I took my alternate-universe self on a pierogi date in the Subnautica-style survival game from This War of Mine’s creators, and now I can’t wait to see more

What if the team that made This War of Mine mixed Subnautica and Midnight Suns, but instead of Spider-Man and Venom you were juggling your relationship with like 10 clones of a working-class Polish guy?

It may be the most potent question ever asked by a videogame, and the answer is: You’d get The Alters, a sci-fi, survival, base-building, resource-gathering, narrative-heavy thing that I recently got a chance to play for myself, and which releases this year on Steam. You play Jan Dolski, an everyman type serving on a mission to the stars. The goal is to find Rapidium, a kind of wonder resource capable of accelerating biological growth that your sinister corporate overlords are very keen on hoarding. 

Let me fly far away from here 

You guessed it: It all goes wrong. Following some unspecified emergency that kills every other member of the crew, Jan is left to fend for himself on a hostile planet, pretty much abandoned by his bosses. That means it’s also time to gather resources and craft items to give yourself a chance of getting away from the planet before it gets blasted by solar radiation.

All very Subnautica, but Jan doesn’t have to craft himself a base out of salvaged iron and fish guts. He’s now the sole proprietor of the enormous mobile base that his deceased fellow crewmates used to staff. That’s where he stays and—in a base-building mode reminiscent of the XCOM ant farm—that’s what he’s pouring most of his resources into upgrading.

As game director Tomasz Kisilwicz told me, it’s “a big shift” from the relatively simple gameplay and artstyle of This War of Mine, which he and lead designer Rafał Włosek worked on previously, but it’s one that happened organically. “That wasn’t a goal for us, necessarily, [to say] ‘Okay, now we want to move on from things like This War of Mine’… We had this idea… and we started adding up those layers.”

One of those layers? The base itself. It’s very big and very complicated, and Jan can’t staff it by himself. Even just gathering the resources to keep it all running is a significant challenge. You can only work for so long in a day before Jan gets tired (and things get unpleasantly radioactive at night), which means you can’t get everything you want to do done efficiently. My time at the beginning of the game featured a lot of close, radioactive calls as I pushed Jan to his limit to grab as many resources as I could with the limited time I had.

He needs help running the joint, in short. With the crewmembers who could have staffed the base all dead, he’s forced to get creative. Aboard the ship are complete mental and genetic scans—the entire lifepath—of all its crew. It also (thanks to the handwave-y magic of quantum computing) is capable of figuring out what would have happened if you’d made different decisions at pivotal points in your life. What if Jan had stayed at home and stood up to his abusive dad? What if he’d stayed in university? What if he’d sacrificed everything to hold his marriage together?

It can get fraught, and Kisilewicz is keen to emphasise the personal nature of Jan’s story, and it’s one of his key examples of “the DNA and philosophy from [This War of Mine]” carrying over into this newer, grander thing.

Anyway, the answer to those questions is that Jan would be a very different person, and one with all sorts of different skills that might, perhaps, come in handy if you had to run a base on an alien planet. University Jan would have been a brilliant scientist, the Jan who stood up to his dad became a gruff technician, another would have been a miner, and so on and so on.

All alone, more or less 

The wonders of Rapidium—which Jan’s very deadly planet is rich in—are such that Jan can take those forks and physically grow them in the base, creating the titular Alters. Then he can put them to work doing what they do best: Research, mining, maintenance, you name it.

But you have limited slots for staff, which means you have to pick and choose who—and which talents—you value. For me, that was science and mining. I wanted the goodies hidden away higher up the tech tree and I kept running out of the resources I needed to craft new equipment and rooms for my base. Plus, actually mining myself, rather than assigning an Alter to it, took up time in the day I could have spent exploring.

So I summoned into existence a Jan whose life was a long string of tragedies—sacrificing his dignity for a job offer from his dad, losing his arm in an industrial accident—to help me claw metal out of the ground, and another who had stayed in university to help research what to do with it.

Which means on top of being a mish-mash of all those games I’ve already mentioned, it’s also basically the videogame version of 1998’s hottest reality-swapping Gwyneth Paltrow romcom: Sliding Doors. You’ve always wanted it.

Which is where we get to the Midnight Suns bit. You’re not deploying these alter-Jans in card-based battles (at least not that I saw, though I’m keeping my fingers crossed), but you do have to manage your relationships with them. 

For the most part, the ingrates aren’t too happy that you’ve yanked them into reality to possibly die on a hostile planet

For the most part, the ingrates aren’t too happy that you’ve yanked them into reality to possibly die on a hostile planet, and in my time with the game basically all my Alters started out absolutely furious with me for putting them in this situation. That’s on top of the fact these are all versions of Jan that made different choices, and might be angry at your Jan for making the wrong ones. The Jan who stood up to his dad wasn’t happy to learn the Jan I was playing had meekly left home instead, and my excuses only made him unhappier.

People pleaser

So they have to be soothed and made content, or content as can be. How you do that depends on the Alter in question. “When you’re discussing something with the scientist,” says Kisilewicz, “you can appeal to his reason, to his ambition, but when you talk with the technician, maybe a more empathetic approach would be better, maybe being more down to earth.” My own attempts to treat scientist-Jan with kid gloves—encouraging him to rest up before getting to work—ended up biting me. He instantly pieced together what was happening as soon as I pulled him from the clone pod and didn’t appreciate my condescension.

Making things harder, while you can “sort of try to please everyone” in conversation, “you can’t please everyone with your strategic decisions” about how you run and move the base. I didn’t get into this much myself, but it had begun to crop up just as I reached the end of my time with the game. My Alters were becoming quite keen to tell me what course I should chart next.

Kisilewicz called writing each of the Alters a “monster” of a task: Each of their own narratives can branch over the course of the game, meaning you have “the main storyline, which has branches, then underneath little storylines of the Alters that are also branching out… That’s enough to complicate it for us a lot, but also to make it, I think, attractively complex for the players.”

So you build them dormitories, try to pick the right assuaging dialogue in conversations, and even participate in little team-building activities to keep your alternate selves from tearing your throat out. Kind of like mushroom-picking with Blade, except you’re sharing pierogies or movies with the version of yourself whose marriage didn’t end in ashes. I mean that seriously: one alternate-Jan and I only broke the ice after we cooked our mother’s pierogi recipe together.

Also, they’re all voiced by Alex Jordan, who you either know as Cyberpunk’s Mr Hands or BG3’s sex noises guy, and he does a stellar similar-different job of giving life to multiple versions of fundamentally the same guy, or at least he does in the ones I encountered in my time with the game.

Looking forwards 

I’ll be honest, when I sat down to play The Alters—as someone who finds himself bored out his gourd by most crafting-heavy survival stuff—I didn’t expect much. So consider me pretty surprised that I now consider it one of the games I’m most interested in this year. The heavy emphasis on narrative and choice, the sheer strangeness of the system of creating Alters, and the desire to find out just how the stories of all my Jan Dolskis shake out makes me very eager to get my hands back on the game. 

While I only got enough time with the game to see those systems just start to open up, I’m curious to see where they go, even though I’m probably never going to be someone who gets enchanted by the resource-gathering, factory-building side of survival games like these. Even if the game ends up falling apart, I suspect it might do so in an interesting way.

And if not? I’ll take all the pierogi dates with my alternate-universe selves as I can get

Source: PC Gamer

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