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Unite the people and ignite the revolution. As a hacker, make your mark in hundreds of moral choices. 3D Visual Novel Solace State is available today on Steam and Xbox! You can pick up your own copy at: Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/928000/Solace_State_Emotional_Cyberpunk_Stories/ Xbox: https://www.xbox.com/en-IE/games/store/solace-state/9nr5h934436j Remember, you’ll get to meet Torrent! Here’s his new social profile:   Additionally, […]

Solace State is a visual novel that requires a lot of testing, due to its complex narrative, custom 3D text-in-the-environment system, and trippy sci-fi camera transitions. Less than a week before the game’s release, Kas Millard shares the process.

Long time no see! With days until Solace State’s launch date on September 14, we are trying something new with reaching out to folks across social media and even to our mailing list. This includes trying Ghost, a mailing list publishing platform! Let us know what you think about our longform content in the form of these newsletters here, because a few of us on the team love writing and sharing behind-the-scenes content.

Solace State is a game about empowering friends and hacking the system of a hegemonic biotech conglomerate. It’s also a visual novel that doesn’t look like a visual novel. This is because the 3D text system and its trippy sci-fi camera transitions are custom-designed for the game. And this means that we have a lot to quality control and test for, especially for a small team!

Kas Millard (she/they) is Solace State’s QA Tester and has done some heavy lifting to make sure that everything from the right characters show up on screen to that the music gets played at the right volume! For a game with 38 endings, 31 fully illustrated characters, and over 200k words, this is no easy feat! Without any further ado, Kas shares their insights below about what makes QA so important for a game of this scale.

Enjoy,
Tanya Kan
Director & Exec Producer


Quality assurance is one of those things that tends to be misconstrued by those not familiar with the work. Every QA tester has, at some point or another, tried to explain their job to someone not in the industry and was inevitably met with the dreaded response of:

“Oh. So… you just play video games all day?”

We’re definitely playing more video games at work than your average nine-to-five, but that’s not saying much. It’s telling that one of the first things told to prospective game developers is, “Don’t go into game development unless you like looking at spreadsheets.” To some extent or another, that’s true. Game development and spreadsheets go together like peanut butter and jam. And that’s true of everything from budgeting to tracking bugs to even keeping our scripts well organised!

black Xbox controller in pink and blue lighting

QA is not one-size-fits-all

QA isn’t the sort of thing that is a one-size-fits-all solution. Each game studio will have different needs, as will each project, from company-specific protocols and policies to particularly egregious bugs that require testers to completely redefine the way they’ve been doing things. Working in quality assurance means adaptability. QA’s job isn’t to fix bugs, it’s to find and report them, so it’s important that we do our best to ensure that we do our best to work with the rest of the team and what they need from us. Working on Solace State was no different.

While some issues could be easily logged and reported to the team, other issues were not quite that simple. Sometimes issues only occurred under a very specific set of conditions, requiring a lengthy set of instructions on how to reproduce the issue. Occasionally, it even requires video footage of the issue happening in real-time! On occasion, a seemingly new issue would appear, only for it to be a previously-resolved bug that had reappeared elsewhere due to a change to the code. In those instances, it was important to find the old report and link it to the current issue so that the new fix didn’t accidentally undo the previous one.

Animated GIF shows in-game footage from Solace State. Chloe (left) and Torrent are in an elevator talking about Chloe's work as journalist, whereupon she has to make a choice to tell Torrent about how she knows her missing friend Rebecka. The camera swoops around the two characters while cutting in and out of the walls of the elevator.

An in-game gif of a choice that Chloe makes early on about finding her best friend Rebecka.

But Solace State is a visual novel that doesn’t look like a visual novel, and it also doesn’t have routes that completely branch off from the overarching city-wide conflicts and story arcs. With that came unique problems that required equally unique solutions.

When I first started working on Solace State, we were still a long way from what would end up as the final, shipped product. Much of what would end up in the final version of the game had yet to be implemented; from complete visual rehauls of Solace State’s original demo to massive story moments with choices that would affect the whole game. For instance, Sueli – who would quickly become one of my favourite characters – didn’t even have a finished romance route yet! So how do you test a game that isn’t even finished yet?

