Breathing is a basic, but complex human function.
The muscles attached to your rib cage contract, expanding the chest cavity as your diaphragm contracts. This in turn expands a membrane that covers your lungs and triggers negative pressure which creates airflow into your lungs.
The lungs naturally contract due to their elastic property as your intercostal muscles lower the rib cage applying pressure to the thoracic cavity, which contains the lungs. The diaphragm, in turn, relaxes, shifting tissue up which puts additional pressure on the lungs and forces the air out.
It is a natural process, which doesn’t require thought. But thinking about it can help control anxiety.
Or cause it.
It is the only sound in my ears. The sound of breathing. At first it doesn’t match my own, but soon my natural breathing gives way to thoughtful breathing, inhalation and exhalation timed to the sounds of someone else’s breath.
I am adrift in space, floating through the debris of a catastrophe, oxygen tank in hand. The sound of breathing grows faster as I move, as the oxygen tank depletes. Soon, those once calming deep breaths give way to shallow, sharp breaths.
The pitch rises.
They become ragged.
My own breath
begins to match.
Until I find another oxygen bottle. And the breath in the game instantly slows, deepens, calms. I take a deep breath, feel a rush of relief. Feel the anxiety that was creeping up slither away in those slow, sonorous breaths. I float for a minute, in the game, staring out at the stars, at the Earth below. Drift until that tempo begins to change again.
Adam Orth is making a game about his experiences last year in the eye of a social hurricane, about the time he sent a tweet about always-online technology which sparked a fury on the Internet, led to death threats against himself and his family and tore apart his sense of privacy and security. It is an easy metaphor, a game that opens on a scene of confused destruction in space, that drops its player into the space suit of a man struggling to make sense of an unseen powerful force that has destroyed everything he holds dear.
It is designed to be a three hour first-person experience. The idea is a game that could run on a PC, next-gen console, or tablet and features procedurally generated puzzles, stunning graphics and no violence.
It is also, when played with the Oculus Rift, a deft panic attack simulator. A title that uses the mechanics of oxygen and breathing to create subtle waves of anxiety.
“After everything happened last year, when I was kind of in the dark times, I started thinking about what I wanted to do next,” Orth tells me. “I was trying to figure out the right way to deal with my feelings about what happened and… You know, as a creative person, you’re fueled by your life and things that happen. You try to put those things into the stuff you create. So I had a game idea about just being stranded on a space station. Then I started feeling like it was kind of one-to-one to what was happening in my life. I basically woke up one day and my life was just in ruins. That’s where this game came about.”
Adrift is the story of an astronaut who wakes up floating in space among the debris of a destroyed space station. He has no memory of what happened or why and is trapped in a leaking, damaged space suit.
“The whole idea is kind of figuring out what happened and getting home safely,” Orth said. “It’s just really — it’s a really personal game. It’s what we call an FPX, a first-person experience. There’s no violence. There’s no shooting. There’s not even anyone else alive in the game, other than the player. It’s all about exploring and the environment is your enemy. It’s all about finding out what happened and getting home safely. And through the course of the game, you kind of meet all these characters that perished. You find out about their lives. These are the people that you knew and were close to for a long amount of time on this space station.
“Now they’re all dead.”
3 1 0
Three One Zero is an independent game studio formed out of the rubble of Orth’s run-in with Twitter. Only not really. The idea of leaving Microsoft, of setting out to do his own thing was already in the works the day of those tweets. Twitter just sped up the process.
Orth and Omar Aziz formed the studio last year in Santa Monica around the idea of making original, immersive and beautiful games. They wanted to create games that are entertaining, empowering, evocative, perhaps provocative. What the didn’t want to do ever again was make a shooter.
“Omar and I met each other when we worked together at EA LA on Medal of Honor,” Orth said. “We made a few Medal of Honor games together. We developed this really deep creative and working connection that I never had with anyone else that I worked with. I can’t speak for him, but it’s a very deep thing.”
The relationship blossomed, Orth said, as the two worked on Medal of Honor European Assault. It was on that game that the two spent time in the “tuning pod.” Their job was to take a finished level and tune the shooting and movement of those levels to perfect.
“We really developed a shorthand, kind of this weird symbiotic creative relationship during that time,” Orth said. “And then we all went our separate ways. Omar went off to great heights at Treyarch, doing amazing things on the Black Ops games. I went off to infamy.
“But I’ve always wanted to come back and work with Omar. That’s kind of always been my plan.”
And that plan included a sort of repulsion for big, AAA shooters.
“That’s part of our DNA,” Orth said. “But we don’t want to make those kinds of games. We’ve had enough of… I don’t ever need to make a game that shoots a projectile ever again. I’m just really over that.”
