When Stanley Kubrick was directing 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), he was emphatic about getting the look of the future right. To that end, he enlisted the world’s most forward-thinking product designers to assist him with decorating the sets. As a result, the film’s space station was decked out in futuristic red “djinn” seats and lavish space furniture.
Since then, 2001’s modish vision of manned space flight has went on to touch a billion or so pieces of media, including the recent VR adventure game Adr1ft. In fact, Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece was the first influence name-dropped by the game’s creators. And yet there is a rift between master and pupil.
“I was all for the idea of having no traditional furniture,” said Jason Barajas, the art director at studio Three One Zero, who was responsible for visualizing the game’s creaky and dilapidated space station.
“The closest we get to [normal furniture] are the crew members’ bunks,” Barajas said. “In their personal spaces, you see almost a little bench. Even their sleeping space is this kind of vertical thing they lay into and strap themselves in.”
The lack of beds with pillows and sheets is a notable difference between Adr1ft’s sci-fi world design and that of 2001, a film whose final cryptic scene involves not only a traditional bed but several chaise lounges and Greek statuettes. However, the problem with furniture, Barajas told me, is that there is zero gravity in space: it would just float away.
Of course, 2001 is not alone in its blatant disregard for the rules of the universe. Most every work of sci-fi from Le Voyage Dans la Lun (1902) onward operates on the premise that an absence of gravity can easily be overcome with magical engineering that is never explained. Someday humanity will just find a way.
But Adr1ft’s furniture-free corridors bring sci-fi worlds back in check with reality. “This is a zero G environment,” said Barajas. “I don’t think any of our spaces have a traditional table and chairs.”
Throwing the furniture out the pod bay door may seem like a rash decision, but the unusual approach to interior design had a big impact on the direction of the game. “I liked the idea of not grounding what is up and what is down. The second you put down a chair or a table, this is clearly the floor, and that is clearly the ceiling,” he said.
the art and design of everyday objects
Without furniture orienting the rooms, the player was suddenly free to explore the space station from any angle, doing somersaults instead of being anchored to the floor. “You can move in any direction. You can rotate and spin,” Barajas said. “Our engineer Omar [Aziz] really nailed that feeling of moving effortlessly through space.”
Naturally, not knowing which way is up and which way is down has made some players nauseous, but that comes with the territory of being an astronaut. “When you have the headset on, you’re kind of living that fantasy of being in space,” Barajas said. “Or that terror, for some people.”
In a sense, doing away with stereotypical sci-fi also addressed a complaint that has been haunting VR recently. Instead of exploring what is possible within the constraints of a new medium, VR software has tended to fall back on orthodox ideas from mediums that are already well-established, like film and videogames. But Adr1ft was designed first and foremost for the VR headspace.
By comparison, the space station in P.O.L.L.E.N.—a similar space exploration game with a similar minimalist aesthetic—is composed of ordinary assets: hand rails, drum barrels, benches, and stairwells. Unsurprisingly, the game design is down to earth too: the player moves through the world futzing with equipment that’s virtually identically to every other first-person game.
To be fair, Adr1ft is not so far ahead of its time that it cuts all ties with the practices of us earthlings. Actually, the art and design of everyday objects were another big source of inspiration for the team. Barajas spent a long time closely studying the elegant shapes and clean lines of genius industrial designers, including Apple products by Jony Ives and Dieter Rams’ output at Braun.
“I kept coming back to Braun. They really captured what I had in my head: the use of color, the shape, the language,” he said. “It spoke to me personally about what I think the future is.” However, instead of furnishing the space station with futuristic-looking coffee grinders that belong in museums, as Stanley Kubrick might have done, Barajas weaved these designs into the aesthetic of the world itself.
As players drift through the space station’s four sections, they might notice how the whole ship is modular, as if it could be taken apart. The panels are pristine. An Apple logo would not look out of place on the airlock module. Barajas had a vendetta against exposed wires and anything “grimy,” he told me, although that’s a matter of personal preference.
When asked if his game spelled the end to the extravagant furniture of space, Barajas demurred. “Everyone’s idea of what the future looks like is totally different,” he said.