Adam Orth, one of last year's most notorious people on the internet, was nervous last week as he was showing me his new creation: a beautiful, unusual game that he says was borne from his 2013 travails.
"This is how I chose to, in the words of a famous philosopher, 'deal with it,'" he self-consciously chuckled as he began demoing the game in a hotel suite during last week's DICE Summit in Las Vegas.
He was quoting his most notorious phrase, dashed off on Twitter last year as he infuriated scores of gamers and tipped a domino that'd lead to an upending of his life.
At first you might not see the connection between >Adr1ft and Orth's 2013 drama.
>Adr1ft is a non-violent first-person game that poses the player as an astronaut who begins the game floating above Earth amid the debris of a mostly-wrecked space station. It exists now only as a 10-week prototype that Orth is hoping to get funded. Orth's studio partner, Omar Aziz, played through it for me.
>Adr1ft is meant to be a quiet and lovely game with exploration and puzzles, a combination, as Orth describes it, of the acclaimed immersive first-person shooter Half-Life, the beloved, surreal nature-walk of a game Journey and the movie Gravity, which is also about a person adrift in space.
Orth's own personal disaster happened last year on terra firma and across the Internet. It happened in the spring when Orth, then a Microsoft creative director working on some Xbox TV projects, bluntly stated his support for always-online devices, telling people on Twitter to "deal with it" and then mocking the idea that he'd ever live outside a city, where presumably Internet connections are less reliable.
At the time of Orth's Tweets the next Xbox was not officially announced, but rumours swirled that it would require an online connection. Those rumours largely turned out to be true, though fan uproar compelled Microsoft to drop any such requirement.
Within weeks of his Tweets, Orth was gone from Microsoft. He was also gone, he says, from the Internet, where he received not just gentle disagreements but a tidal wave of vitriol that shook him to his core. He has described changing his life as a result, recommitting himself to his family, losing weight, moving out of the Seattle area and starting afresh in Southern California where he now runs a small five-person indie development shop he calls Three One Zero.
"This is one to one with that," Orth said of the game and the recent upheaval in his life. It isn't literally, if course. Orth is no astronaut. But it's not hard to see parallels between him and a game character who finds himself in the middle of a disaster and who must now do the hard work to put things together, make things right and come home. Orth isn't sharing spoilers but he indicates that the game's story will likely reveals more parallels between its fiction and his reality.
Even without the intriguing connection to a real fiasco, >Adr1ft is an excitingly promising game. Aside from some brief outer space sequences in recent Call of Duty adventures, game designers really haven't done much with first person anything in outer space. The gameplay possibilities of zero-g first-person exploration are enormous. The setting is also rapturous as the player floats above the Earth. The scene is quiet and beautiful.
In the short demo that I saw, the astronaut begins, as the game will, just floating in a debris field. We don't know why things have gone wrong. We'll probably find out. As Aziz demonstrated, the player can float and move in any direction. The environment is open, though the developers will bind the player from going too far with an oxygen limit or other tether. Still, the player can float and move all around and carefully begin to get his or her bearings and try to start fixing stuff. You can hear your character's breathing and not much else. Oxygen runs down and you have to grab a tank to breathe some more.
Similar to BioShock and other recent games, the player can find audio logs that begin to flesh out the game's back-story. The audio log in the prototype featured the voice of an astronaut named Andrew McDonagh. As the player accesses it, they begin to learn about McDonagh, a man up in space for two years who begins to sound disillusioned. In later logs, he talks about missing his daughter and then plays back her piano recital. She's playing Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8.
As McDonagh's daughter played, Aziz steered our character through more of the space station's wreckage, through a metal cylinder... some quarters of some sort... and through it he drifted until the Earth below came, glowing brilliant and most blue, into full view. It was an affecting moment.
Orth figures >Adr1ft could be classified as an FPX, a first-person experience, a decidedly non-confrontational game that will let players explore. They will also be on a mission, moving through five areas and confronting a series of procedurally-generated puzzles involving electronics repair. One of those puzzles, which involved rotating pieces of debris and shoving them toward mechanisms covered in blinking lights, didn't seem as obviously wonderful as the rest of the prototype. I told Orth and Aziz that I feared they could break the tone, that they could be the equivalent of a tedious Resident Evil puzzle, but it's so early and so hard to say that we can just leave that be for now and hope for the best. Here's a look at that puzzle:
These guys have been making games for a while and previously collaborated on Medal of Honour games before Orth moved on to Microsoft and Aziz to the Call of Duty studio Treyarch. They probably know what they're doing.
>Adr1ft is designed to last about three hours. Excitingly, it's also being designed to work with the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. I tried a demo of that and was suddenly seeing through the eyes of a man adrift in virtual outerspace, the Earth beyond my grasp. That was a highlight. I loved it.
Comparisons to the movie Gravity are so unavoidable that Orth invites them, but he stresses that he conceived the game before he'd heard of the film. Aziz, his lead programmer, has vowed not to watch the movie until the game is done. Orth has seen it and isn't worried that there will be any harmful overlap.
The overall impression I got from >Adr1ft is that it's a gentle game. This is quite a contrast for Orth who frequently showed sharp elbows on Twitter before last year's "deal with it" disaster. These days, he speaks so softly, remarking about how he's probably lost weight since I last saw him, impressing upon me that his game isn't violent, that it's a metaphor, that he hopes it affects people in a good way.
>Adr1ft is in a very early stage. He's hoping to start production of the game in April or May, staff up to about 10 people and release the game in a year. He's targeting Xbox One, PS4, Steam Machines, PC and Mac.
A day after he showed me the game, I caught up with Orth again. He was tired but giddy. He'd done his demo more than 30 times for reporters and for companies that might be interested in backing the game. He didn't seem nervous anymore, just happy and relieved. Good for him. He's making what looks to be a very cool game.