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In truth, this isn’t the first time I’ve gone hands-on with The Tomorrow Children – Q-Game’s extraordinary fusion of social gaming, eastern-European animation and sixties soviet style. I had a chance to sample an alpha version back in late 2014, and found it equal-parts fascinating and impossible to grasp. Last weekend, however, bought a brand new beta test where, despite severely limited server opening times, I was able to get to grips with the game and get a better idea of what it’s all about.
The Tomorrow Children retains its fascination, but what it is and how it works is now a little clearer.
The game takes place in an alternate reality, where a top secret 1960s Soviet research project has resulted in a surreal kind of apocalypse, where the whole world has been enveloped in a semi-fluid white shell, known as the void. Most people – indeed most living things – have been absorbed into the Void, while it’s patrolled by the gigantic Izverg – monsters manifested from mankind’s deepest fears.
Yet pockets of humanity have survived, and these pockets have created strange, child-like avatars, or projection clones, to venture out into the Void. There they find islands formed from man’s fears, hopes and dreams, which can be mined for precious resources. There they can also find Matryoshkas; doll-like objects containing the essences of the lost population. With the right technology, these can be returned to living human form.
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If the premise sounds odd enough, the style is stranger still. Where most PS4 games are using advanced rendering techniques in the pursuit of photorealism, The Tomorrow Children uses its Cascaded Voxel Cone Ray-Tracing to create something that looks like a hand-crafted, stop-motion animation, and more specifically like the sort of weird Eastern-European animations some of us watched, feeling slightly baffled, on a weekday evening on BBC2 in the late 1980s.
The effect is spellbinding, as convincing plastic surfaces, beautiful character design, dream-like scenery and painstakingly simulated lighting come together in a way that you’ve never seen before.
But how does it play? Well, when you start a new game there’s a tutorial to take you through the basics, covering how your clone moves and jumps, the basic tools and resource gathering. You’ll learn how to mine and harvest precious metals, and how light plays a crucial part – spend too long in darkness and your clone fades and eventually disintegrates. Once that’s done, a subway emerges, taking you off to your first town.
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Towns are the hub and focus of The Tomorrow Children. Your central goal is to ensure that your town grows and prospers by gathering resources, rescuing Matryoshkas, restoring their humanity and building them a great place to live. A central workbench allows you to construct shared facilities, ranging from a local Ministry of Labour outpost to tools kiosks, treadmill electricity generators and Matroyoska rescue apparatus. You can also build other stuff to help, empower and inspire, including monuments, play equipment and more.
To build anything, though, you’ll need resources. In the early stages that means taking the town’s hovering bus to the nearest island, leaping off and digging away. Pickaxes can be used to mine horizontally through the islands, while shovels allow you to cut upwards or downwards with handy stairs. By mining you’ll find veins of precious minerals or metals, not to mention the odd surprise, like some piece of destructive machinery guarding a hoard. Your biggest problem, of course, is darkness. The further you go in, the darker it gets and the more dangerous life becomes. Luckily, plant-like structures emit a gentle glow, while lanterns can be bought to the island. All can be picked up and repositioned to keep you working.
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Of course, you’re not the only clone at work. We’re not sure about the final numbers, but your town will host tens of players at a time, each one beavering away to collect resources and help the town thrive. You can interact with your fellow clones with simple gestures or a whistle or even sacrifice your health to heal them, if need be.
You’ll also need to work together to defeat the mighty Izverg – hulking Kaiju-like beasties with the power to level half the town in a single rampage. Shotguns and rocket launchers can be used to fight them off, along with fixed defences. There’s a payoff involved, as well; an Izverg’s crystallized corpse becomes a mineable resource, potentially including new, useful ready-made tools.
It’s this mix of solitary and social activity that makes The Tomorrow Children feel so distinctive. While you’re not actively working with your fellow players, you’re all contributing to one grand effort – and that feels absolutely part and parcel with the overall soviet style. What’s more, this might be the first game where queuing is a legitimate game mechanic. You queue for the workbench, for the kiosks, and even at the Ministry of Labour where you’ll be assessed.
Work hard, grab resources, fight the Izverg and repair damaged buildings and you’ll be rewarded with points that translate to attribute upgrades or coupons that can be exchanged for better tools. You’ll need to keep earning them, too, if only because your basic picks and shovels soon break, needing regular replacing if you’re going to stay productive. And when the official sources fail you? Get hold of a secondary currency, Freeman Dollars, and you can buy tools, perks and weapon licenses on the black market.
This is a game where you need to keep contributing, and where being recognised by your fellow players can actually help – praise and snub gestures are factored into your Ministry assessments. What are you doing for your town? What are you bringing back?
Yet it’s not always easy. My tools wore out so regularly that I had to spend more time than I wished earning coupons for replacements, and with no weapons early on I sometimes sacrificed a much-needed pick-axe to fend off marauding super-sized insects on our local island. It also takes a while to get into the game’s idiosyncratic rhythm. The tutorial helps a lot, but The Tomorrow Children is far from pick-up-and-play.
Meanwhile, I’ll admit to a few concerns about how it will work out long term. Will the cycle of mining, building and defending keep you hooked for weeks, or will the fun peter out once the initial fascination has worn off? Still, there are fascinating hints of state paranoia at play, which may work into a bigger story, while new islands, tools and vehicles promise new opportunities and threats. With the Beta Test only showing off a small slice of the game, there’s a lot we still have to learn.
What I can say right now is that a few hours in The Tomorrow Children absolutely flew by in a blitz of discovery and wonder. If your average online game is a capitalist experience, where competition is the focus and money, position and renown breed more of the same, then this is the socialist opposite, where it’s all about working together for some supposed greater good – with a side order of sinister state surveillance and corruption. I still can’t say for sure that I’ve discovered the real The Tomorrow Children, let alone how well it’s going to work, but I definitely can’t wait to unearth more.