The Tomorrow Children: Marxism Meets Minecraft - Games Weekly

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Friday, November 14, 2014

The Tomorrow Children: Marxism Meets Minecraft

It’s easy to see how the rise of the indie developer has happened. The longer-than-anticipated lifespan of the previous generation had grown a little too long in the tooth, all while conveyor belt game development rolled onwards forever, churning out one identikit shooter after another.

Some may have lapped up each new Call Of Duty or Assassin’s Creed, but to many these multimillion selling franchises encapsulated a sense of lethargy within console development. Gamers want new ideas that’s a core truth of the industry and so PC gaming began to rise in prominence once more, forcing the likes of Sony and Microsoft to realise they needed to seriously take a look at the interesting things happening on the PC indie space. Japan-based developer Q-Games, however, has walked this path for some time, starting with its well loved PixelJunk series across the lifespan of the PS3 and culminating as have so many on PC and through Steam with Nom Nom Galaxy. With the rise of indie games comes a whole new era of interesting, original ideas and in the case of The Tomorrow Children games that are particularly difficult to describe.

“It’s a brand new genre, so until it settles it will be difficult for people to describe,” says Q-Games founder Dylan Cuthbert. “Perhaps it can be described as a social action 3D platformer? Of course that doesn't do it justice as it has hints of tower defence, Minecraft and Animal Crossing, too. I think the easiest way to describe it is as a ‘parody Marxism simulator’.” Of course, that doesn't really help all that much either, but it at least manages to set the tone for what we might be able to expect from Q-Games’ latest. The Minecraft influence is probably the easiest to tackle here; much like Mojang’s smash hit, The Tomorrow Children will revolve quite heavily on resource collection. You play a clone of one of the last remaining people in the world; it’s your duty to head out into the blank, vacant space coined simply “the void”, defeat beasts known as the Izverg (literally Russian for monster or fiend), collect materials and ultimately build improvements to your local town alongside the assistance of others. And that’s the real selling point of the game: your town is only one of many, with multiple towns all running parallel to one another as part of a persistent world. It’s possible, if you so wish, to grab a train at the station to another town and interact with its inhabitants there. It’s a freedom that feels natural, but one that is built on a core drive for teamwork. Explaining the design process of how this interesting blend of games came together, Cuthbert says: “We didn’t think ‘Oh, we like X so let’s put bits of that in. And, we like Y too, so let’s put that in as well.’ Instead, the gameplay all developed naturally to the new hybrid kind of gameplay it uses. It’s only after the fact when describing it to people that it’s easier to use prior games as examples to describe small parts of The Tomorrow Children. If you look at it as a whole though it is none of those games and is entirely its own ‘thing’.”

But the multiplayer experience is even trickier to explain; at once asynchronous and synchronous, the game allows you to witness the ghostly apparitions of other players as they explore, collect and craft not unlike the way Demon’s Souls periodically spawns the spectral renditions of other players in the very same area, a sort of glimpse into a parallel universe. Despite that, the actions of another player will affect the games of everyone in it. Dig a hole in the world and that hole will be dug for all players; a feature that Q-Games hopes will breed a sense of community and collaboration. “Actually, it’s a sandbox and you can decide for yourself whether to take part in teamwork or just do your own thing,” claims Cuthbert. “Of course the system and ‘laws’ of the world encourage teamwork, but you can be subversive too if that gives you kicks just watch out for retribution!” That retribution he speaks of refers to the in-game police, an NPC force that will hand out tools to players for particular roles ensuring the roles they need more of is suitably 65k fulfilled as well as capturing and confining any would be ne'er do wells. Choose to act asadetractor and players could repeatedly vote you down, turning your aura much darker and eventually summoning the wrath of the police force. “Teamwork and collaborative play is always something we’ve encouraged in our games,” adds Cuthbert, “going back to PixelJunk Monsters with its awesome two-player mode. I’m not sure what draws me to it but I definitely like to put it in my games if I can. The Tomorrow Children has given us the biggest chance possible to explore these ideas.”

With regards to its persistent world Cuthbert claims it’s “closer to Destiny’s shared world”, adding that you are the resident of a single town, with each location acting as home to 50-100 players. Your town's prosperity relies on every available work hand, of course, even if you can bribe the Administrators to allow you to move. “Everything in a particular town is shared among the residents,” says Cuthbert, “and of course you are all digging in the same islands too. The multiplayer experience feels like a more substantial form of the ghostly apparitions you see in Dark Souls. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls paved the way for this kind of asynchronous real time action game and there are some very clever ideas in those games as a result of that.”