Solace State: Sueli and Chloe sitting on a park bench in front of a bush with white flowers. Sueli is a dark-skinned woman with natural, curly brown hair wearing a green cardigan and a white top. Chloe is a woman with brown hair that fades to blonde. Chloe says: For what it’s worth, then, I think Zircon Hill is lucky to have someone like you looking out for them. Text is shown with the OpenDyslexic font option.

Right from the beginning, Sueli was one of my favourite characters. This screenshot is shown with the OpenDyslexic font option.

Testing from big questions to small

Well, my first task was to test the basic functionality of the game – especially the core fundamentals that would require extensive fixing because they don’t work with certain inputs and impact the game regardless of the scene. This was the stage where we focused on making certain that anything that would come next would have a solid base to be built upon. It is so crucial to have testing early on because of this!

This was the time to be asking the big, important questions. Can the game run from start to finish? What happens if I press the button that the game wants me to? What happens if I pressed a button that the game didn’t want me to? That last part was my favourite.

QA often requires you to play the game like no one probably will, but what if someone does play like that and breaks the game? I remember one of the first bugs I discovered was when I repeatedly pressed the interact button while the game was starting up, players would skip over the main menu and immediately start a new game. Our Generalist Developer, Seamus Ly, would later ask me why I was pressing buttons when there was nothing on the screen, and I just laughed and said it was because I got bored while waiting for it to load and that players would likely feel the same.

Solace State: The settings menu contains multiple buttons and headers to enable or disable various features. Some settings included in the image are text speed (which is set to immediate), enable character highlight (which is set to pink), and film grain in flashbacks (which is enabled). Next to the menus is Alden Aldridge who is examining his cuticles with one hand on his hip.

The main menu of Solace State showcases the most important menus of the game. From here, players can create new games or load old saves as well as adjust their settings for a better gameplay experience.

From there, testing gradually became more specific. Was continuity maintained between scenes, especially when players made choices that altered the story? Did every aspect of every system work as intended? Were the intentional functions of those systems properly communicated to the player? Were those functions communicated well? If this was someone’s first-ever video game, would they know how to play it?

This was also the stage where new content was gradually getting added, which came with a twofold problem. First, all that new content would have to go through all the previous checks. Second, and perhaps most frustratingly, the solutions to the previous issues would have to be checked to ensure that they still worked with the addition of new code. This often meant that the issues we had long considered resolved would reappear once again.

Tracking issues

To help document all these issues, the dev team utilised a project management tool called Trello. With the help of developer Ryan Miller, the dev team adapted Trello plug-ins so when we experienced a bug in-game, we could export out our log debug files as well as a screenshot that would then be uploaded online.

Four columns, titled left to right: FPS drop issues, art assets lower priority, character outline, audio bugs. Each column has several small screenshots of Solace State, each image captioned with a bug, such as characters missing highlights when they are speaking.

Trello was a particularly useful service used by the dev team to help keep track of bugs, prioritise, and communicate with each other about bugs.

Think of the log debug file like a grocery list of code, with a full written list of things that happened while the game was running as well as any errors. This log debug file is custom written by our development team so that we get the information that we want. We could then look at all the reported issues from the team, and add in any missing details, additional notes, or things like video footage and more screenshots and put them into different categories for different developers to address. Sometimes there would be an issue with a character’s art, so those issues would be filed under the appropriate art category to be fixed by one of our artists. This keeps everything organised and helps to play to every developer’s strengths.

As these bugs and issues got patched out, they’d be sent out to be confirmed as fixed by quality assurance–that’s me!–who would run tests to see if the issue had been fully resolved. If they weren’t resolved, I would make note of how and where the issue was still persisting. On occasion, fixes would be correctly applied but sometimes they wouldn’t work on a practical level.

For instance, a character was too close to the camera in one scene, but the fix moved them too far back and now the perspective of the scene doesn’t work. Or, after making a change to an object, the object would go back to its default state… which happened in this hilarious-looking character art bug of the one and only Alden Aldridge himself.

