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I’ve spent a good chunk of this week slowly dying in space. it’s been fun! Adr1ft, by Three One Zero and published by 505 Games is a pared down, minimalist game that demands attention and cheerily punishes you for not giving it. I found a lot to enjoy in there, not the least of which is the killer opening. You wake up in a damaged space suit, in a decaying orbit, surrounded by the shattered remains of a vast space station that has very recently exploded. Player and character enter the game in identicla states of confusion and the plot unfolds at the same pace you follow the debris trail around the shattered station. You are Commander Alex Oshima, head of the HAN-IV project. You are the lone survivor of a catastrophic accident. The accident was your fault.
The game perfectly embodies the brutal math of orbital survival without ever getting over-excited about how unforgiving it is. Your suit is damaged and you have to use oxygen as propellant and…well..oxygen. Every move matters and while there’s more oxygen refills scattered around than you’ll ever need, there’s still no margin for error. Because most of those refills are free falling bottles which means you have to line up with them and if you miss? Burn oxygen you probably don’’t have to get to them. I died. A lot. I learned, slowly, to coast on those last few breaths. I also learnt that the game cleverly uses the deceptively slow pace of travel to trip you up. Space, as someone once said, is big. Really, really big. You need to pay attention to where you’re going or you’ll miss and, again, die.
If Adr1ft was just Terror Sob Yourself To Death In Orbit Simulator it would be worth playing but there’s a lot more here. As you pick your way through the wreckage, you discover the truth about what happened and, more importantly, your fellow astronauts. One struggles with addiction and yearns to be home. Another has already taken a life time’s dose of radiation but opted to return to space. Another still is filled with abject joy at the amazing place she gets to live. Another, your partner, is torn between her love for you and fear for the pressure you’re under and the choices it forces you to make. None of them are cardboard cutouts, but rather a heroically untidy collection of normal people. You come to know and like them even as you come to understand how you killed them and the game never shies away from the emotional cost of events. Your crew are all out there, their spacesuited bodies blinking red. You’ll find them all before you’re allowed to go home. You’ll know who they were before you can get become who you are next.
And that’s the point, in the end. This is a game concerned with not just the human cost of space travel but of the ecology in which that cost grows. Years before the Columbia disaster, NASA administrators openly talked about the likelihood of a second shuttle being lost. Crews went up anyway, and the ‘hard charging all go no quit’ astronaut myth morphed, over time, into something closer to the corporate ideal. That’s what the back story explores here, and the game cleverly lets you decide whether Alex makes the right choices for the wrong reasons or the wrong choices for the right ones. Her crew are still dead, but HAN-IV’s role into the expansion into the solar system could, from one angle, be viewed as a small price to pay. That angle is never from inside your cracked, leaking suit as you make your way through the ruins of the home you destroyed.
Adr1ft is ambitious, quiet, painfully honest and ethically complex in a way you will not expect. It’s also, as this interview with creator Adam Orth shows, deeply personal and I applaud both his honesty and the way he processed this event. The end result is a happier Adam and a game that hides deceptively weighty issues inside it’s bulky suit. Profoundly beaurtiful, odd and poignant stuff.
Adr1ft is out now for PS4 and Windows. You can find the excellent tie in comic here for free.