All images courtesy of Sony.

'The Tomorrow Children’ Is an Evocative, Inscrutable Dream

The first moments of ‘The Tomorrow Children’ don’t give players a lot to work with, but given time and patience an intriguing game is revealed.

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Sep 21 2016, 1:00pm

All images courtesy of Sony.

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It's the morning, and the sun is hot. I'm waiting for a bus to arrive that will ferry me and a handful of my comrades out across the Void to the place we work. I'd walk myself—I can see my destination a short distance away—but a few steps outside of town, the ground becomes less stable. Were I to set off on foot, I'd sink to my ankles and then to my knees and then the Void itself would close above my head, and you can't be having that. Death is, among other things, ridiculously unproductive.

While I wait, I take in the town around me. Slow citizens, doctors, grandmothers—they putter from house to house. There is the usual queue outside the town hall. Somebody's cut down the apple trees I planted beside the workstation. The machine we use to create new people is humming away nicely, if a little slowly. It has been a day free from the monsters that roam the Void, and I think everybody's happy with that.

A bell rings, and the bus arrives, ridden by six identical little girls wearing six identical square backpacks. The bus dumps its load of metals and ores and wood and apples into the unloading area, and the six little girls busily get to work sorting it into our various stockpiles. I am also a little girl with a square backpack; in fact, everybody in the town who isn't a grandmother or a doctor or a citizen is this little girl. We are the Projection Clones, and it is our job to undo the end of the world.

The Tomorrow Children is overwhelming in every sense of the word. My first reaction, on stepping from the game's brief tutorial into a bustling, incomprehensible town, was to turn the game off and not come back to it. Even writing about it now, I'm not sure I understand the full scope of the game's systems; sometimes I'll see buildings in town whose purpose isn't clear to me. I'll suspiciously feed resources into a hatch on the front of them, watch for a change around town. Sometimes a change isn't forthcoming. In the game's first moments, I was completely lost, but rather than giving into my impulse to stop playing all together, I focused on the one aspect of the tutorial that rang clearly: Projection Clones have to work.

Working is easy. There are lots of ways to work—and each way teaches you something about the wider nature of the game. You can haul resources from the unloading zone to the stockpiles, learning how the town's stockpiles are maintained. You can harvest apples from the saplings scattered around the town, learning how to get apples from trees and restore your health with them. You can run on treadmills to generate power, learning how the town handles resources. You can produce ammunition for the various gun emplacements on the outskirts, learning about the game's crafting systems. You can board the regular bus and set out to mine the islands for resources, drilling tunnels into strange statues and outcroppings or carrying lanterns to light the way for other clones. In this way, then, through picking up and putting down, through hauling and waiting in line, the game reveals itself slowly to you.

Today we're working on the Pig, a gigantic blue animal made from some kind of marble and standing about the height of a skyscraper. The Pig has an apple in his mouth, and several apples crowd around his feet, each one three or four times my size. Every day or so, for reasons that aren't clear anymore, the Void births an island out of nothingness, and it is on these that we work to keep the town going. The Pig is a particularly productive island. Valuable ores are lodged in its snout and eyes, and apple trees grow from the enormous stone apples. Arriving, I can see that the night shift has done us a favor and built a dizzying ladder from the ground right up to its head, and my comrades scramble up it one after another.

As we work, our efforts are rewarded numerically. The Tomorrow Children is a game obsessed with currencies. There's "toil," the result of working hard, which trickles in slowly as you load goods into the back of buses or gather resources. There are "ration coupons" awarded in exchange for the work you do and collected by lining up every day in a queue in front of the town hall. (It is a strange image, this line of little girls standing carefully behind a "do not cross this line" marker, stepping forward one by one for their efforts to be tallied.) You can save up to buy better and more reliable tools, because as everybody knows, the best kind of shop is a shop owned by your employers. Then there are "freemen dollars," which are used to buy items on the black market, and these form the basis of the game's free to play economy.

There is something to be said for the fact that the game's free to play elements act as a narrative excuse to work less hard, to buy your way to the front of the queues, to spend less time digging in the dark underbelly of a pig. There is something faintly appealing about the similarity between each of the currencies' names, the appearance of their icons. Elsewhere, it might prove frustrating, but here it conjures the sense of fumbling through foreign money, sorting coins in your hand.

