Among the brand new PS4 games announced by Sony Worldwide Studios at Gamescom last month was The Tomorrow Children – a striking, unusual open-world adventure title from the reliably eccentric PixelJunk developer, Q-Games. As you can tell from the reveal trailer, it’s an intriguingly out-there creation, placing you in the shoes of a clone as she explores a strange post-apocalyptic landscape in search of resources to restore humanity and protect her fledgling community from fearsome beasts.
Duly, its reveal threw up all manner of questions about what exactly players should expect when it lands on PS4 in 2015. In search of some answers, I sat down with Q-Games founder and veteran designer Dylan Cuthbert to find out more about his studio’s big, bold and bizarre new project.
I think it’s fair to say that The Tomorrow Children was one of the more unusual titles that debuted at Gamescom. Lots of people will have watched the trailer during the press conference and found it totally intriguing, but others may well have wondered, “What the hell did I just see?” For that latter group, can you give us a brief ‘elevator pitch’ encapsulating exactly what The Tomorrow Children is all about?
Dylan Cuthbert: Very difficult! It’s basically an open-world sandbox game with some rules in there to encourage a feeling of ‘togetherness’ – that you’re working together to build things.
If you were to distil it down to the most action-based elements – you explore the surrounding islands; you mine resources; you work out a way to get them back to town, then you use them to expand your town. You can even craft tree saplings and do some farming if you want to – you can farm apples to feed the population you’re restoring.
The accumulation of all that is that you fight these marauding monsters who’ll try to destroy your buildings. That’s the base loop.
Every little thing you do in the game is recognised by the state. Whenever you want to, you can go to the labour office and you’ll get a print out of every action you’ve done; such as, say, carrying an apple 10 metres. Then it’ll give you an income based on what you did and you can use that income to buy yourself perks, or better tools, or just play around with the game’s systems.
How exactly did the project get started?
Dylan Cuthbert: We wanted to make a game that had a social experiment element to it, and a game that played out in a manipulatable world.
As for the art style, I really like wooden puppets from the Czech Republic, especially from the ‘60s. And more generally I like the fashion from the late ‘60s too. As we wanted the game to have this social experiment element to it we figured the best basis for that would be a Marxist setting – that ‘behind the iron curtain’ Cold War feel always gives you a bit of a thrill.
We started experimenting from that point. We wanted a new visual style that utilised new 3D tech – not the standard stuff we see that has been extrapolated from old PS2 systems. We took a radically different approach and wanted to find a way to get an almost pre-rendered look, like a Pixar film perhaps.
We looked around and found this tech called cascaded voxel cone ray tracing, where all the light around the game camera is encoded in a 3D structure. So as you walk through the scene you’re getting 3D lighting occurring around you. It’s not pre-baked – it’s all real time.
We spent quite a lot of time developing that, and really used the PS4’s compute power to its extremes to implement the technology. That all started about three years ago. It was a smaller team back then and we slowly started adding people.
I’ve heard you were under special orders from [PS4 system architect] Mark Cerny to make something a little bit different for the new hardware…
Dylan Cuthbert: Right at the start of the project Mark said to us, “I want people like Q-Games and Media Molecule to create new technology – or do things in a different way to how the big AAA studios have had to operate.” Those giant studios have their pipelines, and they just have to get this stuff made. It’s fine, and it usually creates a great looking game, but Mark also wanted something that was a bit different, and that’s what he encouraged us to do right at the start.
Looking at the trailer and sitting in on your behind-closed-doors sessions with media at Gamescom, I thought I noticed all kinds of other influences in there, as well as the Soviet imagery – Salvador Dali, Lars Von Trier, the Godzilla Kaiju elements. It’s a really eclectic, interesting mix…
Dylan Cuthbert: Yes, but it’s all been honed down to create one vision. At the end of the day, it’s a game, so it’s nice to have big monsters to fight but our initial designs didn’t centre around that part of the experience so much. They were more about getting the social stuff right – the parody of Marxism, getting the black market in there – that kind of thing.
Bringing everything in under one creative vision has been the major challenge, but I think we’ve pulled it off – when you play the game I think you’ll find it very consistent.
What was the reaction of SCE Worldwide Studios bosses when you first showed them what you were working on?
Dylan Cuthbert: We didn’t show Allan [Becker, Japan Studio chief] and Shu [Yoshida, President of Sony Worldwide Studios] the exact vision until very late – maybe October or November last year. And they were just blown away by it, especially with some of the features that we haven’t announced yet. They’ve been great. They’ve been very hands-off – we’ve been left alone to make whatever we want to make, and I think that shows.
Moving onto the game itself, is there some sort of leader or overseer in charge of your game world?
Dylan Cuthbert: There’s the Administrator who you see at the end of the trailer. He’s the guy who introduces you to the world and is part of the original population – the remnants of mankind. They’ve found a way to make themselves live longer, which makes them look a bit scary and skeletal. They can’t go out and mine – it’s too dangerous as they’re the last remaining humans. That’s why they’ve created these clones – you – to go out and do their work for them.
My understanding is that launch day is just the start, and you’ll be issuing regular updates. Can you give us an idea of how the game is going to evolve long-term?
Dylan Cuthbert: We’ve got all kinds of ideas and want to release updates very regularly. There’ll be plenty of content in the initial release but there are all kinds of things we want to keep adding because it’s such an interesting world to build on. Being able to build giant robots, for example – they can then go out and defend your town for you. There’ll be big content like that, but lots of bits of small content too, such as being able to buy your own house on the black market, and then just going in there and hanging out, should you want to.
We saw a few glimpses of the game’s monsters in the reveal trailer. Can you tell us a bit more about the different types of creatures players can expect to encounter?
Dylan Cuthbert: Right now there are four basic types, and a few special types as well. Within the islands you’ll find creatures that spawn out little flying creatures. If you get attacked by them you get reset back to the town. You’ll lose the log of all the work you’ve done and won’t be able to claim income. So, you don’t want to be attacked by them, but you can take them out with a shotgun. There’s sentinel guardian type things in the islands as well, and treasure bosses you can fight too.
These creatures just stay in the islands – they won’t come and attack your town. In this category we have three types. There are spiders, which come in hordes, attack buildings and explode themselves. Then there are the giant Godzilla-style Izverg creatures that will crush buildings and eat people. And then there are flying creatures that drop bombs.
Those are the main ones at the moment. Post-release we can consider different things too. The giant Izverg is kind of like a boss character as you have to collaborate to bring them down. The spiders you can bring down by yourself.
On the subject of friends and in-game relationships, how exactly will the social system work?
Dylan Cuthbert: You can down-vote or up-vote other players depending on their behaviour, and that changes their status slightly. People normally show up as red figures in your world but if they get too many thumbs-down they’ll start getting darker, so you’ll know who is a bit of a wrong ‘un and you can steer clear of them. If you get too many thumbs-down the police – if you’ve built a police station, that is – might throw you in jail, so you’ll have to start evading them, which adds another element to the game.
You’ve mentioned players will be split up across a number of different persistent towns. Will you be able to move between them and visit friends?
Dylan Cuthbert: You can move freely back and forth between towns, though it may cost you some ration coupons. If you’ve got a friend playing in another town and they need help, you can go in and lend a hand. There’s a limited amount of guest slots in each town though.
It’ll be more of a cooperative relationship at present, rather than antagonistic, but we’ll see where that goes after launch. You can get missions from NPCs in your town. From the regular NPC, the missions are fairly normal, but a bit later on you’ll be introduced to the black market – the seedy underground. Once you get exposed to that, you’ll start getting missions that are anti the state, and that’s a whole other part of the game we’re not quite ready to talk about.