Pulled to­gether by ‘Adr1ft’

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Todd Martens

Never mind the de­stroyed space sta­tion and the ref­er­ences to the isles of Los An­ge­les. “Adr1ft” may look like a work of science fic­tion, but in re­al­ity it’s one of the most deeply per­sonal video games of 2015. It’s also one borne out of a uniquely con­tem­po­rary calamity.

Adam Orth in spring 2013 had a good gig at Mi­crosoft, work­ing pri­mar­ily on ways to make tele­vi­sion view­ing more in­ter­ac­tive. Then one day he got a lit­tle too vo­cal on Twit­ter and found him­self out of a job.

“Some­times,” he said, “you have to burn ev­ery­thing right to the ground.”

Burn he did. Orth that April be­came one of the most hated men on the In­ter­net, or at least a cer­tain cor­ner of it. The per­ceived crime: Ex­press­ing an un­pop­u­lar opin­ion re­gard­ing the fu­ture of home video game con­soles.

In a sin­gu­lar ex­am­ple of so­called In­ter­net-sham­ing, Orth said he opened the gates to the In­ter­net, and what he saw be­hind the doors were “pitch­forks and torches”— even hav­ing to ex­plain to his mother why strangers wanted him out of a job. Days af­ter get­ting too com­fort­able on Twit­ter, he re­signed from Mi­crosoft.

Yet out of the ashes have come “Adr1ft,” a nar­ra­tive-fo­cused game that’s di­rectly in­spired by the so­cial-me­dia-driven dis­as­ter. “Adr1ft” is about lone­li­ness, about the fear of mess­ing up and the hope that one can emerge from a catas­tro­phe stronger than be­fore.

Why is there a nu­meral “1” in the ti­tle? “One is the loneli­est num­ber,” said Orth. Af­ter the blow-up, Orth be­come some­thing of a recluse, and nearly ev­ery as­pect of “Adr1ft” is in some way re­lated to his ex­pe­ri­ences.

Orth was rush­ing last week to get the game ready for the Elec­tronic En­ter­tain­ment Expo (E3), North Amer­ica’s largest video game trades how. While E3 has long been a mecca for the main­stream, in­creas­ingly top-flight pub­lish­ers are ex­pand­ing their port­fo­lios with smaller, more ap­proach­able game ex­pe­ri­ences, many of which will be shown at the three-day expo that be­gins Tues­day at the Los An­ge­les Con­ven­tion Cen­ter.

The big-bud­get games will be present, of course. Orth’s pub­lisher, 505 Games, will show­case ti­tles on the op­po­site end of the spec­trum this year, chief among them Overkill Soft­ware’s “The Walk­ing Dead,” a bloody block­buster-to-be in­spired by the se­ries cre­ated by Robert Kirk­man.

“Adr1ft” boasts a look in­flu­enced by the film“2001,” adra­matic ten­sion that isn’t dis­sim­i­lar from that of “Grav­ity.” It’s a game not as an es­cape but as away to deal with life.

Alone and lost

“Adr1ft” cen­ters on a fe­male as­tro­naut, a woman lost in space af­ter an ac­ci­dent left all of her co­work­ers dead. “Adr1ft” isan ex­per­i­ment in video game sto­ry­telling, push­ing the medium to deal with more emo­tional and pri­vate ma­te­rial, and to do so largely in a metaphor­i­cal sense.

Though the par­tic­u­lars of Orth’s tweets are a tad “in­side base­ball” for those not up on the nu­ances of the opin­ion­ated and no­to­ri­ously vo­cif­er­ous video game com­mu­nity, peo­ple didn’t like what Orth had to say, so much so that at least one per­son tracked down pic­tures of his in­fant daugh­ter and emailed them to Orth with the words, “I hope your kid gets AIDs.”

In­ter­net fo­rums were started that called for Orth’s in­stant fir­ing, and YouTube videos were made that de­tailed why Orth was a jerk, all over a flip re­mark.

