Games

My Last Night With 'The Tomorrow Children'

A final farewell tour with a game about authoritarian communism, mining, and matryoshka dolls.

by Janine Hawkins
Nov 24 2017, 6:17pm

All images courtesy SCEA

The first thing I noticed were the stars. They didn’t hang in the hazy sky, but were instead scattered across the half-destroyed remains of a bridge like an arts and crafts project gone terribly awry.

I didn’t recall seeing these when I’d last played The Tomorrow Children. Either way, they were now impossible to miss. They glowed brightly enough that it would take an hour or so more before I remembered how quickly the darkness could kill you in this game.

I had picked a populated town by the name of Nikooda to ensure that my last few hours with Tomorrow Children were fruitful ones. I wanted to find my place in the production chain again as quickly as possible. Whether that place was mining resources from one of the islands outside of the town or ferrying the freshly unloaded haul from the bus stop back to the supply depots didn’t matter. I never had a favorite role; I was always happy to fill in wherever I was most needed.

In my haste to explore the shattered star bridge I’d missed the bus that would have taken me out to the nearest, newest island—a structure in the form a gargantuan blue pig with glittering golden eyes and a glossy red apple stuck in its mouth. A cluster of vehicles all parked in the middle of town for shared use (at least between those who had leveled up enough to purchase their vehicle licenses) was too tempting to ignore, and soon I was skipping across the sucking, sinking milk-white abyss like a pebble across a pond.

But it had been 6 months or more since I’d last played, and even if most of the controls came back to me through muscle memory, vehicles had never been a routine part of the experience. They needed to be crafted by way of doing an infuriating little slide puzzle (or “bribing” the authorities so you could skip it) and tended to get lost rather quickly. There was very little space for personal ownership or private property in this game inspired by a cartoonish, simplified idea of authoritarian communism.

All this is to say I crashed. Within minutes, at that.

It was spectacular, and it was embarrassing. I skidded clear through the bus loading zone, scattering the resources that had been carefully piled by others spending their last nights with the game. Worse, I shattered no less than three of the little matryoshka doll villagers that had been retrieved. In town they would have been revived and made into apple-faced townfolk, but the dolls are rare and notoriously delicate. Once broken, there’s was nothing to do but step around the pieces.

Which I did, while carefully returning the other scattered resources to the bounds of the loading zone, piling them up as carefully as they’d been previously. After that, I climbed a towering ladder suspended from the pig’s deep blue snout, and mined the golden ore out of its eye sockets.

Until it shut down on November 1st, Tomorrow Children was a game whose mere existence was a little amazing to me. From the first time I saw footage I was transfixed by just the idea of it. Its player characters—little girls with identical chestnut bobs, an army of carved wooden dolls wearing kicky little pinafores—scurried like ants across a landscape cut from unfamiliar and fantastical materials. Crystal and beeswax, gold and hammered tin, shaped into the most surreal landforms possible.

The basic mechanics weren’t all that special. Dig, mine or chop out ressources, tuck them in a backpack, bring them back to town and store they up. Everything had a use, from crafting materials to fuel for the town generator, even food for its populace—all those little matryoshka dolls hauled back from the islands and revived. At its most peaceful, playing The Tomorrow Children was like finding a place for yourself in an assembly line. You were part of a machine, with all the other components flitting in and out of existence around you.

I found my place as quickly as I ever had. It might sound tedious, but I always enjoyed the simple monotony of just moving materials around. When miners would chuck loads of crystal or metal over the edge of a piece of sushi floating in the sky, I liked being the one waiting on the ground, gathering up the mess and ferrying it to the bus stop. Or else I would be in the town, filling my bag with whatever was dropped off from the bus towards its respective storage areas. It was a relatively no-pressure way to pass some time, and this was a good town for it.

My last few hours with The Tomorrow Children were good, though they didn’t make me regret how little time I’d spent with it in the past year. I remembered the islands, the outfits, the calming make-work routines, and I enjoyed the new additions like gaudy jeweled brooches that bestowed new abilities. But I also remembered the irritating slide puzzles, the clumsy turret aiming, the awkwardly integrated microtransactions. I was repeatedly offered a timed crate as a reward for hitting level 15 on this last night, something I could only buy (yes, buy) for a narrow window of time. Quite an opportunity. And then there was the crash.

I’d never been around when a town was fully restored. It always happened while I was away, and when I would log on I would be shown the briefest view of the town, it’s cold milky ground newly carpeted with grass, before being told to move on elsewhere. These girls are clones after all, not true citizens, and their role is to go where they’re needed and work. Repair. Rebuild.

But the unthinkable happened on this last night. The town I was in was restored completely while I was there. I was playing with Waypoint’s own Austin Walker, in fact, who delightedly described all the clones gathering in the middle of the town and dancing to celebrate their triumph. He described this, because I’d just received an error. I was bounced back to the main menu, and once I got back in it was the same train-station view I’d seen so many times before.

Austin had his closure on the game, and went to bed. But I didn’t. I kept playing. I moved on to Krekkoye, another populated town with the towering silhouette of an octopus on its horizon. After an accident with a turret, a roving monster and a row of little houses, I was imprisoned by another worker, and then unceremoniously (perhaps coincidentally) removed.

I found a third town, Iyevogda, and I was alone there. No one was tossing materials freshly mined from the upper reaches of the island there, no one was ferrying goods to and from the bus stop. No one was building swingsets or bridges, cars or houses; no one was leaving trails of tools or glowing stars. Voice recorders with patched together farewells had littered the ground in Nikooda, but here there was nothing but the occasional apple jostled loose from a tree.

There was no food in Iyevogda. No power. One of the few citizens nearby asked me to retrieve their brother, a matryoshka wrapped in green who I was assured was nearby. An arch reading “Keep Going” lingered in the corner of my eye as I ran around town in the dark, packing all the stray apples into my backpack in hopes of bolstering the town’s food stores.

“The sea used to be where the sun sets,” another citizen told me, as I heard bombs falling somewhere in the distance.