Torrent and Chloe are sitting at a table with a red and white chequered table cloth. On the table is a white ceramic coffee cup and two copies of Alden Aldridge. He is a man with blonde hair and a white and purple floral suit and is the same height as the cup of coffee.

I don’t actually think additional context is needed for this one. (There are Alt Text for all the images in this article though!)

Scope and constraints on testing

Still, if issues couldn’t be fixed, whether this be because of technical restraints or time, we would have to sit down and consider a new approach. Then it was a matter of rinse and repeat. On paper, it doesn’t seem like too much work, but I think it’s important to remember just how much content Solace State contains.

Some estimates place the average length of a novel at around 50,000 words. If we’re just talking about what’s in the final, shipped version of Solace State at over 200,000 words, we’re looking at over four times that! That’s not counting the in-game codex (it’s a dictionary of names and terms), either! And all the additional documentation? The scripts? All the documents containing all the planning? Every single piece of writing that’s behind the final product? We’re probably looking at double even that number. That’s enough to be giving several multi-installment book series a run for their money. It all adds up very quickly.

For every page of content that ends up in the game, there’s easily three that didn’t and an additional five pages of documentation, planning, and drafts.

It’s very important to take that into consideration with game development. What may seem easy at first may not end up that way. That’s important for every member of the development team, and that was something I had to remind myself of when I was making suggestions to the team about features that just weren’t working in the final product. We had a small team, and that meant limited resources. If I discovered a problem, I would both have to consider how and why that problem occurred, as well as what the solution could be.

While the ideal fix for a problem might have been to rebuild the system from the ground up, sometimes there just isn’t the time or the manpower for that. It’s easy to think of what we could do if we had an infinite amount of time and just as much money, but it’s less easy to be aware of bugs on a technical scale while also managing player expectations, staying within budget, and also making certain members of the team can hit their respective deadlines.

So how can we fix the problem?

Well, let’s look at it a different way.

What is the problem? Is it a problem on a technical level? As in, is the problem actually one that is purely just based on code not working properly? Or is it a problem because it’s working as intended, it’s just that the intended function is unclear or otherwise not communicated well? Can we solve the problem by adding an additional line to the tutorial instead of completely redoing the entire section?

A bug. Chloe is standing in front of a conference room with glass walls. On the right side of the screen, her instant messages are open with a series of buttons reading flirt or be friendly three times.

This was a particularly fun issue to discover. Reloading a save with instant messaging choices could infinitely duplicate the choices. We later discovered that this affected all instant messages, leading characters to spam text the player if the player reloaded a save.

An intro on accessibility

Another thing I had to test for was accessibility, and accessibility is a much broader category than one would think. There’s the traditional accessibility that people tend to think of–audio, visual, and physical impairments–but there’s also accessibility in the sense of the base level requirements necessary for even able-bodied individuals to play comfortably.

This meant that accessibility checks ranged from checking for colour blindness friendly colours options to different fonts options for those with dyslexia to making menus autoscroll so players didn’t have to manually scroll every time. This was an extensive process, and it’s one that we look forward to talking about in a different blog post!

Solace State: The settings menu contains multiple buttons and headers to enable or disable various features. Some settings included in the image are text speed (which is set to immediate), enable character highlight (which is set to pink), and film grain in flashbacks (which is enabled). Next to the menus is Alden Aldridge who is examining his cuticles with one hand on his hip.

The settings menu underwent several revisions throughout the development process. As we added more features, we added more options to enable or disable them so each player can customise their gameplay experience to what works best for them.

Solace State is multiplatform, and that means taking the technical limitations of each platform into consideration, as well as each input method and the standards and expectations set by the average player on each platform.

In conclusion

So, yeah, as one of many crucial steps, we are playing games for a job. But we are also editing, we’re documenting with clear and technical language, and we’re providing the back-end support so that others can spend more time doing what they’re good at. For a project like Solace State, that’s a lot of work, but it’s work that needs to be done, and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy doing it.

At the end of the day, game development is about picking and choosing your battles carefully.
Sometimes the easiest answer isn’t always the correct one, and sometimes the correct answer isn’t always the easiest one.

