Adr1ft

At this point we should all be smart enough to take announcement trailers at face value, but I was still struck by the initial trailer for Adr1ft, which I believe was revealed at the VGAs back in 2014. The slow and exploratory trailer, watching a character carefully make their way through a destroyed space station, their oxygen ticking down, reaching for that last bit of oxygen in a canister and if they could just grab it... and then their finger taps it away. It spins off into space, and they take their last gasp of breath. The title fades in.

What a beautiful short film. A little bit like how the initial trailer for Dead Island was more a piece to capture a tone and a story – while Adr1ft does try to keep things somber and serious all the way through (to a rather cliched fault at times), I don't think I've ever seen a game work so hard to undo what seems like it was supposed to be a main mechanic at the heart of the experience.

Because even though the whole station's been depressurized, oxygen is EVERYWHERE. I'm sure there's places on earth that have less oxygen than up here, in space, in the deadly void trying its best to kill you. And it's a renewable source, too! There are chests that just spill little canisters of it all over, there are spots on walls you can go to that just fill you up all the way. And with all of this, the isolation and the threat of running out of resources just completely die. The only times you're going to be in any danger are going to be when you just don't know where you're going, as happened to me more than once thanks to the mostly-but-not-always helpful minimap.

Plus the way the oxygen worksfeels just super gamey. You breath it, of course, but it's also the fuel for how to propel yourself around the zero-g environs. I'd love to be in a real meeting with someone at the space organization who came up with that decision.

Engineer 1: "Well they already have oxygen, so why not make that the propulsion as well?"

Engineer 2: "You mean like the stuff they breathe?"

E1: "Yeah."

E2: "Like the stuff plants give us."

E1: "Yep."

E2: "So what happens if like their pack is punctured and all the oxygen goes everywhere, wouldn't that stop them from breathing?"

E1: "That's their problem I guess."

E2: "We're over budget anyways let's just go with it."

That's already pretty gamey, but the part that's especially bad is that when you're inside of the ship, or in certain "contained" areas, your suit is fine. You can just sort of float there forever. Hang out. See the planet rotate beneath you. There's a day/night cycle to it! Isn't it beautiful when the lights are shining? But as soon as you adventure into too-open space, your oxygen suddenly starts draining.

Back up an inch, it's fixed! Go forward an inch, draining. It feels exactly as silly as that. I can only guess it's because the developers wanted to give you something to worry about so you can't just explore freely, and some way to gate you from, say, pointing your jetpack to earth and shooting yourself at it. Gotta put in those limits somehow! And since space doesn't exactly allow for those knee-high fences our badass hero can't vault over, something like this was probably the simplest answer.

The basic explanation for Adr1ft is that it's like a post-disaster Gone Home in space, where you, the player, are trying to figure out what you, the character, did to create the situation you're in. Everyone else is dead – you'll even find their bodies floating around – and just by collecting audio logs (yep) and text logs (yep), you piece together everyone's lives, before the ship, during the ship, and their dreams for after the ship.

For the most part it's rote. Recovering addict in space (who somehow still gets drugs? And like how can that happen if they're getting supply runs from earth that someone would have checked?), father wanting to see his kids again, woman with no personality I could discern, etc. Luckily no cases of space madness, but you're still not running into anything unusual here, and most of the stories left me rather unaffected. Everyone has dreams, and now they're dead. It's my character's fault, but since there is nothing TO that character, I don't exactly feel close, guilty, or particularly invested in anyone.

Aside from one character. His motivation was actually rather beautiful, and in a way inspiring. He was able to choose his life as he saw fit, and hearing him speak about it was one of the few emotionally affecting things in the game.

Then you go to a central hub, it tells you to go get 4 things. You get them, return to the center, and then get in a ship and go home. Roll credits.

Even worse is that despite the fact that I got over 50% of the logs (according to a trophy at the end), I still had no idea what their actual goal was. I had to look it up afterwards. They may be a subject of eye-rolling and mockery at this point, but I still think hidden audiologs can be a great way to tell a story. Something like Adr1ft sort of emphasizes the problem with them though – I don't get the answer to the central mystery or story or motivation unless I scour the ship with a fine-tooth comb. They should flesh out the story, not be the only way you can even get the story delivered. Especially if you're then going to gate exploration using a depleting resource that has to constantly be refilled.

Regardless of the setting and the fantastic visuals, Adr1ft feels like an also-ran walking simulator with more rules and less explanation along the way. It's a good distillation of the limits and how the genre both does and doesn't work. It may have been a cool idea but it's unable to deliver on the promise inherent in being trapped in space, resulting in something too slow, too tedious, and too unsatisfying when you reach the end of its too-long running time.