Cast ADR1FT with Adam Orth

In 2013, game designer Adam Orth made an unfortunate name for himself on social media. Now he's back with ADR1FT, a virtual reality survival game about space, inertia, and hopelessness.

When I call Adam Orth on his cell phone, he's in the midst of crossing a street. He sounds jetlagged, and perhaps he is, or perhaps he's just exhausted from the press flurry of releasing a game last week. Maybe he's come unstuck in time, and is preemptively experiencing jetlag from his flight to China tomorrow.

"I don't want to wish you a safe flight, because that makes it sound like something bad might happen," I tell him, on the off-chance he's not a character in a Vonnegut novel and has not already experienced this conversation. "But have a good flight."

"Thanks," Orth says wearily, sounding like he has.

In fairness to him, half my questions are intentional callbacks to an interview we had done in 2014. I tell him I'm interested in a 'before' and 'after' snapshot of his new project, ADR1FT: a first-person survival game of a sort, except you play as an astronaut, and your worst enemy is your own pair of lungs. It's the brainchild of a tiny studio known as Three One Zero -- Los Angeles's area code, and if ever a place on Earth understood the meaning of being out of joint with space and time, it is certainly there -- which employs just eight people, all of whom were "wearing 14 different hats" by the end of ADR1FT's development.

"The fact that it's out there now and people are enjoying it is supremely gratifying," says Orth. "Making any game is hard, shipping a game is hard, developing a game for new technology [like virtual reality] is extremely hard... One of the things I personally struggled with over the course of the project was, I would have an idea, and after the initial rush of excitement and creativity I would say to myself: 'they're never gonna let me do that.'"

"I would have an idea, and after the initial rush of excitement and creativity I would say to myself: 'they're never gonna let me do that.' [It was] something almost akin to triple-A PTSD."

The 'they' in Orth's mind were the many dozens if not hundreds of people in different divisions he had become accustomed to working with while at Microsoft and on big franchises like Medal of Honor. But that 'they' did not exist anymore, not for him. It was hard to wrap his mind around. While heading up an indie studio has its own pressures, Orth describes this reflexive tendency to doubt himself as "something almost akin to triple-A PTSD."

We dance around the subject of trauma, because it's been touched upon elsewhere. Without a doubt, the high-profile public shaming which led to Orth's firing from Microsoft in 2013 should be remembered as a sore spot in recent industry history, and also more broadly how we talk about internet mobs in general -- but you can't say Orth hasn't bounced back from that low point in his life in the best possible way already. He's given talks about the experience, released a launch game for two VR headsets, and seems to be doing quite well, on the whole.

Some would say Orth is lucky, and at the very least, he's very fortunate. Not everyone comes out of a major social media trouncing and gets to work in the same industry again. On their own terms, even.

And ADR1FT, for as much as it is about facing a disastrous and seemingly hopeless situation, is even more fundamentally about giving yourself over to inertia.

It sees you as an astronaut navigating the wreckage of a space station. There are no aliens. No artificial gravity. No marines. It's just you, your suit, and the horrible disorientation of trying to move in remotely a straight line. At the beginning of the game, you learn very quickly that constantly using your suit's thrusters is both dangerous -- it eats into your oxygen supply -- and unnecessary, as it only takes a small initial push in a precise enough direction to make it to wherever you need to go. It's not easy to get the hang of, but accepting you're at the mercy of your environment brings about a certain feeling of calm, if you allow it.

Much of the near-future technology that ADR1FT explores concerns growing plant life for future colonization.

"Even when I realized, oh, I'm the one who gets to make those decisions now, I would become paralyzed by indecision," Orth says, back with our phone call. "Is this the right thing to do, who will it affect? It was a very rapid emotional rollercoaster. Eventually I got better about it, I could see it coming and prepare for it, but in the beginning... it was hard."

Players in ADR1FT are meant to feel similarly out of their depth. Though there's a button to turn yourself 'right side' up, and certain objects are intended to be interacted with from a certain angle, for the most part, up and down is meaningless here. Environments can be approached from all sides and there is little to no in-game direction telling the player where to go or what to do, even from the outset.

"We deleted all our level designs three or four times... We set a very high bar for ourselves."

"We deleted all our level designs three or four times during the process of building," says Orth. "We set a very high bar for ourselves."

I say: "If you could go back and do anything differently, knowing what you know now..."

"That's a tough one," Orth answers, after a pause. "I don't know if we would change anything, really... After the game came out, we had a lot of fans asking for a 'free mode' where you could just float around and admire the environments. Which was something we had discussed prior to release but for a variety of reasons it just didn't materialize. I think I might have pushed harder to ship with that, in retrospect."

ADR1FT now does include an 'EVA Free' mode, which removes your astronaut's ever-dwindling oxygen supply. Levels only unlock after you've cleared them in the main game, though.

"More than doing things differently, there were things we just couldn't do, for reasons of time and budget and staff," he continues. "It was our goal in the beginning to have as much interactivity as possible throughout the game, and I think we might have fallen a bit short on that, but not so much that I'm unhappy with it."

The player's heads up display (HUD) is the same as their character's space suit, keeping the player 'grounded' even in freefall.

I tell him, "It got me really sick, you know. Even without the VR."

"Oh. I'm so sorry."

"What? No, please take that as a compliment. Please."

He does, he says, but he's still sorry. Also, he's never heard of someone getting motion sick off the game without the virtual reality headset before. With it on, he says, it's more or less expected among some users. ADR1FT barrels headfirst toward those aspects of VR other developers do their best to avoid, confronting the player with something fully meant to unseat and disorient them. Orth admits that the team abandoned the goal for complete verisimilitude very early on, focusing instead on a smoother experience rather than something that was necessarily realistic -- but it still plays like someone is grabbing fistfuls of your intestines and twisting them, so I'd say good job there anyway. Richard Garriott played it at a recent E3 and only had two words for the team afterwards: "Nailed it."

When your VR space game impresses a man who's actually been to space, you're probably on the right track with it.

When your VR space game impresses a man who's actually been to space, you're probably on the right track with it.

"Most of the research which went into ADR1FT comes from me and my passion for space, augmented by my previous job with Microsoft," says Orth. "I worked for quite a long time on a project that never came to be, [visited] JPL here in Los Angeles... I'd be hesitant to talk about specifics because I'm not sure if it might break some NDA that I might have with them or with Microsoft."

...When your VR space game potentially involves research kept under lock-and-key at a NASA laboratory responsible for putting robots on Mars, you are almost definitely on the right track with it.

My last question for Orth before he falls into a timeslip again is a fairly pragmatic one: what does virtual reality need to have happen to succeed on a broad scale? Orth acknowledges that right now, the barriers for entry are steep: expensive hardware, only a few games, and no real 'killer app' making the technology essential for anyone.

"There needs to be that one piece of software that isn't necessarily a game, that connects people to the world somehow," he says. "It has to be something on the level of a Facebook or Instagram, where it's not just about having a new cool thing, but about a meaningful application to everyday life... The VR headsets that are out now, it's kind of like looking at the first generation of iPhones. There's really nothing out yet that's going to make VR a useful, everyday item for people. But it's coming."

ADR1FT is currently available on Steam and is expected to reach Playstation 4 and Xbox One later this year. You can play it on a single monitor or with a virtual reality headset (currently, the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift). I'd recommend trying it without the headset first, just in case.

Kris Ligman is the News Editor of ZAM. Share your thoughts on this story with Kris on Twitter @KrisLigman.