The first few minutes of ADR1FT, once you're past an essential controls tutorial, are both awesome and terrifying. You're alone, more than 250 miles above sea level, attached to what's left of a space station, the Northstar IV, by a rope wrapped around your ankle. You, as Commander Alex Oshima, carefully untie it and pull yourself toward a jagged chunk of what used to be your safety from this vacuum, your home away from home spinning once around the world every hour and a half. All around you is chaos and beauty.
Torn metal dances above an Earth so instantly mesmerizing that for just a moment you forget yourself, your predicament, and the warning sounding from inside your helmet. Move. If you don't, you're going to suffocate inside your leaking suit. You push yourself forward. You find a canister of oxygen. You breathe again. And you snap out of the trance. The view can wait. You need to fix this mess, starting with your own damaged equipment. And you need to do it fast.
"The beginning of the game is supposed to be, 'Holy fuck, this is the worst possible scenario,'" says Adam Orth, ADR1FT's director and writer at Three One Zero, the Santa Monica studio he co-founded after leaving Microsoft in 2013. This is a game with a strong narrative focus, but it's not like bad things can't happen to the player. You can die. "We debated a lot about whether or not you should be able to die in the game. But once we got our head around the oxygen mechanic, where you need to initially be constantly topping yourself up, it made a lot of sense to allow that to happen. The stakes are very high."
To look at preview footage of ADR1FT is to be immediately captivated by its visuals, its massive scale, and the affecting nothingness that exists so few miles above where we lead our lives. And to play the game in VR—I take a spin using Oculus Rift, which ADR1FT is a launch title for—is to become even more consumed by its stunning aesthetics, assuming you can stomach the zero-G maneuvering. This is an incredibly immersive VR achievement, and spending just five minutes with it will make the room around you give way to a blanket of stars, and your legs turn to jelly.
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"We always wanted to make VR, from the beginning, but we didn't want to abandon everyone else," Orth says—while ADR1FT works wonderfully in VR, it's every bit as captivating as a 2D experience playing out on a regular monitor or TV. Which is fortunate, given this is how most will play it. "We really wanted to give people options—you can play it on PC, through the Oculus Rift, or on your PlayStation or Xbox. We want the game in everyone's hands, but VR is definitely special."
Orth's a believer in the potential of VR to change much more than how we play video games—and ADR1FT is very much a complete game, so far from the tech demos previously used to showcase VR's potential. "It's so compelling to go to work, every day," he tells me, visibly lighting up at the topic. "Everything that we've done for decades, that we've become accustomed to and take for granted, in video games, is new again. The simple act of opening a door, you have to rethink that, from every angle. And it's super fun. It's like starting over, almost. We hit this refresh button, but with decades of experience behind us, so we're not dumb newbies at the beginning of something."
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"I don't think VR is a fad, and that it'll fall off. I think this is a really powerful tool. And I don't think games will be the thing to break it open—it'll be something like Facebook or Instagram. A company like either of those will prove to the world that VR is amazing, necessary, and needed. It's too big to stop at this point."
Rather like another great narrative success of 2016 so far, Campo Santo's Firewatch, ADR1FT uses a grand canvas to paint a quite personal story. You'll find out exactly who Alex is through the scattered memories of her crew mates who didn't make it, learning about their relationships with you before this horror unfolded. Some information will be delivered via the genre staple of the audio log, but you needn't seek out every single story beat if you'd rather just blaze a path homeward.
"We didn't want to constantly have dialogue going," Orth explains. "We wanted to have space, in space. You can experience the game in a really minimalist way, ignoring the logs entirely. But the idea, hopefully, is that you're getting these seeds, and growing your own little narrative about these people, filling in the gaps and making the experience more unique to you. We could both play the game, and have a very different take away from it, and I hope that comes through."
Somewhere along the way, you'll (hopefully) uncover the truth of the catastrophic accident that has devastated your station, leaving only you breathing, barely. That "1" in the title is symbolic: There really is nobody else alive out here. Though that doesn't mean you can't relax a little.
"There's definitely less stress after the first section of the game," Orth says. "So there will be some time to just look at stuff. But this isn't about hanging out for an hour and then getting back to the serious situation at hand—it's always pressing. You have to get home. It wouldn't feel right to just let the player look at the scenery, but we worked really hard on setting it up so that everything is beautiful, all of the time."
And sometimes that beauty can get in the way of, basically, saving your skin from being nothing more than a tiny lifeless satellite barely worthy of a blip on the biggest radar. Get inside and get in shape—as lingering in ADR1FT, in the cold reality of a low Earth orbit, will quickly lead to the saddest moment of your life.
ADR1FT is released on March 28 on Oculus Rift and Steam. PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions will follow later in 2016. Find more information at the game's official website.
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