That doesn’t mean that the answer still doesn’t need to be found, and for anyone looking at working QA in games, I wish you nothing but the best of luck.

Kas Millard (she/they) is a Toronto-based game designer and freelance artist currently working as a QA tester and Social Media Manager on Solace State. You can see Kas’ website here.


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Solace State is a cyberpunk visual novel where you play the young hacker Chloe who confronts political plots as she fights for her friends and her neighbors. Your choices in building up relationships and communities can revolutionize into more or less freedoms.

Solace State is available NOW on Steam and Xbox! Please buy or wishlist today!

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.

GIF: Chloe making choices when she meets Torrent for the first time.

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 leading four characters Torrent, Chloe, Sueli, and Alden in our key art drawing, illustrated by SeageArts in 2021.

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. 

Chloe and Torrent sitting in a kitchen – S C H E M I N G. This particular section shows how the speech bubbles appear at the bottom of the screen for easier readability for a longer period of time.

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! 

GIF: See the hacky transition and the glowy atmosphere at work as Chloe and Sueli flirt with each other!

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.

We use Articy, an interactive storytelling management system to plug into Unity Engine for our branching story paths and many variables. This is just a small part of the larger picture!

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. 

An in-engine screenshot of the intersecting transition at work. Looks like a nightmare-scape for Chloe and Rebecka. #madeinunity

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?

-Tanya

 

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Production and Marketing work at Vivid Foundry in 2021 has been supported by Ontario Creates

Solace State Tanya Kan and Gabi Kim Passos at GDC 2019

Solace State has seen both challenges and growth in 2019. We’ve also got a chock-full of pictures to share with you. Let’s celebrate our efforts from 2019 – from GDC, to Kinda Funny Games E3 showcase, to TCAF Comics x Games, and more!

This post has been a long time in coming! My game dev and related work have been thriving. It’s been quite an adventure in December and January: I had a great time showcasing the first build at the Canadian Video Game Awards with Bit Bazaar, and I continued working on some build ideas for Solace State. I took some time off during the winter holidays to relax with family and friends, managed to catch a cold, started writing some short stories, and began a new teaching job at university in intro to 3D game arts. I also started networking a bit more to see if there are any local collaborators who can help me with character art, localization and programming.

On Dec 5th and 6th, Solace State had its first outing with Bit Bazaar and the Canadian Video Game Awards Fanfest. Surprisingly, the vast majority people played through a 20-30 minute gameplay demo, which was beyond my expectations. I had set up the demo so that people can skip between scenes and levels if they wish, and practically no one took me up on that offer (unless they were manning a booth and had to run back to their responsibilities).

BitBazaar2015_Playtest1_875

There were many experienced devs who shared their insight and feedback to me, and is it ever so valuable! Many people enjoyed the main game mechanic, namely the “hacking-scrolling text environment”. Most people seem to enjoy that part of the gameplay more than the straight-forward visual novel mode, and have asked if that part can be longer. They also “get” it right away as long as they know which keys to press (arrows or WASD), which means that it’s only been my communication about it on devlogs and social media without gameplay input that has been the real problem.

Second, the constructive critique of primarily other gamedev community members have helped me re-scope. A lot of the times, what I see as less-than-ideal in the game are also highlighted by fellow devs. It seems that I’m not far off the mark with my own self-assessment.

BitBazaar2015_Playtest2_875

On Writing

As much as I’ve been writing in some academic or professional capacity for about 9 years, writing for a visual novel game is a different beast from all the creative writing that I’ve hitherto completed. I tend to write much more like a novelist than a typical comic book, where a lot of the key identifiers of the protagonist is clear on the first page. Of course, there can be twists and back-stories down the road, but nonetheless, key motivations are already set up in the first ten, fifteen minutes. Solace State doesn’t quite have that. That’s not necessarily game-breaking, as narrative-driven games like Gone Home and arguably Dear Esther has created a much more gradual reveal of their characters’ vivid colours and internal contradictions. But I do need to balance between what I save for later, and what I reveal in the first ten minutes of the game.

