Floating through Adrift’s hypoxic first-person experience

What starts as slow, rhythmic breathing becomes heavier, ragged. In the background I hear the beeping of a heart monitor.

There’s a strange absence of any other noise, though the sounds of breathing and beeping seem to almost sharpen, filling that void.

“Am I going to die?” I ask.

“Not yet. Reach out.”

The breathing is coming in shorter bursts now, sharp, painful pants.

“You’ve got to get closer to it. You actually have to go there and grab it.”

A hiss.

The ragged breathing stops.

Silence for half a second …

… and then sound returns with a desperate gasp, a great breath in, a pause and then steady, rhythmic breathing that slows until I almost can’t hear it anymore.

“We’ve done away with the on-screen prompts because we hate them and put everything in the HUD. You can get rid of the oxygen tank now.”

The breathing is back, now slow, but soon faster. I know what’s coming. I’m floating now toward a tank, toward the oxygen I need.

“Are those the tanks below me, is that what they are?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

I can’t help but say, “Shit!”

I drift past the slowly spinning tank, the breathing is fast and hard. I twirl and manage to snag the metal canister, pull it in.

A hiss.

The breathing slows.

Listen to a snippet of the gameplay recorded during my interview in this audio file.

This is the second time I’ve tried Adrift, Three One Zero and Adam Orth’s first-person experience game, in about a year. It has changed quite a bit, evolved to become a much more interesting take on an already intriguing concept.

Adrift in space, I have to explore the wreckage of a space station, using the limited air to both keep myself alive and propel myself through the zero-gravity space of spinning detritus that is now my world.

Déjà vu

At the same show in the same town in the same month, maybe even in the same hotel suite, last year, I sat down with Orth to talk about what was to be his studio’s first game: Adrift.

It began its life as a game about Orth’s experiences in 2013 in the eye of a social hurricane, about the time he sent a tweet about always-online technology that sparked a fury on the internet, led to death threats against himself and his family, and tore apart his sense of privacy and security.

But that game has evolved.

The game’s metaphor remains: Adrift opens on a scene of confused destruction in space and drops its player into the space suit of a woman struggling to make sense of an unseen powerful force that has destroyed everything she holds dear. But now that connection to Orth’s real life experiences is masked by layers of deft game mechanics, evocative audio design and smart storytelling.

Adrift is no longer meant to simply be an interactive allegory, a cautionary tale for those who might find themselves facing the faceless masses of Twitter. It is, much more importantly, a game that hopes to, if not birth, then evolve a new sort of game: The “first-person experience,” or FPX, game.

Slider to the right: The 2015 take on Adrift. Slider to the left: The look of the 2014 demo.

True to what Orth and the team at fledgling studio Three One Zero told me in November, Adrift isn’t meant to be a one-off experiment, but rather the first step in a long line of FPX titles.

Before I sat down with the controller and played through a short section of the recreated, reworked title, Orth gave me an update on how the studio is doing. Adrift, he says, is mostly done and will be coming out this summer. But that’s not all.

“We start work on our second game in August,” Orth says. “It’s going to be exactly what we said we were going to do, another FPX game. We already have a publisher lined up for the second.

“We are actually here at DICE pitching our third game.”

Orth declines to tell me what the second game is about or who the publisher is, but Richard Leibowitz, the studio’s business director, says the team is very happy with 505 Games, the publisher of Adrift.

“They have been great to us, they have allowed us to be independent,” he says. “They financed our game and gave us creative freedom.

“That’s great and we want to continue that business relationship, but we also want to be completely independent.”

Adrift

Orth is a little apprehensive when he hands over the controller to me. He says I’m one of the first people outside the studio to play the reworked game.

Adrift still features that claustrophobic design that powered the play and slight anxiety of the original demo, but it’s been heightened through a couple of smart design choices. Chief among those is the need to not only use your oxygen to breathe as you explore the wreckage of the space station, floating untethered through space, but also to use that valuable air to propel your gravity-free movement.

