I’ve been intrigued by The Tomorrow Children since I read an article about it a few months back. You see, The Tomorrow Children is bringing something unique to the indie games market. It’s a game about Communism.
More precisely, The Tomorrow Children is a game about society and about how groups of people cooperate, or fail to cooperate, when the only “leader” is a distant abstraction responsible for arbitrary restrictions.
A science experiment has not wrong, devastating the world and leaving only the desolation of The Void. Into this wasteland are sent avatars known as “projections”, tasked with rebuilding society and recovering the lost souls of the people. It’s a bizarre and largely irrelevant tale.
A game about communism might sound a bit grim, but The Tomorrow Children is easily the most visually inventive game I’ve seen in a long while. Towns are gaudily coloured, slightly industrial toy-towns, populated by wood carved marionette characters and decorated with propaganda. Monstrous Godzilla style foes wander the land, mindlessly stomping fledgling towns. The “islands” which players travel to to seek out resources are vast Soviet icons reimagined by Dali.
Gameplay revolves around gathering resources, which can then be used to build the features of a small town. These features will, in turn, unlock more features as the town grows and struggles to defend itself against roaming enemies. Several players share a single play area, and work together to build and defend the town.
And this is where the socio-political angle comes in. In The Tomorrow Children, no one can tell you what role you’re going to play, and placement of the town’s buildings depend entirely on the individual players who have no way of communicating.
You might decide that what your town really needs in a new tool shop, so off you go, into the wilderness to gather enough resources to make your dream real. You gather enough metal, or coal, or wood and transport it back to town. These resources are then added to a communal supply, where another play can use them to build a new house, or some propaganda posters, or a tanoy system. Still, at least you contributed to the greater good. And you can do exactly the same thing to the next shmuck.
After a quick tutorial which taught me the basics of resource collection and inventory management, I was off to join my comrades in building our glorious socialist utopia. I arrived by train in a bustling town, where buildings of every types and colour had been planted seemingly at random. Other people’s hurried to and for, taking a bus to a resource collection area, or working the treadmills which supply the town with electricity, or hard at work producing more buildings to expand further.
After a while of trying to make sense of this commotion I decided that I was better suited to small town life and hopped on a train, selecting a destination from a list which handily allows the player to filter by number of buildings, or players, or age. This new town had only a couple of other players and was immediately easier to make sense of. Homes were in one area, stores in another. This was the place for me, and after a few journeys back and forth to collect supplies, I was adding to the small town and helping to defend it from our enemies.
However, with so few people to fight alongside, defending what we had worked for was difficult and buildings were regularly being destroyed.
And here’s a problem. A small town, where planing hasn’t run out of control and a player might feel like they’re actually contributing won’t grow because there aren’t enough people to defend the settlement. A large town might actually be able to defend itself and continue to grow, but the efforts of the individual are soon lost in a system functioning only for the greater good.
Whilst this is a hugely interesting experiment, I’m having difficulty in seeing what I might be getting out of it. There’s little benefit to the individual player, other than knowing that you’ve contributed to these little societies, which you can’t really shape and which exist only to grow. I found this interesting for a while, but when just about any other game puts the player at the centre of a story, it’s quite a leap to The Tomorrow Children which deliberately makes the player feel insignificant.