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The Alters is a fascinating mash-up of survival management and confronting your own multiverse life choices

At long last, I've seen 11 bit Studio's new game in action, and it's a doozy

The central cast of The Alters, identical copies of the same man inside a space ship
Image credit: 11 bit Studios

What exactly is The Alters? It's a question I've been itching to get answers to ever since Frostpunk and This War Of Mine developers 11 bit Studios first announced their strange new game at notE3 last year. Until now, all we've had to go on is a cryptic CG announcement trailer that showed a gaggle of identical clone-looking men in bright pink medical gowns, all of whom seemingly live inside a giant wheel full of shipping containers. It didn't really tell us anything about what the game actually is, or how it plays, and we've heard precious little about it since.

Happily, I've now seen about an hour of The Alters in action at this year's Gamescom, and first impressions are very promising. This is indeed a game about sort-of clones living in a big wheely shipping container, but these containers are actually modules you'll be building in XCOM/Fallout Shelter-style chunks to advance the capabilities of your big wheel base as you work to escape the broiling heatdeath that's slowly enveloping the planet. You'll also be venturing out onto the planet's surface to gather resources, all while managing your crew of clo- sorry, alternate selves - as you assign their daily work tasks, and then there's the fact that, well, you're all chuffing different versions of the same person and the literal embodiment of what your life might have been like if you'd done X instead of Y, or Y instead of Z. It's a fascinating blend of ideas, and if 11 bit can stick the landing, I reckon it could end up being something really quite special. Here's everything I learned.

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To his credit, even game director Tomasz Kisilewicz describes The Alters as "a weird game" at the start of my hands-off presentation. It centres on the story of Jan Dolski, "a man at the crossroad of his life" who goes on a manned mining mission to try and turn his fortunes around. Alas, it's not long before disaster strikes and leaves him as the sole survivor on this now very large mobile mining vessel trundling across the planet's surface. He has neither the skills or enough hands to run it by himself, and there's also the small matter of the "giant sun" rising behind him that will definitely finish him off for good if he doesn't find a way to escape.

A side on view of your wheel mining base in The Alters
Construction happens in a side-on view of your wheel, but you're able to walk around inside the base as well as you go about your daily duties. | Image credit: 11 bit Studios

It's a thrilling premise, but that's not even the half of it. In this world, Jan's corpo overlords have built a machine that lets you replicate yourself - not as a simple like-for-like clone, but as an Alter, a completely distinct, Sliding Doors-style multiverse version of yourself from an alternate timeline. You explore these formative life choices in the machine's very literal Tree Of Life menu, which shows how Jan's life would have turned out at key branching decision moments.

You'll get to pick exactly what Alters you want to bring into being as you progress through the game, and part of its strategy will be deciding what skills you need from them versus what type of personality they have. If Jan had decided to never leave his hometown, for example, he would have become a miner like his father, albeit with a more severe drug problem. In another life, if he'd supported his wife's fancy new high-flying career and moved abroad with her, he'd have become a botanist and remained married to her, unlike his current timeline where he talked her out of the job and they ended up getting divorced. It's quite an elegant way of giving you lots of different in-game classes to pick from as you go about managing your base, but it's the way in which 11 bit are grappling with the moral, ethical and philosophical quandaries of such a setup that I find the most intriguing. More on this in a second, though.

A large mobile wheel base rolls through a canyon in The Alters
Image credit: 11 bit Studios

Before we get to the business of managing our Alters, it's time for a spot of resource gathering outside. My demo begins during the second chapter of the game, where Jan's had to halt the base in front of a lava river and is looking for an alternate route through the landscape. There are some loose rocks we can probably plough through nearby, but first we need to get the necessary equipment in place, which we'll need to build from scratch with the right resources. Kisilewicz describes the gathering and management of your resources as "the very base of our economy" in The Alters, and our primary objective here is to secure some metal. Easily identifiable deposits poke out from the surface here and there, but some of these are "enriched" metals that can be refined into other materials - something you'd probably want to prioritise over collecting regular metals, for example, if you had the requisite protection to grab them from their irradiated surroundings.

"Radiation is one of our biggest enemies on this planet," says Kisilewicz, and you'll need to build up the necessary know-how and equipment to counter it over the course of the game. For now, we have to make do with regular metal. However, this isn't simply a case of 'walk up to rock and tap A'. Instead, the first thing we need to do is scan the nearby area to find the source of the underground vein - that's what we need to mine, you see, not just glean what's on the surface. As our scanner whirrs into action, the ground beneath us suddenly looks as though it's having an x-ray done, the topography and contour lines of the undulating caverns and minerals laid bare beneath our feet.

