A television sits in the midst of a yawning void. All around is the consciousness of the human race, dispersed by an experiment gone wrong. It's up to you, a citizen of an alternate Soviet Union, to build a new world.
This rather odd premise is the latest effort by Dylan Cuthbert's Q-Games, which is fresh off a multi-year run of PixelJunk games culminating in Nom Nom Galaxy. It represents Cuthbert's take on the sandbox builder genre, which has grown exponentially since the arrival of Minecraft. Cuthbert dryly refers to his game as a "Marxism simulator," a moniker he says has prompted some to accuse him of being pro-communism.
Trust the internet to completely miss satire, even when it's staring them in the face, as in the case of The Tomorrow Children.
The first thing you see when entering the void is a Russian caricature resembling Persona's Igor, down to the hooked nose and the wide-eyed but calculating stare. Speaking in a faux Russian burble, he instructs you, a young girl with little more than a backpack, to build the world. A little later you're treated to a wordless propaganda cartoon, because this is communism, and there always has to be propaganda.
Pickaxe in hand, you set to work building a new world out of the emptiness.
You don't need me to tell you that the sandbox genre has been the most popular thing in gaming this side of MOBAs since 2011. Minecraft can boast an entire generation of fans for whom its blocky mascot is bigger than Mario or Mickey Mouse. In some ways its the purest expression of a "video game," representing a digital playground come to life.
For Q-Games, which has always been a technology-oriented studio with a strong experimental bent, the sandbox genre is a natural fit. It's a natural fit for Sony as well. Minecraft is available on the PlayStation 4; but with Mojang now a Microsoft subsidiary, it doesn't hurt to have a few alternative for the future.
At its heart, The Tomorrow Children is a massively online co-op game. It wasn't always apparent in the build I was playing; but in the final version, you will potentially walk into your town to find dozens of people mining materials, building objects, and if need be, fighting off monsters.
The appeal of The Tomorrow Children is in its distinctly Eastern European art style, which is based on puppetry, and the fact that its world is always changing. It's the kind of game where you jump in for 15 minutes to chop some wood or build a power station, then come back later to find whole new structures and items. Or if you're unlucky, a monster will have smashed your town to bits while you were away.
It was a monster that ended up being the highlight of my session with The Tomorrow Children. After spending some time mining, a Godzilla-like shadow appeared in the distance. I quickly hopped into a nearby turret and opened fire while my compatriots — mostly QA testers — hammered it with rockets. There was a moment when it looked like it might walk straight through the town, but it finally went down after a prolonged barrage.
My reward was an opportunity to climb its carcass and start picking away at its remains with my shovel and pickaxe. At one point, I found a stash of flashflights inside its back, which began slowly trickling out. The Void is a strange place.
The interesting thing about The Tomorrow Children for me is that I probably wouldn't pick it up under normal circumstances. I've mostly avoided sandbox games like Minecraft to this point, preferring games with more structure and objectives. But one of the more rewarding aspects of my job is that it helps to broaden my horizons, so I went in viewing my time with The Tomorrow Children as an opportunity.
What I came away with was... it's hard to say actually. One of the problems with the sandbox genre is that it doesn't demo all that well. This is mostly speculation on my end, but I think part of the appeal of the genre is that you're making the world "yours." That sense of ownership is absent in a 30 minute demo.
I did get an inkling of it, though, whenever I repaired an object or built a platform. I have sort of a compulsion toward tidying my environment when I'm playing a game, and in the immediate aftermath of BitSummit, there was plenty in that village to tidy. I might have spent most of my time cleaning up had Godzilla not shown up.
Speaking specifically about The Tomorrow Children, I'm mostly intrigued by the odd premise, which is apparently explained more thoroughly through quests and other activities. In the meantime, my hunger for structure is satisfied by a report card that is released at the end of each day cycle highlighting my accomplishments.
Ultimately, The Tomorrow Children is kind of an experiment for everyone involved. It's a chance for Q-Games to experiment with some new technology (they're using their own engine) and mechanics. It's a chance for Sony to experiment with having their own exclusive sandbox game. And it's a chance for me to experiment with something new.
Of course, in The Tomorrow Children, experimentation ultimately results in society being swallowed by a trackless. But in this case, I think the final results are going to be quite a bit more positive.