On the flip side of the coin, I also have to remind myself to keep conversations and scenes to be more organic, and less utilitarian to the greater arc of the plot. Without a doubt, there should never be “filler material”. But, I also strive to describe those moments and beats that reveal something intrinsic about the characters and how they feel to each other, what they mean to each other. It’s these little moments where relationships can be built, and can fall apart.

What’s interesting, of course, is that games are becoming more of something that doesn’t get consumed in one sitting, whereas plays and films are. The middle ground to all of this is to emulate some inspirations from television drama, which takes a more episodic approach to its narrative arc. At least, this is the way that I have framed it, and it has helped me acknowledge which scenes may have too much detail, and others not enough screen time to develop the right emotional beats.

Again, it’s worlds different from writing an article or novella; My usual playgrounds, where a single line can leave one breathless with its impact.

BitBazaar2015_Playtest3_875

On Art

There’s a few people who have pointed out the incongruity of the semi-cartoony character art with the rest of the universe, including the 3D environment and the tone of the writing. I happen to agree with them.

There are a few approaches that I would like to try out:

  • Realistic-styled graphite pencil or ink sketches in black & white , which I am capable of producing myself, but can take half a day for a single expression
  • A digital painting in lino-block style in black & white, which I or another artist can produce, and doesn’t take as long as the graphite pencil sketches. This would be in a similar style to what’s already produced in the mood trailer from Feb 2015
  • Collaborate with photographers and a lot of modeling talent. This requires a lot of upfront collaboration and is highly reliant on what kind of new faces and talents I can find. I’ve started making some inquiries into this. It may be the most expensive, but may also be the one that creates the nicest effect, giving the game a semi-mockumentary feel. It might also cost me less time (see prototype below)

SS_BunkerHack_GirlCutout01_Sig_875

People seem to love wandering through the 3D environment as a purely artistic experience though, so I’m not going to change anything there. Just going to add more content!

On Design

With some feedback, I’ve decided to do a prototype of hack scenes that are more primary, cutting out the traditional dialogue format and UI typical to visual novels. There should be textual puzzles that must be solved within its bounds, as well as clickable objects to reveal more narration and dialogue. This is to ensure that the requisite narrative dialogue is met. Each scene should have an intertitle explaining Chloe’s goals, in her own words, so that the player knows what to expect in terms of narrative goals and broader trajectory.

In practical terms of the intertitles, the textual puzzles, and the clickable objects, it means that I should maintain a key plotline by consistently (re)defining where Chloe might find Rebecka with new sources of information. When we start off, we discover gradually who Rebecka’s last contacts are.

On Programming

Key stuff on the to-do list: Upgrade from 5.2.4 to 5.3.x; Create Save and Load variables; Create a history log for dialogue; Create a variable mini-encyclopedia for all characters and places as they populate in the narrative; Improve on the pause screen.

More scene assets have been added onto my Unity build since the last post. This is because I’m creating my first showcase demo build for early December! I will have a table at a fan expo with my art prints as well, and it’ll be a great opportunity to gain some valuable feedback from players and members of the dev community. As I want to retain some surprises for people who want to try out the game there, I’ll just report on the following below:

I’ve put in all of the dialogue and narrative in the first 5 scenes, with the proper pacing and click-based interactions. However not all of the 3D and 2D assets are done yet, as I have been working on each of the priorities for each scene. Here’s a screen shot of the second scene! There’s still some foreground UI animations that I’ll need for this scene for the protagonist’s passport. This scene also animates cinematically, as though from the protagonist’s first-person perspective.

SolaceState_Sc2_Word2_875SolaceState_Sc2_Word4_875

Additionally, I want to expand on the second game design that I was experimenting with. It represents when Chloe is hacking and finding out more details of a place. The camera goes into orthographic view in this mode, and you can move around using WASD keys to read snippets of text in the environment, that might disappear or appear depending on where in the environment you are. Later on, I might have some basic point-and-click puzzles. I kind of like this different way of perceiving a 3D space that isn’t first-person, to illustrate that the “hacking” Chloe is doing unnatural, and also gives her an incomplete picture into the world.

It’s also got a somewhat abrasive aesthetic that mimics a glitch image, especially when done to whole buildings.