The rise of the indie developer has enabled a large range of gaming experiences that as of even fi ve years ago we may never have experienced on games consoles. Though indie games are increasing in popularity thanks to their varied themes and gameplay styles, there’s still a stigma attached to smaller digital games as somehow being impossible to combat the ‘proper’ retail games. “I think exploring ideas and concepts freely only increases the appeal of games,” says Dylan Cuthbert of the supposed lower appeal of indie games. “It adds all the bells and whistles and gives gamers things that are fresh and different. Not everyone has to like every single game, so more choice lets people like the games that they personally gravitate to and gives them more individual freedom to enjoy games for what they are.”

These visions of other players only adds to the desolate tone The Tomorrow Children manages to impart. Barren landscapes aren't quite so uncommon in videogames but it's rare to see it represented with such style as The Tomorrow Children, however. The void is more than just a gameplay element, it's a very particular look for the game, too. “Our aesthetic is late Sixties/early Seventies European (think of Kubrick’s 2001).

The look isn't so much “barren” as it is minimalistic and avant garde by design. However, on top of this, if we filled out the world with what we want, that wouldn't leave the player any choice to fill it out how they want. Ultimately, the world is a sandbox.” It’s key to the game that its community of players affects the way it is shaped, claims Cuthbert, and that ties into the developer’s hopes for the game, Q-Games is planning on supporting it long after its release in 2015, and will
be driven not only by the features that are requested but by the ways people are playing, too. None of this really helps to explain quite how The Tomorrow Children fulfils its moniker of ‘Marxismsimulator’, however.

“Very early on we wanted to bring in a Czech Republic feel to the game,” says Cuthbert of the unique, Soviet art style, “they have a rich history of puppetry and stop motion animation andI amabig Svankmejer fan. Svankmejer’s look is a little more extreme so we didn’t really want to go as far as that. But we wanted to bring a look that is cute and accessible, yet a bit creepy and “alien” at the same time. We sent our artists to Prague to study in traditional doll-making and to see a fewof the plays, and that helped enormously. Eventually all that tied in and helped us create the Soviet/East European feel of the world, which then also drove the gameplay and ideas. I always find the best games emerge fromlayered processes like this.”

Once the aesthetic was established, the drive to create gameplay mechanics that fit the tone quickly fell in place. NPCs of your town can supply missions and by adopting your role and working towards the greater good you’ll earn yourself ration coupons as payment. With this, you’ll be able to purchase a number of goods, but it’ll also be used for travelling to different locations and, even more tantalising, purchases through the black market. Here the social economy of Marxism really shines through, as you’ll gain access to items otherwise not available as well as missions that work against the state. But then there’s no ignoring the Izverg threat, either; let them run rampant and the beasts especially the tougher, boss like ones could destroy your town. It’s at these points that you’ll need truly group together with the local players, because without the help you could end without a home to return to. It’s these social elements that Q-Games wanted to pin down and fine tune early on, and built up from that. It is a game built upon the idea of social economics, and somehow manages to make that compelling.

In many ways it’s one of the first examples of a truly next-gen idea, not only in its drive for better, more impressive visuals but for previously unconsidered concepts. The Tomorrow Children is being created in tandem with Sony’s Japan Studio and will release exclusively for PS4; but what drew Q-Games into working on Sony’s latest console? “The sheer power under the hood,” states Cuthbert very matter-of-factly. “Of course there are more powerful (and more expensive) video cards for the PC, but squeezing the power is much harder. And that’s why you are seeing new graphics advances in console games and not so much on the PC. This has always been the case historically.” Q-Games has long had a relationship with Sony, so to have The Tomorrow Children release exclusively on PS4 isn’t a surprise to anyone, but Cuthbert has a lot of praise for how “hands off” Sony has been with the game. “From the beginning Sony’s encouraged us to use our collective imaginations and harness the power of the PS4 to bring The Tomorrow Children to life. Since it’s a new platform and we’re working with fairly complex lighting technology, that freedom gave us time to fully explore what we could do to make the game something special.”

Cuthbert teases that there are a good number of features and elements of The Tomorrow Children yet to unveil, but the foundations that are here are strong enough to already give a sense that Q-Games could well be working on its most important title yet. Unveiled at gamescom this year, it was certainly one of Sony’s hottest announcements and hopefully the trend will only continue. But with it so reliant on a collaborative effort, should Cuthbert be worried that The Tomorrow Children is a little too niche to appeal to the audience it needs? “Going by the response so far I have no worries whatsoever,” he says. “I think gamers were waiting for something different from the same ‘year after year’ franchise sequels. However, I don’t worry about that anyway I would prefer to have a niche product that people really love (like PixelJunk Monsters or Eden) than create something that doesn't have a ‘niche’ feeling. Of course the best situation is to create something that feels niche but is actually generally popular too, and I think The Tomorrow Children could hit that spot.

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