Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.
Floating through the wreckage of Adr1ft’s futuristic space station, which was until recently intact, you enter a large, open chamber that thankfully still is. In the center: a disarmingly beautiful cherry blossom tree.
The character you’re inhabiting, who led the station’s crew before it blew up, probably knows why the tree is there. But Commander Oshima isn’t sharing, and her crew have seemingly all bit the space dust. So you, the player, can only guess at the purpose of a tree on a space station. If the goal was to create a self-sustaining orbiting eco-bubble, there are probably better floral choices—more efficient oxygen producers, plants that take up less space, or a tree that would at least grow something useful beyond pretty pink leaves someone probably had to sweep up. Nevertheless there it is, one of the few things that, apparently through sheer randomness, has yet to be sucked into the void.
It’s not random, though. Adr1ft’s creator, Adam Orth, placed it there for a reason. So I asked him: what’s the point of a cherry blossom tree in space?
“It’s meant to be beautiful,” he told me at his studio’s workspace in Santa Monica, Calif. We were sitting on rickety wooden chairs in a side room off the bustling Third Street Promenade shopping strip. I could hear the foot traffic outside, and the hum of something that sounded like machinery almost drowned out our chat when I listened back to the recording.
“There’s a fiction around the space station,” Orth said. “Earth is failing. It’s not doom and gloom, but we need to figure out how to keep the human race going.”
Adr1ft doesn’t tell you any of that right away. You wake up in the station’s drifting wreckage, aware of only a few key facts: you’re in space, your suit is losing oxygen, and something terrible has occurred. You grasp at oxygen refill canisters as you propel yourself around the station’s debris using delicate thruster controls, your ever-depleting air doubling as fuel for exploration—as in, your oxygen meter decreases more quickly the more you jet around. It pays to align yourself in the right direction then simply float, even if it takes longer.
The story comes together as you explore. Drifting near Earth-facing satellites triggers splintered news broadcasts to play in your ears, and you find intact computer terminals where you can read emails sent before the disaster, as well as the broken bodies of the members of your crew. I played the game using an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, which lent the experience of floating through the wreckage for an hour a slight but narratively poignant sensation of actual nausea.
“We spent a lot of time making sure that we broke [the station] properly so it feels like home,” Orth said. “The way we visualized our space station, it feels cooler and more unique than say, the [International Space Station]. The ISS is like OK, it’s a bunch of metal and tinfoil and it’s not very interesting to look at. Whereas [the station in] 2001 is super interesting to look at. We wanted it to feel like the future.”
A TROUBLED FUTURE
Adr1ft does feel like the future—a troubled one. “I do think our planet is in trouble, and I worry about it,” Orth said. “I’m 45 years old. I grew up in a time where nuclear war was a real thing. It was scary. And you don’t ever shake that feeling. And then time progresses, you grow up, and—in my lifetime, we’ve seen really important things, the planet deteriorating…There are all these private space programs that are popping up in real life that pioneer the spirit of ‘Let’s figure something out about space,’ and [the question of] 'How are we going to help and extend and preserve humanity?’ exists again, and that’s exciting. That’s part of what Adr1ft is.”
And so, the tree. “There’s not supposed to be a beautiful cherry tree in space,” Orth said. “But that’s not the only beautiful plant life in the game.” True; there are passages bursting with greenery and butterflies, just as there are many more chambers bristling with shiny metal and plastic and electric lights. And those are just the sections that didn’t implode or burst off toward the sun when the recycled shit hit the fan.
“I think the beautiful organic life in this twisted metal environment in dead, cold space is very—hopefully it lights up your imagination as much as it did mine,” Orth said. “Even in this totally destroyed environment, you have comfort and safety.”
The cherry blossom tree is Chris Hadfield’s guitar on the ISS, or Sam Bell donning a scrappy old Hawaiian shirt in Moon. In the hypothetical (potentially near) future where humanity rockets off into the stars because we’ve messed up our home too badly, we don’t leave everything behind in the exhaust and dust and ambient radiation. We take things with us.
“They’ve pioneered a way to bring plant life from earth up to space and grow it and extract oxygen from it, to use as a renewable resource, to colonize other places, and that’s kind of the purpose of the station, so that’s why you see all this organic life,” Orth said. But it’s not just that—practical, utilitarian, logical. “We wanted a certain emotional vibe, and I think when you’re floating through this wreckage and you come to this moment of serene beauty, it’s a nice moment,” he continued. “One of the characters goes and meditates there because it’s like, his center in space. So it’s meaningful to the story, it’s meaningful to the feelings, it’s meaningful to the themes.”
Plus—and this is a big one—the cherry tree survived, when your crew, the people who brought it there, did not. What does that say about humanity’s chances in the stars? That we might at the very least leave a legacy. I think.
“Yeah! It’s life, and it survived, and they didn’t,” Orth said. “It’s almost like a reminder—it’s like hope. It’s like, 'OK, this thing made it. This is still going. It’s beautiful—it’s a moment of peace where I can collect myself and get ready for the next challenge.’”
The next challenge arrived today with Adr1ft’s release on Windows PC—including virtual reality support with Oculus Rift. The game is expected to land on PS4 and Xbox One later this year.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor. He doesn’t always feel nauseous in virtual reality, but when he does he works it into the narrative. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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