Sea of Solitude stood out from the other games I saw at EA Play 2019. Amid annualized sports games, a battle royale, and the massive new Star Wars, Sea of Solitude was a quiet passion project. It's not about simulation or competition, but telling a story, one story, in a way only a small and concentrated team can.
That focus comes from Cornelia Geppert, the CEO, writer, creative and art director at developer Jo-Mei. Sea of Solitude is what I'd call metaphorically autobiographical. Locales are based on Geppert's hometown, and events are meant to mirror real-life moments to tell a deeper story. This is all steeped in symbolism though, as Sea of Solitude is a game about sailing through flooded ruins and dealing with monsters born of loneliness.
Kay, voiced by the game's lead animator Miriam Jud, is lost and alone at sea. She's been turned into a monster, and finds herself surrounded by them as well. Each spews vile insults and tries to hurt Kay, not just physically but emotionally. Shining light on them can make them disappear and open up new areas.
It's intensely personal, something Geppert tells me was hard to make. But she had a vision in her head, and after years of developing free-to-play games, she wanted to put it out there. Finding the balance, of making a game that's engaging while also telling this story, was key.
"I can't change it completely," says Geppert. "I have it always in my mind. All these monster designs, creature designs were already in my mind, what Kay would look like and everything. So I just needed to remind myself of what I had in the beginning, in my head, and stick to it."
Sea of Solitude is visually striking. As Kay dives deeper into what's going on, darkness and light contrast over pastels to create a really beautiful look. Geppert's former work as a comic book artist helped with this, she tells me.
"I always loved this pastel look, and the flat shading, not so realistic and stuff," says Geppert. "But I wanted to tell this hard story with a lighthearted style. It's so fitting in my eyes, that it's a harder story but with this cool, maybe comic-like, pastel, Ghibli look. That it's not too depressing."
The biggest influences in Sea of Solitude all seem to come from Geppert's own life; the comic-style look, a tough story surrounding mental health. Even the monster design reflects her own family, who work as fishermen in the Baltic sea. "I love Jaws," she tells me. Underwater monster movies are a favorite for them.
But in telling such a personal story, the medium is important. For Geppert, she couldn't picture telling it anywhere but in a video game. Her designer brain, she says, thinks in interaction rather than moving pictures. Having that interactivity is crucial to getting the point across the way she wants to.
"I am a game designer," says Geppert. "This is my art medium. Why should I make a song or a book when I am a game designer?"
She's been working in game design for years, and has admired the craft since her father bought her a Nintendo console after the wall fell (Geppert grew up in East Germany). For a long time, she worked on free-to-play games, where she tells me their goal was imitation, to take heavy influence from other games.
With something so personal as Sea of Solitude, she purposefully avoided outside influence. At one point during development, Geppert started playing The Last Guardian and was really enjoying it. But as others noticed how it started to influence the look of the monsters in the game, she told me, she dropped it immediately.
That doesn't mean she shied away from contributions—other members of Jo-Mei would come to her with conecepts, or even just their own stories of loneliness, and if it was good she'd include it. "It’s based on a true story, what happened to me," says Gepperet. "But it’s not completely my story."
What's important is that the work feels cohesive and intact. To tell this story, everything needs to work in concert, from art and sound to moment-to-moment gameplay. If too many features creep in, you can lose sight of the message you're trying to convey.
"I want to be unique," says Geppert. "You have to take care, because it's so easy to get influenced and wade away from your initial vision. This is how you, in my eyes, make real art. Just do what you have in your mind, and the hardest work is to keep it this way and protect it from outside influences. Then you have something unique that you find interesting."
That result is something incisive and hard to describe. At any moment, I was platforming, exploring, or sailing. I solved puzzles and avoided monsters. But Sea of Solitude feels remarkably cohesive and focused, in a way that's hard to convey in a simple demo.
Sea of Solitude tells one story, and along the way tries to elicit the same emotions from you as it did for Geppert. In the demo I played, it works. I was fully drawn into the contrasting light and dark, Kay's struggle with self-worth and depression, and the way Jo-Mei uses a mix of visual and game mechanics to plunge you into the dark and then pull you back into the light. I'm eager to see if it can keep that up the whole way, but Sea of Solitude really goes for it. Eliciting emotion from gameplay seems to be the core target of Geppert's work, and as she says, it's challenging but rewarding when it lands.
"You have action, it's easy," says Geppert. "You can make this feel engaging. But feeling sad while playing, or lighthearted or certain emotions, how do you do that with gameplay? It's so interesting, it was really cool trying to figure that out. I think I've not always made it perfectly, but I tried my best."