Never mind the destroyed space station and the references to the isles of Los Angeles. “Adr1ft” may look like a work of science fiction, but in reality it’s one of the most deeply personal video games of 2015. It’s also one borne out of a uniquely contemporary calamity.
Adam Orth in spring 2013 had a good gig at Microsoft, working primarily on ways to make television viewing more interactive. Then one day he got a little too vocal on Twitter and found himself out of a job.
“Sometimes,” he said, “you have to burn everything right to the ground.”
Burn he did. Orth that April became one of the most hated men on the Internet, or at least a certain corner of it. The perceived crime: Expressing an unpopular opinion regarding the future of home video game consoles.
In a singular example of so-called Internet-shaming, Orth said he opened the gates to the Internet, and what he saw behind the doors were “pitchforks and torches” — even having to explain to his 70-year-old mother why strangers wanted him out of a job. Days after getting too comfortable on Twitter, Orth resigned from Microsoft.
Yet out of the ashes have come “Adr1ft,” a narrative-focused game that’s directly inspired by the social-media-driven disaster. “Adr1ft” is about loneliness, about the fear of messing up and the hope that one can emerge from a catastrophe stronger than before.
Why is there a numeral “1" in the title? “One is the loneliest number,” said Orth. After the blow-up, Orth become something of a recluse, and nearly every aspect of “Adr1ft” is in some way related to his experiences.
Orth was rushing last week to get the game ready for the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), North America’s largest video game trade show. While E3 has long been a mecca for the mainstream, increasingly top-flight publishers are expanding their portfolios with smaller, more approachable game experiences, many of which will be shown at the three-day expo that begins Tuesday at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
Last year, for instance, Microsoft wowed with Moon Studios’ melancholic fantasy “Ori and the Blind Forest,” while Sony devoted theatrical space to the abstract end-of-the-world adventure from the Chinese Room, “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.”
The big-budget games will be present, of course. Orth’s publisher, 505 Games, will showcase titles on the opposite end of the spectrum this year, chief among them Overkill Software’s “The Walking Dead,” a bloody blockbuster-to-be inspired by the series created by Robert Kirkman.
“Adr1ft” boasts a look influenced by the film “2001,” a dramatic tension that isn’t too dissimilar from that of “Gravity” and narrative strands that come straight from Orth’s past. It’s a game not as an escape but as a way to deal with life.
Alone and lost
“Adr1ft” centers on a female astronaut, a woman lost in space after an accident left all of her co-workers dead. “Adr1ft” is an experiment in video game storytelling, pushing the medium to deal with more emotional and private material, and to do so largely in a metaphorical sense.
Though the particulars of Orth’s tweets are a tad “inside baseball” for those not up on the nuances of the opinionated and notoriously vociferous video game community, people didn’t like what Orth had to say, so much so that at least one person tracked down pictures of his infant daughter and emailed them to Orth with the words, “I hope your kid gets AIDs.”
Internet forums were started that called for Orth’s instant firing, and YouTube videos were made that detailed why Orth was a jerk, all over a flip remark.
Essentially, Orth had suggested that those who didn’t like the idea of a video game console requiring a 24/7 Internet connection should “deal with it.” He unwittingly fanned the flames by sarcastically remarking that he would never live in a small town without solid Internet access (“why on earth would I live there,” he wrote), but he also didn’t expect the comments to extend much beyond his 1,500 or so followers.
“I left work early so I could have a nice, early dinner with my wife and kid. I got home, turned on my phone and it literally levitated out of my hand. I had like a thousand text messages,” he remembered.
The experience, he said, was “horrific.” Microsoft issued a statement, never naming Orth, apologizing for the “inappropriate comments made by an employee.”
What Orth went through is a particularly modern affliction. Recently, two books — Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” and Jennifer Jacquet’s “Is Shame Necessary?” — have sought to analyze the effects of being the target of Internet bile. Ronson’s book, in particular, looks at the devastating effects that social-media shaming can have on one’s life. Orth hasn’t read it, but he said he plans to someday.
“I got used to having conversations on Twitter, in public, with my peers, and that was a huge mistake, a huge, huge mistake,” the 44-year-old Orth said.
Eventually, Orth said, he realized it was one of the best things that ever happened to him. It inspired his next move.