“In the fiction of what’s happening, we’re using oxygen as your life and your propulsion,” Orth says. “Every movement you make depletes your oxygen. It creates a unique micro-game that forces decision making in every movement you make. ‘Should I use my thrusters to go get that oxygen tank or should I try to float there?’

“There was always a really fun game in just floating around; now we’ve really found a way to amplify it.”

I’m not sure “fun” is the word I’d use, but it is compelling, challenging and more than a little thrilling, in an anxious sort of way.

Adrift stars a woman, something players may not immediately notice until they hear her speak. Swathed in the layers of a space suit, my first experience with the character is through her ragged breathing and cumbersome movements in zero gravity. My view is through her eyes into a helmet loaded with important information and a view of the world. Occasionally I see a slowly drifting suit-swathed arm or leg.

I ask Orth if the main character was always a woman. He says it was something they hadn’t yet determined when they created the demo.

“We were trying to find a way to let players choose their own gender, but it was too disruptive to the way we wanted  to set up their story,” he says. “I personally prefer playing female characters. I don’t know why. It’s just more interesting to me and I didn’t want to make the traditional space astronaut game. This just felt right.

“There is some narrative reasons as well.”

I’m sort of interviewing Orth as I lazily float my way through the beginning of the demo. I’ve interviewed developers while playing strategy games, first-person shooters, fighters, but I’ve never been as distracted as I am now.

I find myself accidentally holding my breath as my astronaut nears her end by asphyxiation. I squirm in my seat as I try to gently, sparingly, maneuver her toward drifting tanks of air with short bursts of already captured air.

I often note that death is near, but Orth is always cheering me on.

“You can make it,” he says once. “You can do it.”

I ask him to point out tanks for me on occasion. They exist as a sort of breadcrumb trail of propulsion and life that leads me through the maze of wreckage to my first goal. Initially, the system’s computer tells me that I must find an escape pod and use it to return to earth.

Those flipping, rolling, spinning breadcrumbs seem to get further and further apart, limiting my chances for a survivable mistake.

Finally, I see one so far away that I figure that my current supply won’t last before hypoxia sets in, and then death. Orth disagrees, though:

“You’ve got one shot, Brian,” he says.

I roll using the bumpers and then, as my vision begins to blur and the sound rises, I pop off a puff of air, and gently float by the tank, just out of reach of its life-saving contents.

“You’ve got one shot”

“Shiiiiiiiiiiit.”

Somehow I manage to get back on track and grab the bottle just as the screen begins to darken. There’s a hiss, a deep breath, and I’m off, looking for the next breadcrumb.

“You have a limited amount of oxygen you can hold right now because your suit is broken,” Orth explains. “As you go through the ship, you’re going to find a repair station and it will let you increase how much you can have, so oxygen kind of becomes throughout the course of the game less and less of a thing.”

It’s a clever design trick, pushing players through the early bits of the game just to stay alive as they learn a bit more about who they are and why they should care, but making that sense of urgency less important once the story can take hold.

“Shiiiiiiiiiiit.”

The early play is meant to be a constant mental game of give and take tied to a skill-based, physics-driven game.

I notice the mental game almost immediately. Initially, I find myself wasting all of a tank just to get another tank, and I realize that you can’t just go for every one you see; you have to weigh the value and the cost.

“There’s an art to grabbing those canisters,” Orth says.

There’s also an art, I notice, to not slamming your astronaut into everything, thanks to momentum and the lack of gravity.

That skill starts to feel familiar to me after a while.

“Control is basically first-person Asteroids,” Orth says. “You can only do it because of zero gravity. We were worried it was going to be too intense for people, but we’ve really loved it. Today is the first time we’ve had people play the game outside the team.”

That moment of having outsiders play is so important, because people don’t seem to get why a first-person experience game would be fun until they try it.

“When you talk about FPX, people think it is going to be a boring walking simulator,” Orth says. “It’s important for us to have fun and gaming mechanics as well.”

What this game, and none of the Three One Zero games, will have are weapons to interact with, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be without tension.

“We don’t want you to just float through a space station without being able to do something,” he says. “We have fully animated arms and hands and you’re constantly touching the world. There’s some pretty cool stuff going on.”

