After causing a social media stink, the games-maker chose to respond in a uniquely personal way.
Turn left. Follow this line. Go here. Open that. Video games, for the sake of both functionality and accessibility, often lead you around. Even games like Limbo, Firewatch and Resident Evil, games expressly about getting lost somewhere, tacitly tell you where you need to go. To create a true sense of disorientation, one would have to break several of game-making's ground rules.
Especially towards its end, ADR1FT frustrated me. For an entire hour, I floated around the inside and outside of its – wonderfully imagined – space station, trying to work out where I had to go. The objective markers were vague, the radar didn't help and if I tried to cross between sections of the ship that, unbeknown to me, were too far apart, I would run out of oxygen and die.
Space, in both the literal and conceptual senses, is an illusion in ADR1FT. The universe is all around you and suggests unlimited possibility, but you cannot go there; ADR1FT is loosely structured, but unlike in its contemporaries – Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Journey and The Witness – exploration often results in death.
For years, I've wondered how it would feel to play a video game that belied simple navigation mechanics and spatial understanding. ADR1FT can be agonising. But after speaking to Adam Orth, its writer and director, I understand why it had to be that way.
"We didn't make the game from a point of view of 'let's fuck the player'," Orth explains. "In fact, my number one design theory is never fuck the player. There are times in ADR1FT where it's punishing, but that stuff bubbled up naturally."
"I had every offer in the world, from dozens of publications, to talk about it, but it would have been like screaming into an empty hydrant." – Adam Orth
In 2013, Orth, employed at the time as a game director for Microsoft, commented on Twitter about the soon-to-be-released Xbox One. Rumours were circulating that in order to play games, the console would always have to be connected to the internet. "Sorry, I don't get the drama around having an 'always on' console," Orth wrote. "That's the world we live in. #dealwithit."
When both Xbox fans and the gaming press caught wind of Orth's remark, a scandal erupted. Four days after posting the tweet, Orth resigned from Microsoft.
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"You can explore in ADR1FT, but it's literally at the peril of your life," he says. "And if you're on Twitter, especially if you're working for a big company you're on a very linear path – you can venture off it, but that also is at your peril.
"I was an idiot. I could have easily avoided that whole thing. I resigned from my job and just didn't have anything to do, but I'd had this idea for a space game for a while, and when I started putting my own personal experience over and into the game it started to seem like a unique way to talk about things. At the time that it was actually happening, I had every offer in the world, from dozens of publications, to talk about it, but it would have been like screaming into an empty hydrant."
'ADR1FT', PlayStation 4 launch trailer
Such is the frustration when playing ADR1FT. Agency is deceptive. You can float and move in 360 degrees, but against the vastness of space, you are powerless. Today, given our myriad forms of communication, it's not hard for you to say something. But faced with the overwhelming volume of the internet, what's the point?
To the scandal that derailed Orth's career and the fallout in his personal life that followed, ADR1FT is a reply. The "1" in the title is a deliberate reference to this eponymous, harbinger of doom Xbox. Lead, player-controlled character Alex Oshima shares Orth's initials. On a grander scale, HAN-IV, the destroyed space station which players navigate, represents Orth's life, literally broken into pieces.
"There isn't really a single part of the narrative that isn't somehow right from my life." – Adam Orth
"It's not the most timely way to respond to something, three years later, but I put real things from my life into every (non-playable) character's story, on purpose," Orth says. "Elizabeth has these message from her mother about the death of her father, and that's straight from my life. When my dad died, I had a pretty messed up relationship with him and hadn't resolved any of it as an adult. There's a storyline involving addiction – my dad was a really bad alcoholic. My mom's a cancer survivor so there's a cancer story in there. And there's a character called Lopez who's a pie-eyed optimist, and that's a lot of me, myself, personally. There isn't really a single part of the narrative that isn't somehow right from my life.
"It drives me crazy when people call ADR1FT a 'floating simulator'. It's the same as when people are calling certain games 'walking simulators' – the last thing those games are doing is simulating fucking walking. No one spends two years getting a perfect walking cycle down. It's an insult to the people who makes those games, and you're missing everything about what makes them interesting."
With ADR1FT under his belt and a demon off his back, Orth is re-adjusting to life as a known game-maker, on the internet.
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"ADR1FT cost three million dollars," he explains. "That's not very much. But I'm very, very proud of what we've made. I think we've found a unique voice.
"Still, it's hard doing something public facing. I'm glad I lived in a time when people were critical of things and there wasn't a way to just broadcast it constantly. People of this (new) generation will never have that experience. And because they'll never have it, there is no built-in empathy. There is just no decency filter any more. You find yourself wishing you could keep doing what you're doing, but just have it not be public facing – you start considering reactions from the beginning of a project, thinking, 'we can't do that because we know what the response will be', or, 'if we don't do this, we're gonna lose points'. And at that point, the internet is winning. We've been working on our next game since January. It's not our IP – it's somebody else's. I think that's a good step for us before we head out on our next adventure."
ADR1FT was released on July the 15th for PlayStation 4, and came out for PC earlier in 2016. More information at the game's official website.
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