With Sea of Solitude, Electronic Arts is releasing a very different kind of video game through its EA Originals program. It comes from German game developer Jo-Mei Games, and it tells an intimate story about a young woman’s emotional journey to overcome loneliness.
I saw the game at the EA Play event in Hollywood, in advance of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the big game trade show in Los Angeles. Cornelia Geppert, CEO of Berlin-based Jo-Mei Games, showed me the game. She said it was based on her own personal life, at a time when she felt intense loneliness.
“Sea of Solitude is the most personal game I’ve ever made so far. I started writing it when I felt the loneliest, in both my private and working life,” Geppert said in our interview. “I needed to let that out. It was really bursting out of me. I started writing down the first lines of the story, and the result is all this you see here, the game. But it’s not completely my thing, of course. It’s a team effort. Everyone who’s worked on it contributed.”
That context was interesting because the game is really a metaphor for real things related to loneliness. The character’s name is Kay, and you see her as she sees herself, as a kind of monster. She is full of self-loathing, but she is surrounded by this colorful, beautiful world. Her city is flooded, and you have to understand her own emotions in order to know what to do.
The waters rise and fall, reflecting her own state of mind. She meets fantastical creatures and monsters, learns their stories, and solves challenges to rid the world of tainted memories. The goal is to discover what will turn Kay back into a human. I think it’s a fascinating game, and it is interesting to see EA wade into this emotional and artistic space.
The title comes out on July 5 as a $20 title on the Windows PC via Origin, the PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me about your company and the game?
Cornelia Geppert: I’m the CEO, writer, and art director of a small game company called JO-MEI. We developed Sea of Solitude. We’re a small indie studio based in Berlin. We’re about 12 people there, and then one guy in London who’s the composer.
Sea of Solitude is the most personal game I’ve ever made so far. I started writing it when I felt the loneliest, in both my private and working life. I needed to let that out. It was really bursting out of me. I started writing down the first lines of the story, and the result is all this you see here, the game. But it’s not completely my thing, of course. It’s a team effort. Everyone who’s worked on it contributed.
When I showed my co-workers the idea, the concept for the first time, the story, they were so inspired that they all came up to me, almost everyone, and started talking about their experiences around the main theme of the game, loneliness. But also different types of loneliness. In different levels we show different types. Some people talked about their parents. Some people talked about their personal experiences, or those of family members or friends. It was really inspiring.
Because we’re so small, and the game is quite huge for so few people, the game revolves around different disciplines. Miriam Jud is not only the lead animator on our game, but also the voice of Kay. It’s a real indie game in that respect, I would say. Everyone shares different disciplines. The level designer also helped me with writing in between, and other things.
Let me show you the intro. What you see here is Kay waking up. Sea of Solitude is about this main character, a young woman named Kay, suffering from such loneliness that her inner feelings — darkness, anger, worthlessness, hopelessness — emerges outside her and she becomes a monster. The game is about finding out why this happened to her and how to turn her back into a human.
The world in Sea of Solitude is almost completely empty. There are just a few other beings in this world, other creatures or monsters, and you need to find them and figure out how they are connected to you. If you look there, there’s one little girl waiting for us. Let’s have a look and see what we can do. There’s a lot going on with every character.
Everything in the world of Sea of Solitude has a meaning. It’s based the real story of my personal experience, but I wanted to tell it in an abstract way, so that players can figure out — this girl, for example. You see her, and she can lower the whole ocean level and reveal a city beneath it. What does that mean? She gives you an ability to be connected with her, and with other things that are important to Kay. People can figure out what it all means — the water itself, the boat, Kay’s backpack, Kay herself.
The city is loosely based on Berlin, my hometown. Once you discover it, you progress step by step and figure out little things that connect together and make up the whole story. You’ll meet different creatures, different monsters. Some of them seem nice, like the girl we just met, but others might not be so nice. Step by step, you’ll encounter a larger number of creatures and figure out how they’re connected to Kay.
Everything the monsters say is written to give you hints. You’ll always have to think about what they mean to Kay. This monster has blocked your path, and so you need to find a way to get around it, to overcome it, or to destroy it. You have to figure out where to go next to find hints that will help you progress.
This is what we call corruption. You’ll find it throughout the whole game. There are different things trapped in there, and you have to find a way to get them out. Once you rescue them, they’ll help you progress. Here you get the first tiny hint about what’s going on with Kay — very tiny, but a piece of the puzzle. You also learn something about what this monster is like. Step by step, you’ll unravel the whole story by progressing through the game.
You saw around the boat that you were passing through sunny weather, but now it’s raining. Different types of weather are connected to different levels of danger and different gameplay mechanics. When you’re in the boat and it’s sunny out, you can swim around safely. In the rainy weather, though, there may be some things that are not that healthy for you. In the water here, there’s a huge creature that doesn’t seem to be very nice. But it knows Kay as well. Why is that? Once again, you need to figure out what’s going on and why Kay is here. It’s all about exploring the environment to find your next goal. It’s not always a straight line, though. Sometimes you have to explore and find ways around things to come to your next objective.
