Selling Sunlight is a story-driven role-playing game where the sun always shines — which isn’t as idyllic as it sounds. The planet has stopped turning, plunging one half into freezing darkness and subjecting the other to a blazing heat from perpetual daylight. Indie studio CoseBelle will launch a Kickstarter campaign on September 19 to raise the remaining funds needed to complete development on the game, but a free demo is available now to download on the indie platform Itch.io.
“For Selling Sunlight, we started with the idea of a world that always faces its own sun, and built the world around that concept,” said CoseBelle founder Giada Zavarise in an email. “How can people measure the passing of time in a state of constant twilight? What values does a sun-centered religion have? How are people with a dark skin considered? As we answered those questions, civilizations took shape.”
As Zavarise implies, learning about the lore is a big part of Selling Sunlight. When I played the demo, which was a short experience, I learned snippets of information about different beliefs, suggesting a world with myriad sects and cultures. Some people worshipped the sun. Others rebelled against it. One village had a tradition called the Metamorphosis, which enabled someone to take a new name and thus a completely new identity. The finished game, I imagine, will expand on these ideas.
“The fantasy novels I prefer are the ones by authors like Ursula Le Guin and China Miéville: the ones that feel fantastical not because they have magic and monsters, but because they paint different cultures, different ways of living,” said Zavarise.
All these things coalesce in the protagonist’s journey. You play an unnamed merchant who has committed an unspecified crime against the sun. As a punishment, you’re forced to wear a mask over your face, and your identity and memories have been wiped away. The story seems to focus on how you’ll decide to move forward: Do you seek to reclaim your old identity, forge a new one, or perhaps seek vengeance?
One thing’s for sure about your character: They’re not a fighter. As a merchant, you interact with the world through bartering, whether that’s for goods or information. When you enter a shop to purchase items, you enter “haggling mode” where you attempt to cajole and convince the other person to lower their price. In conversation, you can select your attitude toward someone to elicit different reactions, and they’ll remember how you’ve behaved toward them.
“You’re a merchant. You can’t gift, nor build, anything: All your social interactions revolve around fair trading,” said Zavarise. “Barter with other merchants and you’ll become friends. They’ll tell you about their problems, and to help you’ll often have to look for rare items, thus exploring new cities and meeting new merchants. It’s a positive gameplay loop that rewards you for being kind.”
Though the dialogue and story are key, Selling Sunlight also looks lovely. It has a light-dappled aesthetic with rich, textured colors and hand-drawn portraits, and it uses a mishmash of art styles. Some of the backgrounds look like they’ve been shaded with crayon, while the characters stand out like paper cutouts in sharp relief.
“As for the art style, [Chiara Boscaro] and [Anita Zaramella] took inspiration from the Art Nouveau movement and started working with watercolors because, as comic book artists, it’s what they excel at,” said Zavarise. “It can be an unusual choice for a game, but for us it was only natural.”
Boscaro and Zaramella are the two other full-time members of CoseBelle. They handle all the artwork, and Zavarise does everything else. Their first collaboration was on a comic book, but once the idea for Selling Sunlight crystalized, they began working on it in earnest in April 2016.
“The project is in a pretty good shape right now: most of the core mechanics have been programmed, and now it’s mostly a matter of fleshing out the world by adding more locations, characters and storylines,” said Zavarise.
They were selected for the Failbetter Games incubation program, which aims to provide indie developers with a free workspace and mentorship. Failbetter has its roots in interactive fiction, and it’s well known for its literary games like Fallen London, Sunless Sea, and its recently Kickstarted project Sunless Skies.
“I get to stay in their office, drink their tea, and cry on someone’s shoulder when something goes wrong,” said Zavarise. “Most important, I can sit in a corner during their meetings and see how a Real Game Studio works. It was an incredibly useful experience and I’d recommend it to everyone!”