Sea of Solitude is a Deeply Personal Project For One Developer

Sea of Solitude is a Deeply Personal Project For One Developer

This fantastical adventure is based on a real story.

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.

It's gorgeous in stills, even more so in motion. | Jo-Mei

"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."

Other monsters inhabit the ruins, hiding in the darkness. | Jo-Mei

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."

Sometimes we include links to online retail stores. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. See our terms & conditions.

Eric Van Allen

News Editor

Eric is a writer and Texan. He's a former contributor to sites including Compete, Polygon, Waypoint, and the Washington Post. He loves competitive games, live music, and travel.

Read this next

Sea of Solitude Review

I'll send an SOS to the world.

Emotive Adventure Game Sea of Solitude Is Coming Out In July

Get lost in your feelings in a flooded city this summer.

Sea of Solitude is a Dark-Yet-Bright Game About Exploring Emotions

Sea of Solitude has just one question: Who are you?

Blizzard Reduces Suspension of Hearthstone Player and Casters Following Community Outcry

Both Blitzchung and the two commentators have had their suspension halved.

What's The Scariest Video Game Setting?

COMMUNITY QUESTION | To continue with Halloween tradition, let's talk about the creepiest environments in games.

Blizzard Gives Gay WoW Classic Guild its Name Back, But Makes No Guarantees That It Won't Change Again

On top of the ongoing Hearthstone controversy, WoW Classic guild "GAY BOYS" is bringing attention to Blizzard meddling with their name.

More Opinions

"It's Hypocritical for Blizzard to Punish Blitzchung but Not Us"

THIS WEEK IN BUSINESS | Activision Blizzard has always been a vigorous advocate for freedom of expression.

Ghost Recon Breakpoint is Still Lacking the One Thing Fans Truly Want

Hardcore fans want Breakpoint to be a harder survival experience.

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep's Campaign Ending Has Major Implications For What's Next

The future of Destiny 2 sounds very, very interesting.

Blizzard is in an Even Bigger Mess Than the NBA on China, and It Has No One to Blame But Itself

Blizzard's handling of the Hearthstone controversy is an international mess of its own making.

More on PC

Blizzard Reduces Suspension of Hearthstone Player and Casters Following Community Outcry

Both Blitzchung and the two commentators have had their suspension halved.

What's The Scariest Video Game Setting?

COMMUNITY QUESTION | To continue with Halloween tradition, let's talk about the creepiest environments in games.

Blizzard Gives Gay WoW Classic Guild its Name Back, But Makes No Guarantees That It Won't Change Again

On top of the ongoing Hearthstone controversy, WoW Classic guild "GAY BOYS" is bringing attention to Blizzard meddling with their name.

Riot Games Tells Players and Commentators to Not Discuss "Sensitive Issues" During World Championship

In the wake of the ongoing Blizzard suspension controversy, Riot wants to preempt political statements on League of Legends streams.

"It's Hypocritical for Blizzard to Punish Blitzchung but Not Us"

THIS WEEK IN BUSINESS | Activision Blizzard has always been a vigorous advocate for freedom of expression.

A New Fortnite Battle Royale Map May Have Been Leaked on the App Store

Fortnite's map has changed a lot over its 10 seasons. Is it about to be replaced?

More Adventure Games

The Witcher 3 Skellige Gwent Cards - Where to Find the Best Gwent Cards for the Skellige Faction

Here's where you can find the best Skellige Gwent faction cards in The Witcher 3.

The Witcher 3 Bestiary List - Every Monster Weakness

Everything you need to know about monster weaknesses and more in The Witcher 3.

The Witcher 3 Mutations - How to Get and Use Mutations

Here's how to unlock Mutations and use them correctly in The Witcher 3.