“The narrative of ‘Adr1ft’ is about action, consequence and redemption,” he explained. “It’s basically what happened to me. I treat it like an office in space. It’s not a save-the-world story. This is my life. I’m on a space station.”
Orth and his small team at Three One Zero are putting the finishing touches on “Adr1ft.” The company became a reality when Orth persuaded his friend, Omar Aziz, an industry veteran who worked with “Call of Duty: Black Ops” developer Treyarch, to join him and go indie. With the help of a small private investment, Three One Zero created a prototype. Publisher 505 Games, headquartered in Milan, Italy, with offices in Calabasas, signed on shortly thereafter.
505 Games this September will release “Adr1ft” for Sony’s PlayStation 4, Microsoft’s Xbox One and home computers. Microsoft today has moved on, declining to discuss the incident but pledging support for Orth’s game. “We wish Adam the absolute best with his new venture and can’t wait to play ‘Adr1ft’ on Xbox One,” said Shannon Loftis, GM of Microsoft Studios.
505 Games President Ian Howe was taken by “Adr1ft’s” emotional intimacy. “It struck me that this game was coming out of adversity,” Howe said. “So much great music has come out of adversity, whether it’s a painful breakup of a relationship or economic troubles.”
Music out, games in
Orth himself speaks regularly in music metaphors. That’s no surprise since he grew up in an academic family, living, he said, practically on the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs, Conn. He wanted to be a musician and came West for music.
His L.A. band, Shufflepuck, signed to Interscope Records in the mid-'90s, but the group was sent packing before the fully recorded album was released, and Orth switched his focus to games, working his way up from a game tester to a designer.
Over the course of his career he has worked at Sony Santa Monica, Electronic Arts and LucasArts, among other celebrated game publishers. Some of the work he is most proud of, however, never saw the light of day, such as the year and a half he spent with graphic novelist Frank Miller developing a proposed “Sin City” game.
But he doesn’t miss his corporate days. “You’re doing multimillion-dollar games with 150-people teams,” he said. “It’s hard to put your stamp on it, and it was frustrating to me. I would always get in trouble because I’m very outspoken, although much less now. I definitely have a punk rock attitude in those environments.”
Though Orth declines to reveal the budget for “Adr1ft” — he noted that it’s less than $3 million — it’s clear from looking at the game that it isn’t a shoestring project. The game is bright. Satellites glimmer, and the remnants of the station’s garden create a sort of floating coral reef. The look is meant to convey hope, although floating debris and a criminal lack of oxygen will keep the player on the edge of the seat.
The audio can be gripping. Ambient noises and the sound of the protagonist’s breathing capture the harshness of the environment. At times, the player can stumble across audio diaries or radio transmissions from Earth. Though one is unable to communicate with the home planet, the player will hear social-media-like speculation that points blame and attempts to analyze, wrongly, of course, what happened at the space station.
“It’s not a very hidden metaphor,” Orth said of the game, which should run about three hours when completed. “I basically woke up one day and my life was blown to smithereens. The destroyed space station is a very obvious metaphor for that, but I’ve always been drawn to sole-survivor stories. That’s basically where I was. I was literally on my own. I had the support of all my friends and family and peers, but as awesome as everyone else I still felt all alone.”
Addiction, cancer, parenting — “Adr1ft” deals with many suffocating, everyday dramas as our survivor tries to preserve as many personal artifacts as possible from her lost co-workers. The characters who perished on the space station were all flawed, struggling with hidden problems or afflictions.
This is why, say those who have seen the game, “Adr1ft” has a chance to appeal to an audience bigger than the game-playing core.
“Adr1ft,” said Brenda Romero, is “really going to resonate with a lot of people.” Romero, an industry luminary and educator whose resume includes “Wizardry” and “Dungeons & Dragons” titles, was credited by Orth as one who helped him through the throes of depression in 2013.
“While many people can’t relate to the experience that Adam had, many people can relate to having been left alone or feelings of betrayal and having your whole life ripped out from under you,” Romero said. “It happens in small ways and big ways, but I think it’s something everyone can relate to.”
Today, Orth said he probably wouldn’t be on Twitter if he didn’t have a game to promote. He remembers spending multiple days in summer 2013 blocking, one by one, those who directed hateful comments toward him online. He remembers days spent staring at his computer, withholding the temptation to respond to those threatening his family.
Orth finally has his response: It’s “Adr1ft.”