There came a point, halfway through Three One Zero’s space disaster sim Adrift, when I had to make an important decision. It wasn’t a decision within the game - Adrift offers nothing quite so engaging. It was the decision as to whether this repetitive drudgery was worth playing to the end, to see whether the game would ever reach a satisfying or thought-provoking conclusion.
Adrift is a first-person exploration game, roughly fitting into the same category as Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and Firewatch. In these games, you explore your environment, discover bits of story, and try to work out the situation you’re in. Adrift opens in the wake of a space station disaster in 2037. You’re station commander Alex Oshima, the sole survivor; the station has splintered into busted-ass ragged chunks; it’s up to you to make the computer repairs necessary to go home - and to survive in the process.
Busted though its ass may be, Adrift’s space station is a truly breathtaking setting. Its art direction occupies a meticulously-designed nexus between contemporary spacecraft design, A Space Odyssey’s cleanliness, and Mass Effect’s curvy bulkheads, at once beautiful and functional. The Unreal Engine shines, literally, with Adrift’s stunning lighting effects. Every bit of sound is filtered through a space suit, with Alex’s laboured breathing evoking Gravity’s more claustrophobic sequences. When venturing outside the station, either through an airlock or one of many realistic hull breaches, the Earth fills your field of vision, a constant reminder of how far away from help you really are. I can only imagine how beautiful and terrifying (not to mention nauseating) this vision of space would be in the game’s much-vaunted virtual reality mode.
Sadly, this is a setting in search of a purpose. Despite its eye-popping environment, Adrift is a bummer of a game: not just boring and repetitive, but actively hostile towards the player.
The first element likely to split opinion is the movement mechanic. Movement takes place in six axes, using Alex’s spacesuit thrusters. Why she needs to use thrusters inside the station, where she could surely just pull herself around, is a valid question; why her thrusters use the same oxygen supply as her lungs is another. The controls initially feel alien, using triggers and bumpers and thumbsticks to control thrust, but feel more natural the more you play. By the end (if you make it that far) you’ll be lazily drifting about and making tiny Newtonian course corrections like the best of them.
It’s the oxygen thing that feels mean, though. Scattered throughout and around the station is a preponderance of oxygen canisters that must be regularly supped from in order to survive. Suffocating in space is awful, and you’ll end up doing it a lot if you like moving around. It makes “game sense” for the two resources to be shared, but in practice it’s more often infuriating than suspenseful.
The slow pace and ease of suffocation only compound Adrift’s other problems. At no point is it really clear what you’re supposed to do. I only worked out the objectives based on my knowledge of gaming cliche: you’re meant to retrieve computer components from each of the station’s four modules, then return to the central hub to install them. But as the station’s constituent pieces float messily through space, it can be near-impossible to tell where to go. Even if the station were intact, it’s graced with less signage than an actual space station would have, making its four identical branches even more confusing to navigate. There is a compass on your suit’s HUD, but a two-dimensional compass in a three-dimensional, zero-gravity environment means approximately dick. And if you go the wrong way, it’s a long, slow, potentially lethal glide back to the correct route.
That’s probably an accurate simulation of what a space station repair job would be like, of course. Doing anything in a space suit is slow and methodical, and I suppose that if you got into the game’s groove, it could be absorbing. But the game keeps drawing players away from the pure experience, entreating them to find collectibles and use “Filtrum terminals” that serve no purpose other than to fuel achievements. Some collectibles are located in outlying pieces of the station, but there’s just no incentive to collect them.
Like Adrift’s FPX cousins, the storytelling takes place at the edges of the game. You’ll find audio logs and emails scattered throughout the station, telling the stories of the various dead crewmembers, but they often rely on one another for context and meaning. The storytelling is spread thinly across a slew of characters, meaning you only barely get to know them. Then, bizarrely, sometimes you’ll receive audio logs through your headset purely when the game decides to deliver them, rendering the act of collecting audio tapes apparently pointless.
You might wonder: maybe this is all building up to something. Maybe banality and cruelty is the point. Well, you’d be right to think so, but not in the ways you’d expect. Spoilers ahead.
Adam Orth, who led design on Adrift, used to work for Microsoft as a creative director. When the Xbox One was announced, it was Orth who told fans to “get over it” when they expressed anger over the console's always-online requirement. Angry gamers ripped into Orth, pushing him to resign from Microsoft and move to California, eventually starting work on Adrift.
With that knowledge, Adrift starts making sense as a heavy metaphor. The space station is Orth’s life, and you are Orth trying to make sense of what happened and move on. The radio chatter’s constant emphasis on Oshima’s employer’s mission above all else echoes what it must feel like to work for a company like Microsoft. Knowledge of Orth’s situation also places into context the very end of the game. [SPOILERS:] As you re-enter the atmosphere, someone back in Houston berates you for causing the disaster you, as a player, had no part in, and demands that you face the music for what you’ve done.* It’s a strange note on which to roll credits, and it leaves you feeling really just down in the dumps, no matter how pretty the exit music is.
Knowledge of the game’s background is required to make sense of its jumbled, unfocused contents, and that's a problem. Without that context, all you get a downer ending that comes out of nowhere. In the text of the game, Adrift is not identifiably about anything. The core activity is a repetitive fetch quest, and narratively it has no satisfying conclusion or even any build-up. It’s easy to get lost in Adrift’s space environment, but in the end, Adrift is just as lost as you are.
* There may well be alternate endings, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna replay the game to find out.