How do I deal with the challenge of creating art about trauma, during a year when challenges seem more insurmountable than ever before?
Solace State in 2021 has seen more production development from both myself and our larger team than in any previous year. But, on the other side of this is the vulnerability of tapping into myself to write fiction about social trauma and transformation, while experiencing my own grief and loss.
I’ve been working on Solace State as the video game’s director for years, and it has become a full-time focus since 2017. I’m a studio owner who balances administration and marketing with development work, which includes leading in writing, art direction, 3D art, game design, and level design. And I’m making this game so much bigger than what I initially anticipated, because I need to tell this story about a young woman coming to grips about how her personal anguish over injustice has a political root. It’s about her journey to find herself in a community and move away from wholesale apathy, and really gain ownership over the choices that she can make.
In writing Solace State, it is like I’m balancing on a knife edge of being too pithy with hope while conversely being too grim. My heart aches with seeing more people in positions of authority backsliding into symptoms of tyranny around the world, which means that there are marginalized populations somewhere who lose badly, through loss of life and liberty. There are countless times when the depths of my own grief circumnavigates my learned academic compartmentalization from my political science degree, that analysing institutional fracture points is far from the experience of perceiving the malaise of their fallouts. There are days when I really dig into my head and grapple with what I think I can offer.
None of us exist in a bubble away from politics, health, art, and work, so all my life I’ve never separated these spheres from each other, and made politics and health my art’s key themes. To me, art is resistance when it seeks to inclusively and intersectionally strive towards equity. And the first step with grappling with this, and actualizing what that ideal can mean in action, is the act of talking to one another. And as pithy as it sounds, it has helped immensely. Talking can be resistance, too.
Secondly, just the act of creating feels like breaking away from a cycle of doom scroll and destruction. Creating feels like distilling and bottling up a bit of hope for now, and for later. Maybe, even, feels a little like reminding myself to hold on fast to those humanizing ideals.
As for Solace State’s core development, our team has gotten larger since the beginning of 2020, bringing five additional specialists to help with Solace State’s production pipeline. And everyone brings with them unique perspectives and experiences. I learn something new weekly from the most junior to the most senior person, and that starts feeling a little like soothing away grief’s clutches.
The narrative now has over 30 characters with narrative lines and character art. I also added in a new main character, Sueli, who has both her own character arc as an experienced community leader, and can be Chloe’s potential love interest. Sueli is uniquely challenging to me as a writer because I’ve lived with the story of Chloe, Rebecka, Torrent, and Alden and how they intertwine for years, but now I cannot imagine how Solace State works without her.
We’ve expanded a lot more narrative nuance into how different characters experience gradual autocratic control, including through increased militarization, misinformation, and crackdowns.
We also improved on a lot of character art rendering, so that the camera can pull in tighter to give you those deeply emotional shots of the character’s expressions. This is combined with a lot of large 3D neighborhoods for Chloe and her gang to explore. Much of the architectural modelling is already complete, though we are working on adding details, colors, and shaders to them to really make them pop.
Speaking of legibility, after some testing, we made the speech bubbles ADV style so that it’s much more easy to read for hours (ADV style is the more typical UI design style of having a screen-space text box at the bottom of the screen). Previously, 3D speech bubbles were rendered at an angle and limited our camera composition as well. The diegetic text and the transitioning cameras are still very much features we’re keeping, of course!
There’s a certain kind of pressure when making art about personal and political trauma. It feels harder to give myself allowances when I don’t hit certain self-imposed milestones. That’s even when we’re creating more progress as a team than ever before. 2021 saw me almost double my own development hours, and use those hours even more efficiently. Each month, I’ve made progress on writing and editing the narrative, art directing, level design, and 3D art, and balancing with administration, producing, funding, budgeting, and marketing.
Writing the entire narrative script is almost done, and there’s a part of my heart that shrieks at that, because how can a story be done? But it will be, and it’s a warming feeling nowadays that, when I re-read through Solace State’s dialogue, I find myself enjoying it. I enjoy its whimsy, its self-reference, its allowance to let its characters breathe and live and make mistakes, and find joy.
The other side of trauma is healing, and that means reminding myself that I’m not just a disembodied idea but a body and soul that can thrive, that I can have stress but also moments of serenity. We’re all actively trying our best, and I’ve got such a good team to remind me that I’m doing the best that I can, too.
Shout-outs to the team members who have put in the most hours this year in Solace State’s development: Gabi’s been working with so much nuance on Solace State as Lead Programmer that they predict many of my questions. Reilly, Character Artist, builds ample intention into each pose and outfit that she creates. Ashley, Writer, helped me reframe the narrative pacing, from our writing room meetings to her first drafts. Lauren, 3D Artist, dives into creating many neighborhoods’ architectural assets and its painterly style. Seamus and Sunny, newest to the team, have moved us forward by leaps and bounds on level design and narrative content integration respectively. And Jayme makes sure we stay focused and capable in taking on our responsibilities every week as Project Manager.
Perhaps at the end of the day, I can’t help but stare into the eye of the storm. I’ve been writing stories all my life. I vividly remember that some of the first pieces of fiction I wrote in pre-teen years were about losing one’s home, family, and the cost of war on civilians. The moment I understood the concept of death, I was struck by the unfairness of an unfinished life, and I have often circled around these concepts.
But perhaps the other thing I can’t help to do is to find the silver linings in every dark cave, and to make it into a conversation. And, what better way for Solace State to do that than through interactive storytelling?
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Production and Marketing work at Vivid Foundry in 2021 has been supported by Ontario Creates