It’s 9AM and I’m in a dimly lit hotel room in a trendy part of London’s Hackney, talking to Connie Geppert from Jo-Mei Games about Sea of Solitude, a game based on her personal issues after a break up. If you ever needed a sign that video games have matured, this is it.
It’s quite a daunting prospect, talking to a stranger about such personal issues, but thankfully Connie is an utter delight and in her own words “never stops talking”.
“Sea of Solitude is by far the most personal project I have ever made,” says Connie, “I think this is what artists do, if you want to touch the heart of someone else you have to talk about what you are going through. You often find that the most touching songs are written after a break up, so why can’t we do the same for games?”
Sea of Solitude, launching in July via the EA Orginals label, has you playing as Kay, a young woman in a world where humans have transformed into monsters. Kay herself has been turned into one of these monsters, humanoid in shape, furry, and naked apart from a bright orange backpack. With her you must journey through the flooded world and vanquish the other monsters that impede your progress.
At the end of 2013 Connie was what she describes as the “lowest point in my life”, both personally and in work. Jo-Mei Games had been creating free-to-play games for almost five years, they had a great publisher and a contract that guaranteed the company a decent income every month. “It was lovely, but I felt more and more unhappy as I couldn’t do the thing I wanted to do,” explains Connie. “I needed to decided what to do. Do I cancel this contract with the publisher and try and make the ‘arthouse’ games I wanted, but maybe destroy my company? Do I risk everything, including the jobs of my employees?”
Whilst this was going on Connie ended a long term relationship and started a new one, “It was the best thing, but stormy,” she explains. “Within months he wanted to marry me.” However, within a few months more, the man started to vanish from the face of the earth, not contacting her for weeks at a time as he, Connie would eventually learn, was suffering from depression. Reading up on the subject she worked out that she herself had issues. “All these emotions overwhelmed me so much I needed to let them out,” she explains, and Sea of Solitude is the result.
Although large parts of the story are based on Connie’s personal experiences, planning the game with the rest of her team allowed them to fold their own issues into the game as well. “We were always calling [Sea of Solitude] the ‘therapy group’”, said Connie, “At the core it’s my story, but with many other people stories too. It’s important that you know that.”
The game begins with Kay waking up in boat, feeling hopeless, worthless, and lonely. There are a few other character in the world which you can interact with to try and help Kay, the first being a bright, cheerful young girl who gives Kay the flare ability. This works as a guiding light, shows the path to you next objective when you fire it, but it travels in a straight line and Kay may find obstacles in her path. You reach your destination by clambering and platforming around the partially sunken city, which is based on Berlin, or boating and swimming, assuming there’s nothing nasty hiding in the depths, “I’m a big fan of Jaws!” grins Connie.
“Everything you see in Sea of Solitude is a metaphor for something,” she explains, “The water, the girl, the weather, everything.” While some of these are obvious, such as a warm sunshine representing Kay’s good mood and thunderous storms representing danger and terror, others are more subtle and left for you to figure out.
As Kay meets the first giant monster, a huge creature hiding under a shell, its darkness if brought to the fore. While Hellblade, the most obvious comparison at least thematically, had a more gentle introduction, Sea of Solitude lets rip from the start. The monster shouts and insults Kay in a horrible manner, telling her she’s “a worthless piece of sh*t” and “You have no idea what you’re doing, do you? As usual!” it continues. It is uncomfortable watching this when you know the backstory of the game, even more so when the person who wrote it is sat beside you, essentially exposing her inner demons for you to see.
“I wrote every sentence to give you hints as to what the monster is about,” explains Connie as on screen the creature continues to berate Kay who has lost track of the friendly floating girl. “She’s as fake as you are,” the monster growls, “so I ate her!”
To defeat the monster, Kay finds a shining object surrounded in a swirl of dark corruption. The black tentacles are sucked in to Kay’s backpack (more metaphors) allowing Kay access to the thing inside. This allows Kay to fire a beam of light at the shell monster, something that may be accompanied by triumphant music in another game, but here leads to Kay is screaming in pain as she attacks. Destroying your demons is a painful experience.
The dark mood can be lifted at times, as a single amusing and surprising joke cuts through to let sunshine banish the rain pouring from the thunderous skies. Free from monsters, Kay is able to explore the erst of the area. The game’s semi-submerged cityscape comes from Connie’s childhood; she grew up on the coast and was always out in a boat with her grandpa, and her love of Berlin, where she moved to when she seventeen to become a comic artist.
It’s clear Connie loves Germany and incorporated this into the game, and aside from representations of the Berlin landmarks in the game she also wanted authentic language. Originally Kay was voiced by a voice actor hired by EA, but the Jo-Mei team decided it wasn’t working and the Lead Animator for the game became the new voice for the character, complete with an ever-so-slight Germanic twang.
Every chapter has the title of a famous song that relates to the issues and story found in that portion of the game, such as The Sound of Silence. Listening to the song will give you a hint as to what to expect the game. “Every level shows a specific type of loneliness,” explains Connie, “We want to show how people struggle with this, but also how people from the outside, friends and family, outsiders, view those who struggle.”
“Some of the stories we wanted to tell are explicit, some of them we left completely open,” says Connie as we moved on to a rather harrowing memory sequence involving a sibling and school bullies. Although there is no direct combat in the game, Kay can use the flare to distract or destroy enemies, and in this sequence, she must get close enough to the shadowy characters to get them to attack, but then dodge past them. “In each level we have unique gameplay,” adds Connie.
Sea of Solitude stands out a mile from the other games releasing in 2019; a deeply personal story backed with some gorgeous graphics and sound design. I’m really looking forward to playing the whole game, and will probably want to fly over to Berlin after to give Connie a big hug after. It’s really brave putting so much of yourself on the screen for the entertainment of others, and although younger players may miss many of the metaphors I think the older gamers will get something special. EA must also be commended for picking up the game, a far cry from Anthem and FIFA.
In a game where everything on screen has a double meaning I have one final question: why is Kay’s backpack bright orange when the rest of her is shadowy black and the game’s pallet consists of pastels? “Kay is completely naked and the only thing she wears is a backpack, it has one of the most important meanings in the game,” says Connie, “but the colour… ah, now I feel bad! It’s just a nice colour! I need to come up with a metaphor for the next interview!”