Adr1ft: The quiet horror of space

The death of mid-tier publishers like THQ and Midway over the past decade has left a gulf in the industry between the triple-A titles from major players like Activision and the retro-influenced indie games that pervade digital storefronts today. But in recent years, developers with years of experience working on big-budget games have jumped ship to create smaller titles with indie sensibilities while preserving the high production values more commonly associated with multimillion dollar projects. Add Three One Zero’s Adr1ft to the list of these promising projects.

Developed on Unreal Engine 4 by a small team that boasts résumés including BioShock Infinite, Halo, and GOW, you could be forgiven for mistaking Adr1ft as a triple-A game. “I think there’s a real gap in the marketplace where this game can fit in,” says creative director Adam Orth. “It’s a four-hour experience, it’s going to be in the $20-30 price range, and it can be completed in one sitting. It’s going to have kick-ass quality production value.”


Anyone who enjoyed the sci-fi thriller Gravity should pay attention to Adr1ft. It centers on a female astronaut who wakes up with no memory of why she’s drifting aimlessly in space or why the space station she was presumably posted on looks like a Lego set smashed to bits by a rambunctious child. With her EVA suit running low on oxygen, this lone survivor struggles to repair the spacesuit while piecing together the events that led to this worst-case scenario.

In the vein of games like Gone Home, Adr1ft shelves the bombastic firefights and over-the-top setpieces that serve as the currency for many blockbusters in favor of a quiet, slower paced experience driven by the tension of trying to survive the harrowing circumstances. “We really want to amplify the horror of the reality of the situation,” Orth says. “It’s not a horror game, but we want to make sure it feels like that.”

The leaking EVA suit being in emergency mode adds another complication to the survival scenario. Oxygen is already a commodity for simply staying alive, but the propulsion system also uses the resource to propel you through the environment. This turns navigation into a disquieting puzzle of sorts, as you must calculate your trajectory to make sure you can grab one of the oxygen tanks drifting in the wreckage to manually replenish your stock. You can hear the oxygen depleting as you use the unique controls to move through the broken station and debris fields. When your oxygen supply starts to run out, your breathing sounds panicked.

The eerie silence of space amplifies this tension. Like  No Country For Old Men , Adr1ft forgoes using a pervasive music score to set the mood, instead leaving you to the sound of your struggling breath and the broken ramblings of the space station’s A.I. administrator. In moments where music is used, like one sequence that plays Beethoven’s “Pathétique” piano sonata as you drift through space, it brings a calming sense of beauty to floating above Earth. Even though you may only be minutes away from suffocating, there are worse ways to go.

Exploring the decimated space station, the player must find repair bays to restore the suit’s functionality, with the goal of getting it back to 100 percent. As the suit stabilizes, the need for finding oxygen tanks diminishes. This allows the player to focus on trying to get the escape pod back online and learn the stories of the other astronauts that called the base home along the way. Audio logs and personal trinkets littered in the wreckage tell the backstories of your deceased compatriots, revealing the fragility of their circumstances and the real-world issues they dealt with even while stationed in space. “These are real people with real problems,” Orth says. “One of the characters, his whole story is told through him speaking at an AA meeting he’s attending on the station. He’s telling his narrative through his struggles with addiction and his struggles on the ship.”

Three One Zero hopes to pull off this delicate balance between environmental problem solving, stressful resource management, and introspective storytelling through all five stages of the game. Adr1ft may be a far cry from the giant explosions and overblown acting of games like Halo and God of War, but even in the pre-alpha stage it looks the part of a high-end production.

“It’s been a fun game to make because it’s been so different,” Orth says. “It feels like we’re headed down the road toward something special and unique. People who play games are smart people. I want to entertain people but also stimulate their brain a little bit.”

Better With Rift
During our demo of Adr1ft, we also got to play the game using the DK2 model Oculus Rift. Up to this point, the best demos I’ve played have been those that lock the player in a cockpit, like Elite: Dangerous and Eve Valkyrie. Adr1ft is the only first-person game that hasn’t caused a disconnect for me between my body (which knows it’s stationary) and my mind (which is moving along with the character on screen). This is likely achieved because the character isn’t making swift movements, but drifting through zero gravity at a slow pace.

I found the Rift to be the superior way to play, because you have more spatial awareness than you do on the flatscreen version. You can get right up close to objects of interest, grabbing oxygen cans is easier, and tilting your head allows you to read your vitals in the EVA helmet’s digitally projected HUD.

Three One Zero creative director Adam Orth hopes the game can excel on the nascent platform. “I don’t necessarily think games are going to be the killer app for Oculus, but our goal is to make the killer game app for the Oculus,” he says. “Just the nature of our game hits a lot of the checkboxes automatically that make it perfect.”

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