There is, almost from the beginning, a sense that this mechanical obfuscation is deliberate. There is a tendency in some games to overwhelm the player with possible activities from the very beginning, as if afraid that a moment spent at rest will lose them completely. But no such desperation is felt here. It's the difference between a fast-flowing stream and deep, dark pond: One pushes anything in it forward, knocking it over rocks, sweeping it past the banks. The other swallows things completely, leaving them to grasp at reeds as the water closes above their head. In The Tomorrow Children, the water closes above your head fast, and your eyes are forced to adjust to the gloom.

The game is themed in the style of an obscure, Soviet-adjacent bureaucracy, complete with block-fonted bus timetables and jaunty fanfares before recorded messages. In a lot of ways, it pushes this stylistic approach too far. There is nothing subtle or new about loudspeakers referring to other players as "our brave comrades," and there's a strange disconnect between the cheery British tones of the radio announcer and the subtitled Russian of almost every other voiced character. The Tomorrow Children sticks the landing, however, through the confidence and flair with which the aesthetic is deployed. On leveling up, various licenses are stamped with jagged, unusual patterns. The character models and buildings appear to have been hewn out of the same materials as the islands, all rough surfaces and odd lines. The whole game is tilt-shifted very slightly, giving everything the air of being extremely small and dioramic. It is easy to imagine the town seen from afar, Projection Clones bustling about, the distant sound of the bell ringing as the bus arrives.

This obscure bureaucracy, then, is lent weight by the manner in which the game overwhelms. We're told to work, but it's not made clear initially where or how that should happen. We're rewarded with various different currencies, each with startlingly similar names and symbols, and told that really the best way to spend them is on replacement tools when ours break. The game never stops to allow you to work things out, and the landscape changes around you dramatically each time you play. The Projection Clones are only able to communicate obliquely, blowing little whistles hung around their necks to try and get attention or direct the workforce. The overriding sensation is that of attempting to tidy up a ship as it's sinking.

In a way, the truth behind all of this confusion and blunder is that there's not a lot to be done. There's work. There are moments at the bus stop in the morning. There's the improvement of the town that manages to feel both glacial and abrupt. A smokestack suddenly appearing over the houses. A session spent carefully accumulating resources to buy a lamp post. Once the shock of the cold water dissipates, the blunt inscrutability of the game remains and, often, frustrates.

In the depths, however, the water above your head, a strange sort of beauty can be found.

One night, the town quiet around me, I borrowed a car from the shared pool in the center of town and puttered out across the Void. The weak light from the car's headlamp illuminated the unstable surface beneath me. Were I to get out, I'd sink almost immediately. I was headed for the island that had arrived that morning: a gigantic cascade of falling sushi, suspended in the air as if by magic. To my surprise, I found the floor underneath it littered with hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of gold. More gold than I'd ever seen before. I began packing them into my bag, three at a time, and carrying them to the loading zone, so they'd be sent to the town with the next bus. And then, the sound of falling metal—gold cascading down around me like hail. I began to work faster.

The gold kept falling, faster than I could clear it, and I began to get suspicious about the size of the haul. While I didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, I worried that through a glitch or cheating, our efforts on the town would be devalued in some way. Earlier that day, I'd spent most of my money on a jetpack, so I equipped it and rose slowly up through the darkened sushi, gold falling around me.

The very top piece of sushi, I found, was made entirely of gold. It glimmered in the darkness and was the most valuable thing I'd ever seen. And there, on the top, was a single other Projection Clone, slowly strip-mining the surface and throwing the gold down to the floor below. I got back into my car and returned to town.

There is a way to "win" The Tomorrow Children. By feeding matryoshka dolls found on the islands into a strange machine, a single AI citizen can be created. Do this enough times, recover enough tiny figurines, and the town's population goal will be reached. And then you're done. The town is finished.

One morning, I logged onto the game and emerged from the subway station to find that something incredible had happened to my town. While I'd been away, it had hit its population goal, and green grass had grown in the Void. Little bushes dotted the streets. Flowers choked the factories.

And then I found that I was unable to move from the subway station. It was right there—the town was right there. I could pan the camera, and that was it. Grass grew up around my bus stop.

A dialogue box opened, and the game awarded me 25 points. I don't remember their exact name. "Patriot Points" or something. "Patriot Coupons." I think that might have been it.

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