Virtual Reality

adrift

For Adrift, the plan is to bring to the game to everything Three One Zero can. That means PlayStation 4, Steam and Xbox One. It also means virtual reality platforms. While the studio is messing around with Project Morpheus and has plans to check out Microsoft’s HoloLens, the team has most of the game running in Oculus Rift.

And the developers have big plans for the virtual platform.

“Our goal is to make Adrift the best VR game in existence so far,” Orth says. “We want to be a game that if you buy Oculus, you can’t have it without this game.”

I had a chance to play around with the experience, not the game, but essentially a playground built in the world of Adrift, designed specifically for developers to test out the astronaut’s helmet.

“One of the coolest things is that you’re going to see the helmet, be inside the helmet,” Orth says. “The objective here is to fly through a couple of rooms and get to that door on the end. It’s more of a playground, a test ground for the helmet.

“We just got the helmet into the game and we’re excited that you can have that feeling of being in the helmet.”

adrift right

It is slightly overwhelming when I drop into the game I had just played, but this time in virtual reality. The sense of scale and control is slightly disjointing. The earth, rotating slowly below with actual weather systems moving across its surface, was already distracting; now it’s compelling.

I float around, noticing that when I look down I can glimpse through the edge of my helmet, my legs slowly catching up with my body.

It’s surreal.

While the non-virtual reality version of the game will soon have a release date, there is no sense when the Oculus Rift version will get one.

“We are waiting for the announce,” Orth says. “We are very close and good partners with Oculus, we get a lot of support from them. They seem to care about our game very much so. We’re super happy with our relationship there.”

But as with everyone developing for the still non-retail dev kits, Adrift is in a sort of tech purgatory.

“We don’t know when we can put a VR version of this game out,” Orth says. “We just don’t know. We have this game and we’re just waiting.”

Memories of the drifting dead

The early gameplay of Adrift is very goal-oriented and relatively light on story, but I catch glimpses of the story as I try to survive the vacuum of space.

After a repair station fixes up my suit a bit, I’m given a slight increase in movement control and can hold onto a little more oxygen.

Finally, I make my way to the escape craft, only to find that it is damaged and I need to find parts to repair it. The computer, a system slightly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s, starts to have a bit of a breakdown and my first goal becomes repairing the station’s mainframe.

As I drift toward my goal, I hear a blip of news from earth mentioning the catastrophe in space.

“That was a news network update that broadcasts from earth,” Orth explains. “It’s one-way, a very Twitter-like audio that spans the globe. She’s picking them up in her suit, so you’re hearing what’s going on down on earth.”

Later I spot a different sort of object in space. Orth tells me it’s a personal log.

“You can pick up audio logs and listen to them as you continue on your way,” he says.

The few I find all come from now-dead station-mates. They seem to detail the loneliness of space and a deep desire to return home.

There will also be bodies in space and personal items, Orth says, all of which will be tied to the game’s story and its only form of achievements.

adrift7

“Each character has an important personal item that is meaningful to their story and you hear about it through their narrative. And if you choose to collect those things and bring them home to their loved ones, that’s something you can do,” he says. “That’s how we’re going to do our achievements. There are very low number of achievements, only a few. This is not an achievement hunting game; instead, they tie to the fate of these people and into an important moment in the game.”

In the next area of the game — the bit beyond what I played — mission control on earth, a voice I occasionally heard during my demo, will play a more significant role.

“Mission control knows something happened but they haven’t heard from you and they’re trying to get you to respond,” Orth says. “The second area of the game has you repairing the communications systems. Then mission control finds out you’re alive. But you can’t communicate with them, so they do a kind of blind-leading-the-blind kind of deal.”

It will be a pleasant change. The silence of the early game makes it an almost stressful experience.

Orth points out the silence and notes that Three One Zero deliberately designed the game to be light on the audio and music “really, really on purpose.”

As the demo nears its end, I find another audio log and play it. A system specialist talks about his desire to be home, about lost time on earth. Then a piano concert starts:

Beethoven echoes in my helmet, over the panting and the pings, fills the world as I look out at my little island of destruction floating in the limitless blackness of space. Babykayak