Now we’ve found another corruption, so let’s see what’s inside. What we’ve found here is that the sunny weather was trapped inside the corruption. Now the whole area has changed. You can swim around freely and explore the whole area in a way that you couldn’t before.
This is a little glimpse of Sea of Solitude. Every level, every stage features different mechanics and different monsters to encounter. Despite the fantastic setting, it’s not a made-up story. I hope that makes it unique. I want to show people how humans experience different kinds of loneliness, but also how outsiders, friends and family, see those who struggle. That’s the main theme of the game. But I want to achieve this in playful ways. People who just want to enjoy the setting can do that, but people who want to look a bit deeper can discover a new level to what’s going on. You can look closely and find all the metaphors.
GamesBeat: It seems like there are more games out there that are willing to tackle mental health issues. I wonder how you felt like when you were channeling this into a game. Also, what was the process like pitching the game to EA, getting them to understand that this was an important game to do?
Geppert: I’m a game designer. I always have been, or for the last 15 years at least. When I came to the point in my life where I experienced all this, and I needed to let it out, of course I expressed it through the artistic medium I’m in, which is games. I could have written a book or something, but that’s not me. I’m a game designer. It came naturally to me as I wrote things down.
I’ve always wanted to put deeper stories, things that go on in my mind, into games. But for a long time, games have always been — it’s not right to say that they’ve been more shallow, but games have been a medium about pure entertainment. It’s hard to put themes like this into a game without just making a point and click adventure, something that’s all about story.
I thought about this for a long time. I wanted to make a pure adventure, a real adventure, but I also wanted to fit this deep story into it. How can I build gameplay into it so that it’s a game about mechanics, not just something that’s barely a game? It took me a long time to figure out game mechanics that fit the story. But it was always the case that I wanted to make a game out of it.
When we pitched it to EA, during the pitch meeting Patrick Soderlund said, “Okay, we need to have this game.” He was inspired by it. He felt it was relatable, that this story needed to be told and shown to the world. It’s interesting, because I’m always open to people, talking about my issues and my troubles. It came naturally to me. Other people have a harder time talking about themselves and their struggles with certain things, but I’ve always been this way. That might be why it came so naturally to write about it and put it out there.
People have reacted to it. “Finally someone is talking about this!” After I talked about the game at E3 last year, literally hundreds of people wrote me, just because I’d started talking about this. They didn’t feel as lonely anymore, because someone was talking about this and putting their name out there. That was really interesting. I think it’s the coincidence between my personality type and the fact that I’m a game designer.
GamesBeat: Have you designed this to help people?
Geppert: Yes, but only by sharing my story. I’m not a doctor. I’m sharing my story and talking about how I overcame the troubles I had. I hope that people can at least relate to this story, but also think, “Aha, this is a way that I can change, in a natural way.” It’s not about becoming a superhero and overcoming your troubles and everything is fine. It’s a very natural story. As we all know, it’s not as if everything is going to be fine. You can’t just solve a problem and it’s fine forever. You have to find a way of coping with certain things and being more calm with them. I’m very curious about what people think of the ending and how I tackled my own issues.
GamesBeat: I played Hellblade all the way through and liked that a lot. It was an interesting take on psychosis.
Geppert: Yes! That was super awesome.
GamesBeat: Would you say that this is similar in that it’s a metaphor for what’s going on in your mind?
Geppert: The whole game, everything in it, all the time — everything has a meaning. The water has a meaning. The boat has a meaning. The backpack has a meaning. I hope that by looking really closely, you can figure out how it’s all connected and make sense of what’s going on with Kay and around Kay. You can see what’s going on in the world, how she interacts with it, and how she changes. So yes, it’s very much like that.
GamesBeat: Can you play this and not understand what some of the meanings are? Or do you very explicitly discover what these things mean?
Geppert: We have two different layers. Kay herself is a bit more abstract. People need to figure that part out. But there are other beings in this world that have become monsters because of different types of loneliness. They’re a bit more explicit, not quite so abstract. I didn’t want people to end up thinking, “What’s going on? I don’t understand anything here.” Some things are more explicit, and some we leave open to more interpretation from the player.
GamesBeat: Are there any direct comparisons as to what this game might be like? Something like Journey, is that similar?
Geppert: Journey is very different. I always compare Journey to something more like a song that you float through. It’s not telling a story in words. Aesthetically, I hope this is like that kind of high-end indie, but how the story is told is very different. We use words. We use description. In terms of storytelling it might be a bit more like Gone Home, more concrete. Aesthetically I hope it can be compared to Journey, but it’s unique in its own way.
GamesBeat: How does player choice come into what kind of ending you get?
Geppert: It’s my story, so unfortunately there are no different endings. [laughs] You just have to uncover it and understand and see. I just have one ending.