Creating Adrift: the space survival game that will make you love VR

Breathe and stop

Adrift is a game that takes place in the ruins of a gleaming, futuristic space station, one that has you doing your best Sandra Bullock impersonation as you attempt to navigate the debris and stay alive. As you explore, you’ll learn about the former inhabitants who perished during the explosion, and all the while you’ll need to keep yourself breathing by grabbing canisters of oxygen, which float amongst the wreckage.

It’s the scariest game I’ve ever played that doesn’t feature any violence.

In the earliest portion of the game, every moment feels like it could be your last. Your spacesuit has jets that help you move, but doing so also depletes your air supply. When you’re running low, you come up against tough choices: do you use the last of your air to push yourself toward a canister and possibly run out, or do you save those breaths and hope that your momentum is enough to get you there? You hear a nauseating gasping when your character struggles for breath, and when she finally runs out, she’ll claw at her mask in horrifying fashion.

Due to launch early next year, Adrift (stylized as Adr1ft, because "one is the loneliest number") is the first release from new studio Three One Zero, a six-person team made up of industry veterans who previously worked together on blockbuster franchises like Medal of Honor and Call of Duty. Their newest work is something very different. It may be a first-person game, but there are no guns or violence, and it can be completed in a relatively brisk four hours. It also might be the first game that truly sells non-believers on virtual reality. While we’ve seen plenty of interesting VR gimmicks, deep, meaningful experiences for the platform are still rare — but they’ll be necessary if the technology is to ever become mainstream.

Adrift will be available in both VR and non-VR forms — its original 2015 release was delayed so it could launch alongside the Oculus Rift early next year — and though both versions are technically the same, the experience of playing them is vastly different. The game is still tense and scary without a pair of goggles, but it makes more sense in VR: the way the HUD fills up your display, as if you were really wearing an astronaut’s helmet, or how you can look around as you float through the ruins, all make you feel like you’re really in space exploring.

“We built the game from the ground up to be traditional and VR, but the VR part has really touched people,” says creative director Adam Orth. “When you play in VR, it’s special.”

If you remember Orth’s name, it’s probably for something he’d rather forget. Prior to founding Three One Zero, Orth worked at Microsoft on the company’s interactive TV projects. While there, he helped create a game with National Geographic where kids could interact using the Kinect camera, as well as a live-streamed debate where viewers could raise their hands to vote in real-time polls. He says he was also working on something "really cool" with NASA that never ended up being made. But that’s not why you recognize his name. On April 4th, 2013, when the unannounced Xbox One was still known as Project Durango, and the console was rumored to require an always-on internet connection, Orth tweeted that he didn’t "get the drama over having an ‘always on’ console" and signed off with the #dealwithit hashtag.

The response was swift and furious. Fans, angered at the lack of sympathy from an actual Microsoft employee, let their rage be heard on social media and elsewhere. Orth was bombarded with angry messages that escalated to death threats, as things so often do on the internet, and soon after he was no longer a Microsoft employee. A careless thought changed his life in an instant. Orth had been thinking about moving back to Santa Monica and starting up his own studio for some time — "I just don’t fit into that mindset," he says of working at a big corporation like Microsoft — and his controversial tweet provided the impetus to finally do it. He shut himself off from the internet as much as he could, and focused on developing a creative way to take his turmoil and turn it into something positive.

It was summer in Seattle when Orth first started thinking about Adrift, and his daughter had just turned one year old. Now free from his responsibilities at Microsoft, he’d spend his mornings with his daughter, enjoying rare sunshine in the Pacific Northwest, before heading off to a public library in Bellevue, Washington to research his game idea. He knew he wanted to make a space game — though at one point, very early on, Adrift was a game about being on a desert island — and he knew he wanted to make something about the life-changing experience he had gone through. "The destroyed space station metaphor fit very perfectly," he says. "I’m really thankful for however brutal the experience was, because it got me to here. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was necessary. None of this would exist without that.

"I think about that stuff a lot more infrequently than I used to," he adds.

Three One Zero’s Santa Monica office is open, clean, and spacious, primarily because hardly anybody is there; most of the time Orth is in the office alone, while the rest of the team works remotely from their nearby homes, communicating over Skype and Slack. Though they now work physically apart from one another most of the time, the team has a long history together. Each of the six full-time developers — a few contractors also worked on Adrift, contributing art and animations, among other things — had previously worked together at EA on the military shooter series Medal of Honor.

They all went on to do other things; design director Tom Gerber spent nearly six years at Blizzard, for example, while technical director Omar Aziz worked at Call of Duty developer Treyarch. But despite their different paths, they all stayed with big companies making big games. When Orth pitched him his idea of a smaller, personal experience, it was enough to tempt them. "We’ve all made games that have sold millions of copies," says design director Sam Bass, "but there’s not that attachment." Adrift was the chance to work on something they felt connected to.

But first there was the matter of figuring out what the game actually was. Orth knew the basic concept, that it would be about an astronaut trying to survive in the midst of a destroyed space station, but the specifics of how it would play weren’t clear. And many of the ideas the team did have ended up being scrapped. "A lot of the things that I thought this game should be didn’t work," explains Orth. Early on, for example, the team thought it might be cool to have you moving objects around in zero gravity in order to solve puzzles. It turned out terrible: players were flying around with huge objects blocking their view. "That was one of the hardest challenges: what do you do in this game?" says Bass. "We had all of the stuff we thought you’d do and none of it turned out to be super fun. So what do you do when you’re floating in space? You float in space. You panic and you try not to die."

