The Tomorrow Children is one of the most bizarre videogames I’ve ever played. Its a schizophrenic jumble of ideas, full of half-formed gameplay conceits and aesthetic influences that range from proletarian Soviet art to Terry Gilliam to Godzilla movies. Even if you’re a fan of simple time-wasters, I wouldnt recommend this one. That said, theres something fascinating about it in all its messiness. Like watching a car wreck as you drive by. Only this car wreck is made out of voxels, talks with a bad Russian accent, and is fending off giant scorpion monsters.
Let me see if I can summarize this for you. In The Tomorrow Children—a free-to-play title for the PlayStation 4 developed by Sony Interactive Entertainment Japan and Q Games—you play as a digital projection of a little white girl. As this digital projection, you must work with your sinister post-Soviet caretakers to restore a world nearly destroyed with a science experiment gone wrongsome attempt at creating the singularity that instead covered the world with convenient-to-render blank gray nothingness. This void (they actually call it The Void) is filled with matryoshka dolls that appear to represent the in-stasis remains of the mostly eradicated human race.
Your Mission, Should You Try to Have Fun Here
Your job is to find the matryoshkas in islands of random stuff that appear in The Void, and then take them back to towns built and maintained by your fellow digital projections, who are other players in the game world. In the towns, you restore the matryoshkas into tiny people, who will then live in your towns. You do this under the administration of what appears to be a remnant of the Russian government, as personified by a number of cartoonish cut-outs offering vaguely menacing and always silly advice.
There’s no strong sense of direction, lending the entire experience the coherence and welcome of a factory farm.
Oh, and there are monsters. Kaiju-styled beasts called the Izverg roam around the nothingness and have a penchant for chowing down on prefab architecture. The tasks of the game, then, are an odd blend of resource gathering, town building, and basic area defense. You and other players collaborate to build up your town and fill it with matryoshka people, pausing occasionally to man turrets and pull out rocket launchers to fend off the beasts trying to wreck your handiwork. If you succeed in fulfilling the quota, fully restoring your little town of doll folk, you get rewarded with some trinkets and told to go to another town. You will save the world yet, comrade! Though not really. Thats not how persistent game worlds work.
Speaking of work, nothing in The Tomorrow Children really does. Its a lazy parody of Soviet labor politics set in a world that doesnt make any sense and created by a team that, so far as I can tell from the credits, has not a single Russian on it. That influence, with its emphasis on quotas, collective rights, and a Kafkaesque sense of never making any progress, almost makes the proceedings feel like a satire of more traditional free-to-play building games, but only almost. The game does want you to do these things, after all, and to do them in regular chunks for as long as possible. The crafting is dull, with stiff animation and no substantial sense of reward. Theres no strong sense of direction, lending the entire experience the coherence and welcome of a factory farm.
Strange Things Happen in The Void
Yet I found my time with The Tomorrow Children marked by some of the most fascinating and strange things that have ever happened to me in a videogame. Once, an island that I was harvesting simply disappeared into the ether, leaving me stranded at a literal bus stop in the middle of vast negative space. Another time, the bus that takes players to islands in The Void decided, for an entire play session, not to go anywhere, and I found myself riding it in circles around my town, clipping through buildings. During one bizarre interlude, a giant red face emerged from the ground near my town, looking with its featureless visage at nuclear warheads suspended in midair above it in the same maroon hue.
When a monster dies, its body crystallizes where it falls, turning into a giant sculpture of mine-able resources draped over the landscape. If you wait and watch, you can observe players slowly tear it down like a colony of worker ants.
Amidst these odd, singular moments lies a nexus of something fascinating and powerful, a new almost dadaist landscape emerging from the confluence of bad aesthetic decisions and largely pointless gameplay conceits. I could imagine another game that takes advantage of the distinctive strangeness the developers have created here, that harbors it and shores it up into something worth spending time with. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that. We got The Tomorrow Children instead. `