Most games betray their character readily within a 15 minute E3 demo slot. That’s by design of course: demos are built so players of any experience level or ability can quickly grasp the core concepts on display and regurgitate the title’s selling points to their buyers, bosses, or readers.
The Tomorrow Children is no such game, and as such, it’s hard to even imagine it finding real estate on Sony’s E3 floor plan before the beyond-massive success of a little something called Minecraft – a game to which it feels like a distant cousin.
It’s such a freeform and strange title that even with creator Dylan Cuthbert at my shoulder, I barely scratch the surface of what’s possible. However, I can report that it contains resource gathering, crafting, shooting, building, and yes – mining, all represented with panache via a truly unique visual style.
The story is a grim one: a mind-melding experiment in 1960s Russia went awry, killing most of the world’s population. Your job as a ‘projection clone’ is to venture into a vast space known as The Void to find a way to bring humanity back from the brink of extinction.
It’s a weird and inscrutable premise, and so is the gameplay – at least initially. I was first presented with a featureless silver/grey void to explore, but soon a TV rose out of the goo and a presenter compelled me to continue exploring. This led me to check out a cavern and mess around with mining for crystals while flares lit my way. Eventually I surfaced and found a bus stop that took me to a town.
The small settlement was being worked on by about a dozen others that I could see, but the finished product will support up to 50-70 players per town, with a train system connecting all towns being shared on PSN. From humble beginnings, towns can flourish into meccas filled with shops, housing, and other facilities, but to expand a town, players must venture beyond its borders and into the expanse of The Void to bring back Russian dolls. These resurrect humans, increase the town’s population, and make new structures available to build.
That seems to be the goal: work together with others to build and defend the biggest best town you can. Cuthbert calls the game “a neo-Soviet Minecraft/Animal Crossing”, and that’s a pretty good summation. Amusingly, he settled on the game’s Soviet style because of Sony’s constant prattling on about the PlayStation 4’s Share button.
“If we’re going to make games based around sharing, well… communal, commmunism… a group effort to achieve more than a single person can achieve [seemed to fit],” he says. Resources are dumped into communal spaces in the town for anyone to use, which certainly fits the communism vibe as well.
There are individual rewards too, though. Everything you do gets logged by the Ministry of Labour, and if you visit its office (after lining up like a good citizen, of course), you can see everything you’ve been doing, and are rewarded for your work with ration coupons.
These can be turned in at stores for things like shovels, axes, jackhammers, shotguns, and other tools, and can even be used to vote in elections for a town mayor. The mayor is a player or NPC who controls the town's global policies, such as the speed of transport, item costs, and so forth.
The most striking thing about The Tomorrow Children is undoubtedly its toy box Soviet visual style, but it’s all shot through with a vague sense of unease. Perhaps it’s the totalitarian feel of the town with its officials and regulations, the strange architecture, or Void itself. Whatever the case, it’s brilliantly evocative.
There are threats looming out in The Void, of course. Large creatures invade towns with regularity, forcing repairs and rebuilds which consume resources. Trees are cut down so their wood can be used to shore up buildings, for example.
During my time with the game, a spider the size of a house crept around the town’s outskirts, but using rocket launchers, two of us took it down. Upon death it transformed into stone, which could then be mined for resources.
Should the spider have bested me, I would have respawned in town but been fined for my incompetence, or I could have used a black market currency called Freeman Dollars to revive myself on the spot. These dollars also give you access to black market tools in some stores, and the ones I have mine a spent on a jetpack and an insta-bridge, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Structures like the bridge and paving stones serve another purpose: they prevent you being swallowed by The Void, which acts a lot like quicksand. Construction is a lot like that of Minecraft, but “more detail-based rather than cube-based” according to Cuthbert. That’s accurate: you can choose from a range of structures and build the whole thing at once rather than piece-by-piece.
The Tomorrow Children was certainly one of the weirder games I sampled at E3, but I mean that in a complimentary way. I had trouble tearing myself away from it to play something else. It’s obviously a deep game with opaque systems that won’t give up its secrets easily, but I’m looking forward to chasing them when it drops for PS4 near the end of this year.