After an intriguing opening, I found myself frustrated with how strong the concept of the game is compared to the game itself.
ADR1FTPublisher: 505 Games
Platforms: PC (reviewed)
ESRB Rated: Teen
Developer: Three One Zero
Release date: 2016-03-28
Adrift is a game about space. That much is obvious. You play as astronaut Alex Oshima, commander of the Northstar IV space station in the year 2037. But on a more basic and literal level, Adrift (stylized as ADR1FT) is about the very concept of space, about navigating a 3D environment without the strictures of gravity.
The game opens with a tutorial that acclimates you to moving around in zero-g. In addition to the good old WASD-mouse combo, you also have to think about roll (Q and E to roll left and right) and verticality (left and right click to ascend and descend). Moving the mouse around will cause you to rotate, which means you can flip upside down and back around again just by moving the mouse in a continuous direction. Perhaps most disorienting of all is the way that Newton’s First Law behaves in a vacuum. Since there’s no atmosphere to slow you down, you maintain your inertia indefinitely, which means that you’ll spend a lot of time overshooting your destination and then overcompensating as you do.
It’s a deeply pleasurable experience -- floating and flipping your way around the honeycombed sphere of the tutorial area -- because mastering new methods of movement is inherently pleasurable. The feeling is not unlike gliding through a swimming pool for the first time, moving in ways that you never even imagined that you could.
Then the game proper begins, and the other space (outer space) takes precedence. You hear a computerized voice intone, “survivor detected,” before fully awakening into consciousness. The great blue ball of Earth emerges in your view, a backdrop to the glittering, metallic shards of the destroyed Northstar IV. You float your way to the end of a hallway and press F to reach out and grab an oxygen canister. The relief is almost palpable. You’re alive, but how?
* * *
It’s impossible to play Adrift and not think of the movie Gravity. There are plenty of superficial similarities: both have female protagonists, both are about the challenges of navigating space, and both take place on a destroyed space station. Adrift, however, is not interested in terrifying the player. If Gravity is a roller coaster ride, Adrift is more like a lazy river at a water park.
It’s a purposefully languid game. In an interview with Polygon in 2014, developer Adam Orth cited Gone Home and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter as inspirations, games that focus on “walking around looking at cool shit with fun things to do and an emotive story.” It sounds like the perfect elevator pitch (Gone Home, but in space!) and seems to solve the supposed problem with there being too little interactivity in “walking simulators.”
It’s a shame, then, that Adrift is so monotonous and fails to be engaging. After an intriguing opening, I found myself frustrated with how strong the concept of the game is compared to the game itself.
One central source of frustration is your constantly depleting oxygen tank. The game explains that your suit has a leak, hence the need to grab oxygen canisters strewn about the environment and manually refill your supplies. The problem, rather perversely, is that your oxygen runs out too slowly and too quickly. It’s slow enough so that you only feel a constant low-grade anxiety about the matter, but quick enough that you can’t really explore at your leisure. I found myself pressing G to scan the environment and slowly daisy-chaining my way to the next O2 icon rather than actually exploring the station.
And I do mean slowly. You’ll find upgrades for your suit that increase your maximum speed, but you still move at a snail’s pace. As I mentioned above, this is a deliberate design choice that’s supposed to force you to contemplate your surroundings, which are quite pretty. The station itself has a distinctly contemporary sci-fi look -- all glowing LEDs and clean white hallways -- and there are gorgeous views of Planet Earth. But at a certain point all of those sterile rooms and breathtaking vistas blend together, and you just want to go. You’ll find yourself contemplating, not the insignificance of humanity in the infinite expanse of the universe, but why the developers force you to move so, so slowly.
The molasses-like movement speed only serves to exacerbate the challenge of finding out where you’re actually supposed to be going. More than once I found myself circling around the same identical-looking rooms, wondering if I had already floated through before, except at a different angle. There’s no map of any sort. Instead, there’s a 2D radar in the bottom-left of the HUD, which is less than ideal when trying to navigate a complex 3D space. The only time that I died was when I tried to follow the objective indicator on the radar, which led me to precisely nowhere before suffocating.
Once you find out where to go, usually a console or antenna ray or something similar, you’ll hold down F to interact with it. The game’s structure is thus: start in the center (the “cerebrum” of the station), go to the far flung station, turn on that sector’s mainframe (i.e. go to a thing and press F), retrieve the cerebrum core (by pressing F), then make your way back to the center to press F some more.
Now repeat that three times. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Adrift literally feels copy and pasted. The cerebrum cores that you retrieve from the four different sectors of the station are identical except for what color they glow. Even the animations for pressing F at the different console are identical. By the end of my six-hour playthrough, I didn’t feel particularly meditative. I felt numb, narcotized by repetition, and relieved that the whole thing was finally over.
* * *
If you’ve followed video game news for the last few years, you may have heard of Adam Orth. Back in 2012 when he was a Microsoft employee, he tweeted his confusion about gamers’ backlash to the Xbox One’s “always on” requirement. He was mobbed online, his family received death threats, and he quit his job.
It’s dangerous to read a work of art through the lens of the artist’s life, to cite an artist’s experience as the explanation of the artwork. This is especially true for games, in which even small indie games like Adrift are primarily group efforts, not the statements of an auteur.
Orth, however, has supported this reading of Adrift: “It's a pretty obvious metaphor,” he told Kill Screen. "The 1 [in the game's stylized ADR1FT spelling] is meaningful. I woke up one morning last year, and my whole life was destroyed. But this whole game is about action, consequence and redemption. That's what this is about” (Eric Sams, Adr1ft and the loneliness of digital worlds", 11 March 2016).
As you explore the wreckage of the Northstar, you also explore the personal wreckage associated with your crewmates. You read through their emails and listen to their audio logs. You learn that they are broken people, that they wished that they had spent more time with their family, that they struggle with addiction, that they are sad. You learn about your own character, Alex Oshima, and how her pride and outspokenness may have caused her downfall and hurt the people around her.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Adrift is that it’s so easy to imagine the game that it could have been: a thoughtful exploration of consequences and regret, the searing pain of personal mistakes literalized in the form of a ruined space station. There are glimmers of humanity lurking at the edges of this repetitive, six hour fetch-quest of a game. But that’s all they are: glimmers, floating off into the inky expanse, catching the sun’s reflection before dissolving into nothing.