Orth, Aziz and artist Hogarth De La Plante spent the past 10 weeks and a chunk of private funding to hammer together this first playable prototype of Adrift. They worked up until last week to make something people could try and then brought it with them to the DICE Summit on the hunt for a publisher or investor to fund the game.
The response, Orth says, has been staggering. Developers, publishers, investors packing their few days in Vegas for a chance to check out what quickly became one of the most buzzed about experiences of the show.
Halfway through our interview, a group from Tencent knocked on the door to try and find some time with the game. Orth had to wave them away.
“It’s taken us aback a little bit,” he said, “because we literally just stopped making this prototype last week.”
Game: Survivor detected. Survivor detected. Survivor detected. Survivor detected. Survivor located. Initializing EVA holo-display. Catastrophic event detected. Origin point disseminated. Emergency life support systems on-line. EVA systems critically damaged. Oxygen reserves depleted. Hardiman Aerospace Facility Number Four. No remaining survivors. Manual oxygen refill required.
My first look at Adrift is watching Aziz play through the prototype.
Orth warns me ahead of time. “We’re not going to let you play it,” he warns me. “We’re going to let you watch it. Then you can play it on Oculus.”
He acknowledges that the approach is a little different, but says there’s a reason.
“It’s important for the first impression to be really special,” he says. “I don’t want you to get stuck in a wall somewhere and just… ”
There are some challenges to the game. It takes place in zero gravity, you can move in any direction. The Oculus set-up, which isn’t required, can be distracting to the gameplay. So instead I watch.
Over the course of the 10 minute demo, Aziz first wakes adrift amidst the flotsam of a destroyed space station. His oxygen is running low and he’s tasked with repairing a computer mainframe which will eventually lead to the repair of an escape vehicle. There are basically five things to do in the game, he said, all of which take place in what Orth describes as a zero-gravity playground.
“It’s important for us to have space as a zero-gravity playground for the player, as much as it is to have the critical path story experience,” he said.
Breathing, Orth points out, is a mechanic in the game. As Aziz works his way through the remnants of the ship he’s constantly forced to hunt for floating containers of oxygen. As he plays, the breathing becomes more labored, the view blurred, until he finds a tank and things normalize … for a bit.
Much of the prototype is about floating through a maze of debris, looking for oxygen as you explore and finally figuring out a music-driven puzzle. Though at one point we discover a single piece of narrative designed to describe one of the people lost to the explosion, an audio recording by a mission specialist. In it, the man describes how excited he is to return home after two years in space. How much he misses his daughter. The mistakes, choosing a paycheck over a family, that he’s made. The missed recitals.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 plays. Orth tells me later that it’s an important bit of music in his life.
“I love Beethoven,” he said. “His work has just been really meaningful to me. This particular piece and this movement of the piece, they’ve really stuck with me over the years. Omar has some history with it too, which I didn’t know until we brought it up.”
A bit later I get my taste of the game, dropping into the spacesuit of Adrift using the Oculus Rift. There are no objectives for my time in the suit. Instead I can take my time floating through the realization of Orth’s disaster. I marvel at the sense of weightlessness, despite sitting in a hotel chair, and spend a bit of time poking around in one of the giant cylinders that make up the remnants of the space station.
“What we did was, we had to cut off a little piece of the world to kind of sell the feeling of the serenity,” Orth says. “The beauty of the kind of game that we’re making is that it’s really suited for Oculus, because it’s very slow, and there’s no twitching. You don’t have to run around on the ground. You’re just very gently floating through the world and appreciating the beauty.”
I move myself out into free space, drifting slowly between shattered corridors and bits of space station, when something catches my eye: the Earth. It is a moment of immense serenity, there is something deeply calming about the silence found in this wreckage, the idea that the worst has come and gone and you have survived it.
The demo is using a slightly out-of-date Oculus Rift, but Orth says he’s tried it with the HD version.
“It was too much for me,” he said. “I had to stop because it made me … it was exactly what I see in my head.”
The decision to turn the low-point of his life into a game came quickly, in the midst of the turmoil, Orth says.
“Those were seriously dark times,” Orth says. “I couldn’t relate to anyone or anything. I just disappeared into my own place. That’s how I-I really don’t want to use this phrase, but that’s how I deal with stuff. I create things. That’s just what I do. It’s important for me to express myself through creativity. So it was natural to want to talk about this through doing something artistic. Thinking about doing a game, about framing that experience in a game, helped me not… It helped me through that process, because I knew I didn’t have to go to interviews and talk to everyone who wanted to talk about it. It became overwhelming at a point, where I just shut everything off. I think it helped me, personally, go through that experience gracefully, knowing that this was going to be my platform.”