Es­sen­tially, Orth had sug­gested that those who didn’t like the idea of a video game con­sole re­quir­ing a 24/7 In­ter­net con­nec­tion should “deal with it.” He un­wit­tingly fanned the flames by sar­cas­ti­cally re­mark­ing that hewould never live in a small town with­out solid In­ter­net ac­cess (“why on earth would I live there,” he wrote), but he also didn’t ex­pect the com­ments to ex­tend much be­yond his 1,500 or so fol­low­ers.

“I left work early so I could have a nice, early din­ner with my wife and kid. I got home, turned on my phone and it lit­er­ally le­vi­tated out of my hand. I had like a thou­sand text mes­sages,” he re­mem­bered.

The ex­pe­ri­ence, he said, was “hor­rific.” Mi­crosoft is­sued a state­ment, never nam­ing Orth, apol­o­giz­ing for the “in­ap­pro­pri­ate com­ments made by an em­ployee.”

What Orth went through is a par­tic­u­larly mod­ern af­flic­tion. Re­cently, two books — Jon Ron­son’s “So You’ve Been Pub­licly Shamed” and Jen­nifer Jac­quet’s “Is Shame Nec­es­sary?”— have sought to an­a­lyze the ef­fects of be­ing the tar­get of In­ter­net bile. Ron­son’s book, in par­tic­u­lar, looks at the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects that so­cial-me­dia sham­ing can have on one’s life. Orth hasn’t read it, but he said he plans to some­day.

“I got used to hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions on Twit­ter, in public, with my peers, and that was a huge mis­take, a huge, huge mis­take,” the 44year-old Orth said.

Even­tu­ally, Orth said, he re­al­ized it was one of the best things that ever hap­pened to him. It in­spired his nextmove.

“The nar­ra­tive of ‘ Adr1ft’ is about ac­tion, con­se­quence and re­demp­tion,” he ex­plained. “It’s ba­si­cally what hap­pened to me. I treat it like an of­fice in space. It’s not a save-the-world story. This is my life. I’m on a space sta­tion.”

Orth and his small team at Three One Zero are putting the fin­ish­ing touches on “Adr1ft.” The com­pany be­came a re­al­ity when Orth per­suaded his friend, Omar Aziz, an in­dus­try vet­eran who worked with “Call of Duty: Black Ops” de­vel­oper Treyarch, to join him and go indie. With the help of a small pri­vate in­vest­ment, Three One Zero cre­ated a pro­to­type. Pub­lisher 505 Games, head­quar­tered in Mi­lan, Italy, with of­fices in Cal­abasas, signed on shortly there­after.

505 Games this Septem­ber will re­lease “Adr1ft” for Sony’s PlaySta­tion 4, Mi­crosoft’s Xbox One and home com­put­ers.

505 Games Pres­i­dent Ian Howe was taken by “Adr1ft’s” emo­tional in­ti­macy. “It struck me that this game­was com­ing out of ad­ver­sity,” Howe said. “So much great mu­sic has come out of ad­ver­sity, whether it’s a painful breakup of a re­la­tion­ship or eco­nomic trou­bles.”

Mu­sic out, games in

Orth him­self speaks reg­u­larly in mu­sic metaphors. That’s no sur­prise since he grew up in an aca­demic fam­ily, living, he said, prac­ti­cally on the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut cam­pus in Storrs, Conn. He wanted to be a mu­si­cian and came West for mu­sic.

His L.A. band, Shuf­fle puck, signed to In­ter­scope Records in the mid-’90s, but the group was sent pack­ing be­fore the fully recorded al­bum was re­leased, and Orth switched his fo­cus to games, work­ing his way up from a game tester to a designer.

Over the course of his ca­reer he has worked at Sony Santa Mon­ica, Elec­tronic Arts and Lu­cas Arts, among other cel­e­brated game pub­lish­ers. Someof the work he is most proud of, how­ever, never saw the light of day, such as the year and a half he spent with graphic nov­el­ist Frank Miller de­vel­op­ing a pro­posed “Sin City” game.

