The Tomorrow Children PS4
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