A man in a space suit scans the ground for materials in The Alters
You'll use your scanner to triangulate mineral sources underground. | Image credit: 11 bit Studios

It's a neat effect, but it's not an all-encompassing 'detective vision' like we're used to seeing in games such as Batman and Assassin's Creed. Rather, Kisilewicz has to lay down individual markers on the ground to triangulate the vein's position, revealing just a small window at a time as he follows the vein to its glowing origin point. In other words, we have to do some actual detecting, which I'm all for. Luckily, Kisilewicz has a ready made metal extractor to plonk down, but before we can turn it on, we need to connect it to the base to give it the necessary power. To do that, it's time to build some pylons, which need to be placed at certain intervals across the landscape - a bit like Death Stranding's ziplines, which, yes, I'm not ashamed to say my eyes lit up at this prospect, such was my love for creating a country-wide spider web of energised BB Boy slides in Kojima's walking sim.

With all that in place, "this now leads us to our most precious resource," Kisilewicz explains, which is, of course: time. "To work here, or anywhere else, we are spending time," and this will apply to the resource gathering part of The Alters, as well as building additional modules in your base, and other survival-based tasks such as cooking food for tomorrow. Eventually, you'll get tired and have to go to sleep, though you can chose how long to sleep for if you need more rest. At this particular point in the chapter, we have 11 days left to escape this volcanic region and get to the next area, and as Kisilewicz begins his metal extraction, the in-game clock starts speeding up accordingly.

However, it's not long before we get a radio call from one of our Alters calling us back to base. It's our Miner friend, who seems to be having trouble with his arm. When we find him in the base's kitchen, it turns out that in Jan's Miner timeline, he lost his arm in an accident. But now this Miner has been decanted Foundation-style into a fully functioning body again, he's not coping too well with having it back - a kind of reverse phantom pain, you might say. "It's your arm, not mine," he says gruffly, and his rising anger levels start manifesting themselves as a kind of swirling vortex in the game's UI. Admittedly, the presentation of the Alters' emotions looked quite rough and ready in my demo, with what appeared to be placeholder fonts and early asset mock-ups standing in for how it will look in the final game. But even if it wasn't all that visually stunning in the moment, the intention behind it was clear, offering a kind of Life Is Strange: True Colors-esque mood board to indicate how your dialogue choices will affect the Miner's mood and the way he'll react.

A conversation scene  in The Alters
Image credit: 11 bit Studios

"The Alters are different versions of Jan, and the personality of each one of them comes from a different life choice they've made - an alternative to Jan's life choices," says Kisilewicz. "The management part of our game is mostly through the dialogue, the way you handle them and interact with them. When there's a change of emotions in people, you'll see it, and every dialogue [in this scene] will change the Miner's motions, so we really have to be careful with what we say."

Make your Alters too angry, for example, and they might rebel and refuse to work, which, in a management game where you're up against the clock, could be disastrous. But the choices on show here also had very human issues sitting at their core, suggesting that The Alters will be as much about making head choices as heart ones. Our Miner, for example, is desperate for some medication to help ease his phantom pain, which could be dicey given his past drug trouble (and which does end up biting us on the ass later on the demo when we decide to relent and give it to him). Similarly, our Botanist self could help smooth over a brewing situation with Jan's ex-wife since he knows how to talk to her best without blowing a fuse. She heard about his accident and wants to help, but you're also explicitly told by your overlords she cannot find out about your special (and very shady) Alters machine. Both paths offer potential solutions to morally dubious situations, but manipulating the best and worst parts of what's essentially our own nature like this does present some equally interesting questions to the player as they navigate Jan's various internal and external crises.

Lots of men walk around a room in The Alters
Image credit: 11 bit Studios

There's a detective element to some of these emotional cues as well. Kisilewicz explains that we might come across situations where we can see an Alter is frustrated by something, but we'll need to probe deeper to find out exactly what it is. How exactly we'll go about doing that remains to be seen at this point, but I suspect it will be through checking in with them regularly when you're back at base, diffusing arguments between them, and making sure they're assigned tasks that suit their particular skill sets. Many hands might make light work, but your Scientist will naturally be quicker at researching new technologies, say, than your Miner, Technician or Botanist.

Similarly, some Alters might make requests of you to help improve their living space to make them happier, such as building a gym to help let off some steam, or seeking out specific ingredients so you can cook more nourishing, nutritious food. It sounds like it will be a delicate balancing act, weighing up their emotional needs with the jobs you need them to perform while also dealing with this melting pot of clashing personalities - and the irony is that if anyone goes wrong, you've really, quite literally, only got yourself to blame.

"We have this main loop of these problems and creating Alters to solve those problems, whether they're economical or personal. But with their own personalities, they add new problems to the basket," Kisilewicz summarises neatly, and when my demo ends with the Miner having done something really quite terrible in the kitchen to that troublesome arm he's been complaining about the whole time, I really can't wait to see what other kind of problems we'll be dealing with when The Alters eventually launches on Steam sometime next year.

For more of the latest news and previews from Gamescom 2023, head to our Gamescom 2023 hub. You can also find everything announced at Opening Night Live right here.

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