But he doesn’t miss his cor­po­rate days. “You’re do­ing mul­ti­mil­lion-dollar games with 150-peo­ple teams,” he said. “It’s hard to put your stamp on it, and it was frus­trat­ing to me. Iwould al­ways get in trou­ble be­cause I’m very out­spo­ken, although much less now. I def­i­nitely have a punk rock at­ti­tude in those en­vi­ron­ments.”

Though Orth de­clines to re­veal the bud­get for “Adr1ft”— he noted that it’s less than $3 mil­lion — it’s clear from look­ing at the game that it isn’t a shoe­string project. The game is bright. Satel­lites glim­mer, and the rem­nants of the sta­tion’s gar­den cre­ate a sort of float­ing coral reef. The look is meant to con­vey hope, although float­ing de­bris and a crim­i­nal lack of oxy­gen will keep the player on the edge of the seat.

The au­dio can be grip­ping. Am­bi­ent noises and the sound of the pro­tag­o­nist’s breath­ing cap­ture the harsh­ness of the en­vi­ron­ment. At times, the player can stum­ble across au­dio di­aries or ra­dio trans­mis­sions from Earth. Though one is un­able to com­mu­ni­cate with the home planet, the player will hear so­cial-me­dia-like spec­u­la­tion that points blame and at­tempts to an­a­lyze, wrongly, of course, what hap­pened at the space sta­tion.

“It’s not a very hid­den metaphor,” Orth said of thegame, which should run about three hours when com­pleted. “I ba­si­cally woke up one day and my life was blown to smithereens. The de­stroyed space sta­tion is a very ob­vi­ous metaphor for that, but I’ve al­ways been drawn to sole-sur­vivor sto­ries. That’s ba­si­cally where I was. I was lit­er­ally onmy own. I had the sup­port of all my friends and fam­ily and peers, but as awe­some as ev­ery­one was, I still felt all alone.”

Ad­dic­tion, can­cer, par­ent­ing— “Adr1ft” deals with many suf­fo­cat­ing, ev­ery­day dra­mas as our sur­vivor tries to pre­serve as many per­sonal ar­ti­facts as pos­si­ble fromher lost co-work­ers. The char­ac­ters who per­ished on the space sta­tion were all flawed, strug­gling with hid­den prob­lems or af­flic­tions.

This is why, say those who have seen the game, “Adr1ft” has a chance to ap­peal to an au­di­ence big­ger than the game-play­ing core.

“Adr1ft,” said Brenda Romero, is “re­ally go­ing to res­onate with a lot of peo­ple.” Romero, an in­dus­try lu­mi­nary and ed­u­ca­tor whose re­sume in­cludes “Wiz­ardry” and “Dun­geons& Dragons” ti­tles, was cred­ited by Orth as one who helped him through the throes of de­pres­sion in 2013.

“While many peo­ple can’t re­late to the ex­pe­ri­ence that Adam had, many peo­ple can re­late to hav­ing been left alone or feel­ings of be­trayal and hav­ing your whole life ripped out from un­der you,” Romero said. “It hap­pens in small ways and big ways, but I think it’s some­thing ev­ery­one can re­late to.”

To­day, Orth said he prob­a­bly wouldn’t be on Twit­ter if he didn’t have a game to pro­mote. He re­mem­bers spend­ing mul­ti­ple days in sum­mer 2013 block­ing, one by one, those who di­rected hate­ful com­ments to­ward him on­line. He re­mem­bers days spent star­ing at his com­puter, with­hold­ing the temp­ta­tion to re­spond to those threat­en­ing his fam­ily.

Orth fi­nally has his re­sponse: It’s “Adr1ft.”

Three One Zero / 505 Games

THE GAME may look like science fic­tion drawn from the films “Grav­ity” or “2001,” but at its core it’s a very per­sonal, painful story.

Three One Zero / 505 Games

“ADR1FT” is about lone­li­ness, fear of fail­ure and the hope that one can emerge from a catas­tro­phe stronger than be­fore.

Kim Fox

GAME designer Adam Orth drew on a per­sonal calamity.

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