about the fact we will­ingly queued to do it? Still, there was method in our ap­par­ent mad­ness: a lum­ber­ing kaiju had shown up on the hori­zon and we needed to craft an ex­tra tur­ret. And we were never go­ing to com­plete the puz­zle any­way – not with enough dol­lars to bribe the min­istry to look the other way and leave plenty spare for that black-mar­ket rocket launcher.

To ex­plain an av­er­age play ses­sion is to sound as if you’ve lost your mar­bles. The game it­self is a swarm of con­tra­dic­tions. It’s a city-builder where you have lim­ited say in what’s con­structed and where. A so­cial game in which you can’t talk to other play­ers. An MMOG with­out quests or raids. A tower-de­fence game where your last line of pro­tec­tion may well have jet­packed away from dan­ger. Its per­sis­tent worlds only per­sist un­til they’re fully pop­u­lated, and then you’re forced to move on. And it’s a sand­box built mostly from quick­sand – ven­ture be­yond your town’s nar­row bound­aries and you’ll be­gin to slip be­neath the sur­face.

This for­bid­ding blank space is the Void, the cat­a­strophic re­sult of a Soviet ex­per­i­ment that has all but wiped out hu­man­ity. Con­trol­ling a glassy-eyed wooden doll – the game’s fic­tion calls them ‘pro­jec­tion clones’ – your job is to re­build the world, one small town at a time. This in­volves min­ing and trans­port­ing re­sources from sur­real struc­tures within the Void, while re­pop­u­lat­ing the town with ma­tryoshkas that spo­rad­i­cally ap­pear as you chip away with your pick­axe or shovel. Back at base, you’ll craft new homes for th­ese set­tlers and de­fences to pro­tect against the ma­raud­ing mon­sters de­ter­mined to spoil all your hard work.

And The To­mor­row Chil­dren can feel like hard work, though it’s a dif­fer­ent kind of dif­fi­cult. It doesn’t wil­fully with­hold in­for­ma­tion, but it takes some time to ac­cli­ma­tise to what you’re sup­posed to do and where you’re sup­posed to be. TV screens dis­play short videos to give you some idea, and there are short text tu­to­ri­als tucked away for those de­ter­mined enough to seek them out, but of­ten you’ll learn more by study­ing other play­ers’ be­hav­iours, even as they flicker in and out of the world. The work it­self is straight­for­ward enough, but it’s repet­i­tive and time-con­sum­ing. Tools break quickly and your ruck­sack can carry only three in­di­vid­ual chunks of wood, coal or metal. When night falls, or you carve your­self a war­ren no nat­u­ral light can reach, you’ll quickly lose en­ergy un­less you’ve brought along a portable light source.

In the more pop­u­lous towns, it’s eas­ier to over­come some of th­ese early hard­ships. Sys­tems that con­sciously dis­em­power the in­di­vid­ual tac­itly en­cour­age team­work, so you’ll some­times find chains of work­ers throw­ing ob­jects to one an­other in a kind of fac­tory pro­duc­tion line to hurry things along – though only those at ei­ther end of the chain will find sig­nif­i­cant gain from this ap­proach. Ei­ther way, to get any­where, you’ll need to muck in, whether it’s run­ning on a tread­mill to keep the me­ter run­ning (res­i­dents will leave if power out­ages aren’t swiftly rec­ti­fied) or com­plet­ing a short QTE to fix a burn­ing build­ing fol­low­ing a mon­ster ram­page. If at times your ob­jec­tive feels faintly Sisyphean, progress grad­u­ally starts to show, even in towns with no more than two or three play­ers.

In­di­vid­u­ally, the tasks are dull and repet­i­tive, and yet in the wider con­text of the nar­ra­tive they take on greater sig­nif­i­cance. The tan­gi­ble signs of growth that show ev­ery player’s ef­forts are hav­ing a cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect en­cour­age you to stick at it. And in help­ing oth­ers, you can still pur­sue in­di­vid­ual glory; in­deed, the leader­boards that rank ev­ery player’s con­tri­bu­tion nat­u­rally en­cour­age healthy com­pe­ti­tion and, per­haps, self­ish op­por­tunism. Any kind of work is mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial, but savvy play­ers can profit more than most. If you don’t fancy get­ting your hands dirty, you can al­ways pay to make life eas­ier. At times, it feels like a free-to-play game that’s satiris­ing free-to-play games. You’ll find the oc­ca­sional hand­ful of notes, but to ac­cess the costlier, stur­dier weapons, to bribe of­fi­cials to hand over ve­hi­cle and gun li­cences with­out first jump­ing through hoops, and to re­vive your­self when you’re at­tacked or run out of phase en­ergy, you’ll need to stump up real cash. If bak­ing th­ese ac­cel­er­ants within the fic­tion feels like Q-Games is hav­ing its cake and eat­ing it, it’s cer­tainly one way to make a state­ment.

It has some­thing to say about so­cial in­equal­ity, too: those who shelled out £16 for the early-ac­cess ver­sion are given a ma­jor leg-up, in­clud­ing a tools li­cence, a cash sweet­ener and a res­i­dency per­mit. As mem­bers of the bour­geoisie, we find lo­cals re­mind­ing us of the rar­efied po­si­tion we hold – and we’ve not even paid our way. It’s the first time a 12-char­ac­ter code has made us think about in­her­ited priv­i­lege – es­pe­cially since we can also in­vite five friends to en­joy some, but not all, of the perks we’ve been handed on a sil­ver plat­ter.

Not that The To­mor­row Chil­dren gives any­thing else up quite so eas­ily. It’s a som­bre, chilly ex­pe­ri­ence that’s de­signed to make you feel small as you toil away, fu­elling the pro­pa­ganda ma­chine for a na­tion that feels any­thing but glo­ri­ous. Your tri­umphs are fleet­ing and hard-earned, and yet there are glim­mers of hope and hu­man­ity in the col­lec­tive ef­fort to build a brighter fu­ture. It will baf­fle some and bore oth­ers, but al­ready it seems like this strik­ing, sin­gu­lar on­line game will, fit­tingly, find a small army of loyal fol­low­ers pre­pared to stand up and sup­port the cause.

It doesn’t wil­fully with­hold in­for­ma­tion, but it takes some time to ac­cli­ma­tise to what you’re sup­posed to do

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