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A midlife crisis in space: the Alters is a sci-fi comedy starring hapless clones

A sci-fi management sim from the team behind climate crisis fable Frostpunk, The Alters turns the classic video game concept of the “extra life” into a source of manpower. Protagonist(s) Jan Dolski is the sole survivor of a crash-landed mining mission, trapped on an airless planet in a mobile base that resembles an East End boxpark strung to the inside of the London Eye. To run the facility, Dolski must spawn and collaborate with alternate versions of himself. These aren’t just doppelgangers, but independent characters with diverging personalities and skills (and haircuts) born of different life choices: one is a dreamy guitar player, another seems to have anger issues, a third is the boffin type, a fourth carries himself like Captain Kirk.

Teamwork is crucial, but despite – or perhaps, thanks to – being genetically identical, Jan’s parallel selves may not get along. “[Their] paths branch at different stages or certain ages, defining their personality and – most importantly – identity,” says director Tomasz Kisilewicz. “The result is a different being that is annoyed by [different] things and driven by different motivations. Understanding them correctly is key to success in the game.” Mismanaging Dolski’s selves may lead to outright conflict; Kisilewicz declines to go into detail, but it’s certainly possible for them to die.

Based in Warsaw, 11 Bit has an unrivalled track record in games about small communities weathering uniquely awful circumstances. Its reputation-maker This War of Mine put you in charge of civilians during an urban siege. The Alters is much more of a comedy – its promotional artwork parodies The Last Supper, and features a sheep – but this is humour drenched in angst. “Who doesn’t from time to time bother themselves with wondering: what if?” Kisilewicz goes on. “We hope that the perturbations of the main character and his alterations will make players reflect on their own life paths and think of past situations that influenced them [where the] outcomes could have ended up being totally different.”

The creation of Dolski’s alters is pure science-fiction – they come from a magic material called Rapidium – but the premise of “different personalities coming out of the same person” is familiar from real-world dissociative identity disorder; “alter” is sometimes used to describe the identity states of a person with DID. “It is important that the alters not only share the same body but also a large part of their life paths, and thus their personality,” Kisilewicz comments. “So we looked at real-world multiple personality cases to best portray both the similarities and differences between them.”

11 Bit runs the obvious risk of perpetuating misunderstandings of DID here. Besides individual case studies and documentaries about the condition, such as Busy Inside, the studio has drawn upon fictional portrayals such as M Night Shyamalan’s horror movie Split or the Toni Collette-helmed United States of Tara, both heavily criticised by clinicians and activists for replicating violent or “wacky” cliches. But then The Alters isn’t presenting itself as a straight representation of people with DID – rather, DID is “a point of reference” for a thought experiment in the spirit of Duncan Jones’s Moon. The developer has also looked at stories about identical twins, such as the documentary Three Identical Strangers, which follows the lives of triplets split up in mysterious circumstances after their birth.

Assuming it can avoid the pitfall above, The Alters is shaping up to be an eerie and amusing tale of a latter-day Robinson Crusoe effectively weaponising his own midlife crisis. Has creating it prompted much reflection on the direction Kisilewicz’s own life could have taken? Definitely. “What would happen if I had never left my home town? That is the beauty of this whole concept. And when it comes to my own alternative personalities – hmmm. I think they could include a bitter architect, a small-town soccer dad, or an absolutely horrible singer.”

  • The Alters will debut on PC; release date to be confirmed.

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