I did plenty of both of those things while playing. The core of Adrift is how it balances movement and breathing. You need to make your way around the station, but you also need air so that you don’t die. Every single movement becomes a calculated risk, and the early portions of the game are immensely stressful (I was told that things let up a bit later on). Every time I’d swing my virtual hand out to grab an oxygen canister, I’d hold my breath; if I miscalculated just a bit, it was over. When I finally put down the controller at the end of the demo, I realized my heart was racing.

In addition to its focus on pure survival, Adrift is a surprisingly narrative-heavy experience. You’ll pick up audio logs and read computer terminals scattered throughout the station, and with each one you’ll learn a bit more about the deceased crew. And, as in similar first-person experiences like Gone Home, a lot of the storytelling comes from the environment itself. Living quarters are filled with personal items, and computers have sticky notes attached to them with bits of insight.

I learned a lot about the station by floating around; it’s filled with trees and flowers, clearly a place where scientists were experimenting with sustaining plant life in space. As I pieced together the narrative scraps littered around, this theory proved true: the game takes place in the year 2037, and humanity is trying to develop ways to extract oxygen from plant life in space, in order to colonize new planets. There are also some neat touches, like the news ticker that displays in your visor, keeping you up to date on the fictional company that operates the station. You may be near death, but you can still see what’s going on in human resources.

Adrift concept art compared to an in-game screenshot

Three One Zero may be an experienced team, but Adrift provided a number of unique challenges they’d never come up against. For one, there was the whole moving around in zero-gravity thing, which takes some getting used to. (When I tried the game, the team had just finished implementing a new tutorial section, which lets you play around in a weightless environment without having to worry about suffocating. Think of it as a virtual astronaut training sim.)

On top of that, there’s all of the trouble that comes from creating an experience in virtual reality, which is still largely uncharted territory. Since both the VR and non-VR versions of Adrift are identical — making two distinct versions would be a huge hurdle for such a small group — the studio had to make sure every element worked in both modes. Certain animations might look fantastic on a PlayStation 4, but if they went on too long they’d make players nauseous in VR. "Even the simplest things are monumental," Orth says of the change in making a VR game. "It’s almost like going from 2D to 3D games. As a creator and a designer and an artist, it makes you feel young and excited again about making games."

It’s also been a huge technical challenge to make a game that looks as good as Adrift with such a small team, and that’s only made more difficult by the fact that VR games need to run at a higher frame rate than traditional games in order to not make players sick. Some of Adrift’s key features have been the product of necessity. Take the oxygen mechanic, for instance: it helps instill a sense of fear and focus in the player, but it also allows the developers to slow down the game so that new areas can load in the background. You’ll never see a loading screen in Adrift, and that’s part of the reason why. "We can’t fill a room with 30 [enemies] to stop you going through a room," Bass says, pointing to a solution that traditional shooters often use. "The only way we can control player movement is through oxygen and oxygen depletion. If we took away oxygen depletion, suddenly the smoke and mirrors become a little more obvious."

The extra time afforded by the game’s delay has meant more time to iron out these technical kinks, as well as implement features like the new tutorial. "I don’t think any of us understood the actual challenge," Orth says of the ambitious nature of Adrift, "we just wanted to do it."

Floating among the wreckage of Adrift, it’s hard not to see its cinematic influences. There’s a touch of 2001 in the technology, and you’ll see signage for the Hardiman Corporation that call to mind Alien’s Weyland-Yutani. It’s a bit more modern than either of those two — with a look partially inspired by Braun coffee makers, of all things, according to the team — but you can still see bits of those films here and there. And, of course, struggling against gravity in the ruins of a space station immediately conjures images of Gravity — though Orth says he learned of the film’s existence after he came up with the game idea. "I was immediately like, well I can’t do this," he says of the discovery, but he ultimately went ahead because the two experiences are very different despite their superficial similarities. And while the constant comparisons initially irked him, he says he now sees them as a positive. "Thank you for comparing my game to an Oscar-winning film."

During those rare times when you can catch your breath and look around, the station is absolutely beautiful. There are moments where you open a door only to discover a huge tree awaiting you, green leaves brushing against your helmet as you float by. And most every scene is framed by the Earth and stars in the background. It makes for a pretty great backdrop. Initially it feels terrifying, like a gigantic mess of debris and doors. But the more you explore, the more it makes sense, and you start to realize how the different areas connect to each other. "It starts to feel like home," says Gerber. "You start to care about it a little bit."

That sense of place is especially important for an experience like Adrift. It’s part of a relatively new wave of nonviolent exploration games, sometimes disparagingly called walking simulators, like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or Gone Home and its sci-fi follow-up Tacoma. These games often feature few, if any, other characters, turning the world itself into the star. They’re mostly about being somewhere, a place that communicates a feeling or a story. And Adrift’s ruined space station works perfectly for the specific feeling the team is going for — as do all of the other elements of the game. "The level design is broken, the audio is broken, the narrative is broken, your suit is broken," explains Orth. "Everything feels like you went through this really catastrophic event that fucked everything up."

Adrift and its ilk are especially welcoming to new players, those not familiar with games, because they don’t require the same kind of dedication as typical blockbusters. You don’t need to memorize complex controls or have lightning fast reflexes to enjoy Gone Home, and the same is true of Adrift. And that’s part of what gives it the potential to be a killer app for the Oculus Rift and VR in general.

"We hope that when Oculus comes out," says Orth, "we’re going to be one of those must-have experiences."

Read next: Our Oculus Rift review