Orth likens it to when musicians pour their life experiences into song. The metaphor he settled on was space, a vacuum. The end result, he says, is Half-Life meets Journey meets the movie Gravity.
In turning Orth’s vision into a game, Aziz said he sees himself not as an interloper but as an implementer.
“I know that can be a negative term, but I like putting together the things that people have in their vision,” he said. “And then what I do is I take that and I put my own sort of sauce on it. It fit in with what I normally do. I put together people’s visions. And this one, I thought, was interesting and cool. I thought there were places for me to put it together. So there weren’t times when I was like, ‘Hey, should we change this a little bit? Should we make this green or make this purple?’ I didn’t feel uncomfortable doing that, because you know what? If we put this dirty grime thing on the screen, it’s going to look super awesome. It’s not going to impact your vision.”
Normally, the question wouldn’t even come up. But with this, their first game as a new studio, Aziz is essentially working with the tapestry of Orth’s life, and not just his life, but one of its most painful moments.
“As a gameplay programmer you’re constantly taking other people’s visions and implementing it for them,” he said. “I know Adam, and to me, when all that stuff happened, I was like …
Aziz trailed off for a second before continuing.
“But when I heard, let’s make a game, and when I heard, let’s make a game with all of these elements, that’s really what attracted me,” he said. “‘I’m not walking on eggshells, because really, all the elements are elements of what sounds like a cool game. It’s something that we think people will enjoy and that people can relate to. That’s how I approach it.”
And this game, with its difficult ties to a very real, emotional event, is just the first of many games they hope to make together.
“We’ve got a bunch of other game ideas that aren’t going to be personal like this,” Orth said. “But right now, this is what we’re making. I think it’s going to resonate with people, because the universal idea of space and being lost and stuck in space and those kind of things, everyone can relate to that. And everyone can relate to the thematic part about bad things happening from things that you’ve done, and how those consequences play out in the world around you, in your life.”
Once they settled on the setting and the basic story, they looked for the mechanic.
“Coming from making shooters, it was pretty hard for us to not have a thing doing things” Orth said. “When you have a first-person shooter, the gun is how you interact with the world. We really wanted to have our own unique mechanic that was true to the world, that added something to the game in a special way. It was pretty obvious, from the start, that we had to use the oxygen thing, but it really worked out in ways that we hadn’t expected.”
While the need to find and replenish your oxygen isn’t the game’s only challenge, in fact at some point you no longer have to replenish your air supply, it feels like the most meaningful, and certainly the one most tied to the greater theme of anxiety and control. So even when you’ve repaired your suit, the sense of being in a helmet and breathing will never go away.
“Everything takes place within your helmet. You’ll always hear the breathing,” Orth said. “You can die in the game from running out of oxygen. That whole tension and increased breathing and the screen getting blurry double vision and eventually tunnel vision and you gasp and die.”
Even talking about the game seems to make Orth a little anxious and playing it, he says, definitely does.
“There’s little bits of me in the story,” he said. “There are little bits of my life in that story arc that you heard. Every time I hear it, I go back to that place.”
But the process of making the game has been cathartic, he said. And he hopes the end result will be a game that not only entertains, but helps gamers to experience some of what he went through.
“It’s a hybrid of a game and a cinematic experience,” Orth said. “We’re trying to do something different, to kind of break the frame a little bit.”
What strikes me as most odd is how the game, in its quiet moments, when oxygen is not depleted, can feel so serene. How, I ask Orth, can a game about so tumultuous a time in his life be so relaxing.
“We just like beautiful things,” he said.
“I think people want stuff like this. They’re just not given it. AAA studios will never make a game like this. Never. And I think that people who buy AAA games want experiences like this. But they’re never given the opportunity to have them at this level of quality that we’re trying to hit. We’re trying to hit a really cinematic, AAA experience, but in a smaller, kind of intimate setting.”
And that’s as much the reason the trio made the game, as the ordeal Orth went through, he said.
“It’s a little bit of both,” Orth said. “A little bit of a bunch of stuff. I don’t know. I’ve been making games for 16 years and done a lot of different things. This just isn’t like anything I’ve ever done, so instantly I just want to do that. As soon as I realized the game that I had come up with was not like anything I’d ever done, then it wasn’t a, ‘Oh, I want to make this game.’ It immediately became, ‘I have to make this game.'”
And by weathering last year’s social storm, Orth has developed the capacity to not worry so much about what other people might think of this idea.
“If anyone wants to say anything negative about me, it’s already been said, right?” he said. “‘I’m definitely making this game — and Omar too — we’re making this game for ourselves first. We kind of have a fuck-it attitude, almost, because going through that thing has allowed us a sense of freedom to do something that’s very empowering and liberating.”
This story originally appeared on Polygon on Feb. 20, 2014.
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