Try not to piss off your clones in this survival game from the developers of Frostpunk and This War of Mine

It's embarrassing to admit, but there's an alternate timeline where I never moved away from my tiny hometown in Oregon and got really into hunting and wearing camouflage hats. This alternate version of me would probably find Facebook memes hilarious and Marvel movies epic as hell. If we were to meet each other, I don't think we'd get along at all, and if we had to live together, I don't think it would last very long.

The Alters is a game that plays with this idea, but I can't tell if the developers at 11 Bit Studios find it quite as horrifying as I do. But it would follow a pattern: 11 Bit's last two games deal with the horrors of war (This War of Mine) and the horrors of climate change (Frostpunk). Why wouldn't this one be about the horrors of me? The Steam page for The Alters says it's a game about "life-changing moments," but it could just as easily be about the emotional knot of having to live with your own regrets and mistakes given human form. In the short demo I saw, there were some hints at this, but nothing substantial enough to call a theme.

You play as Jan Dolski, the sole survivor of a mining accident on a dangerous planet containing Rapidium, a miracle resource that this bleak sci-fi world's version of Earth needs to survive. Jan, desperate for an escape, uses the Rapidium to grow clones of himself plucked from paths of his life that he didn't take. One clone chose to stay with his wife when she moved away for a job; another lost an arm mining in his hometown (but strangely has it back as a clone). Jan has to wrangle a base full of these clones to reach a rendezvous point on the planet before the sun rises and destroys everything.

Much like 11 Bit Studios' other games, The Alters gives you a set number of days to carve out a path to your escape. You explore the planet on foot and can build scanners and outposts to extract resources and send them back to your base. This half of the game looks a lot like Starfield if it were in third-person view and took place on a fully hand-crafted planet. Our demo didn't make it clear just how open it is, but the developers implied that you'll be able to find extra resources and possibly alternate paths if you're thorough. Environmental hazards, like rocks, radiation, and lava, get in the way and require you to build tools to deal with them. These things take time to build—time you can't waste—so Jan enlists his clones to help.

(Image credit: 11 Bit Studios)

Back at the base, your clones eat, sleep, and work while you're away. Each clone, or "Alter", has a slightly different personality than the original Jan and can be assigned jobs that fit with their unique skills, which helps reduce the crafting time on your projects. In the demo, Jan lived with a scientist and technician version of himself with very different ideas about their ideal working conditions. So different, in fact, that they had an argument about the quality of food. The scientist Jan didn't mind eating food paste everyday, while the technician Jan demanded a real meal.

Jan's Alters aren't just AI-controlled workers with no thoughts of their own. Sometimes they disagree and need you to step in to moderate, and other times they just want to chat with you. A word cloud of their current emotions appears above their head to help you navigate conversations with them and choose the right dialogue options. This approach struck me as oddly mechanical for a game that seems to be trying to fold potentially deep conversations about the choices we make in our lives with resource management, but the demo was too short for me to get a read on how important studying their emotions will be.

The voice acting did a lot of the heavy lifting in a scene with Miner Jan, the one who lost his arm but has it back again. He tells your Jan that he still needs pills for the pain and becomes addicted to them within a few days. He gets angry when you refuse to give him more and the demo ended with him cutting his arm off in revolt. How you manage your Alters and the decisions you make for how you'll run the base determine what problems arise and how smoothly your escape goes.

(Image credit: 11 Bit Studios)

I can't ignore the obvious opportunity for the story to see the clones work together rather than act as essentially slaves to the player's Jan.

How 11 Bit Studios sees the ethics of any of this remains vague. The game's announcement trailer plays an '80s synth pop song from the Polish band Kombi over a pre-rendered scene of a Jan waking up to find a version of himself dead, and it ends with a group of Alters accepting him as one of their own. I can't ignore the obvious opportunity for the story to see them work together rather than act as essentially slaves to the player's Jan, but the demo was too brief to give me a sense of what to expect in the final game.

I asked in the brief developer Q&A afterward if the Alters can unionize or form groups in some way. The developers told me they can't unionize, but they can rebel depending on how you manage their emotions. And I've been thinking about what that could mean ever since.

The Alters sets up a premise we've seen many times before in other media, but injects it into a resource and base management game where your survival depends on actively engaging with it. I suspect you'll be confronted with plenty of other decisions like the miner Jan one that will cost you precious time and resources trying to fix. 11 Bit Studios has made it clear with its previous games that it's not interested in creating experiences where you neatly solve problems. The Alters seems to be built to present you with the same moral dilemmas they're known for, but at a much larger scale and thus with much larger consequences.

Associate Editor

Tyler has covered games, games culture, and hardware for over a decade before joining PC Gamer as Associate Editor. He's done in-depth reporting on communities and games as well as criticism for sites like Polygon, Wired, and Waypoint. He's interested in the weird and the fascinating when it comes to games, spending time probing for stories and talking to the people involved. Tyler loves sinking into games like Final Fantasy 14, Overwatch, and Dark Souls to see what makes them tick and pluck out the parts worth talking about. His goal is to talk about games the way they are: broken, beautiful, and bizarre.