Finally, I’ve asked a new collaborator to come on board to create some additional character art for me! My original illustration style was softer and didn’t have as many interesting postures and expressions. So we’re exploring a more graphic look for the characters that are also more visible on smaller screens. Additionally, it makes it more manageable for me to focus on 3D assets, writing, and putting the game together. (See: “Rebecka” at left.)

SolaceState_Sc3_Chat1_875

A lot has changed over the past months for how Solace State looked, told its story, and played out. I had expected development to be a thoroughly transformative process, and it has not disappointed me. I read up on a number of studies that examined political resistance, as well as cyberspace as the new frontier for civil struggles, and it led to a number of broad changes both to narrative and to gameplay itself.

Here’s a new introduction to the project…

TitleManifold_Subcaption_size

The Premise
“Our future, our design!” In 2038, Abraxa Harbour city-state is hailed by its wealthy as the crowning jewel of thriving markets and cosmopolitan culture, at odds with the increasing number of destitute who live in the shadows of its skyscrapers. But this is the year that even students and workers see their future dwindling away, and they rally to form a society different from what the city’s strongholds have authorized. A young woman, Chloe, is in many ways an outsider, a newcomer who finds Abraxa full of forbidden and cryptic histories. But she must strike deep into the storied urban streets in order to reunite with her friends, who have embedded and braced themselves to defend their livelihoods. Can she reunite them across ideological divisions, or are some of them better off alone with their ambitions? With her machine-aided perception to see into reclusive worlds and associations, how will Chloe negotiate her hopes and fears in the midst of turbulent revolution?

Visual Novel Features

  • A unconventional story set in a sci-fi city that focuses on the human stories of negotiation and social trust
  • What dialogue and actions you chose matters to the outcome of the game and the characters around you
  • Hand-drawn characters and handcrafted 3D backgrounds
  • Unique introspective scenes where you must “hack a 3D space” to find the internal monologue

Why a game?:
Solace State is an imaginary vision of participatory citizenship and negotiation between some very differing groups of people. It makes sense that players can engage with the narrative through various menus of choices that are reflexive of their own values. The sci-fi elements of the story allow the protagonist to quickly wrest information from the world and make strategic decisions. But most simply, this is a game with a story about people who often feel like outsiders, who are overlooked, but can come together to create new emergent livelihoods. Because I want to portray both utopic and dystopic elements, I feel like a game form can give me the greatest range of affective outcomes and not just show one tone or atmosphere, given that you can chose a path in the story. Above all, the players can interpret whether the story is utopic or dystopic themselves.

Game Engine:
Built in Unity 5, so that I can take advantage of the asset store for visual novel tools, as well as full 3D engine and realtime lighting capabilities.

Pt 2: History of Development:

I started ruminating on the idea of a game about a futuristic student-led society since early 2013, when I had just completed a game arts & VFX internship in Hong Kong. I was traveling in East Asia and was having conversations with friends and artists there about our histories and civil identities. In Nov-Dec 2013, a group of friends and I put together a 5-minute playable level in Unity as a proof-of-concept. Back then, the game was called Babel. It featured point-and-click puzzles and voice-over narration in a 3D environment built for first-person exploration.

Something didn’t quite grasp the agency and atmosphere that I wanted to convey in the first playable demo. The puzzles weren’t very good, and each of us in the team were considering longer-term job opportunities at the time. We put the project on indeterminable hold. In Fall 2014, outside of a couple of short-term freelance engagements, I returned to developing this game.

After some consultation with programming and design friends, I realized that I really needed to hone in the script first for it to be a narrative-driven game, and that my gameplay will be informed by the key characteristics of the narrative. This may seem counter-intuitive for a lot of general how-to-dev guides that demand focus on gameplay first, but for me, interaction cannot be divorced from narrative action in a text-heavy game. Finally, it did not seem like I was fighting with gameplay ideas that could barely move past the prototype stage because the narrative seemed like flavor, not a key feature, and that was not necessarily something I wanted to produce for this particular game.

Thus, through the remaining months of 2014 and early 2015, I drafted a cyberpunk story with an outline for the general arches of narrative action. I had a much better grasp of what I was going for, and Solace State as a name reflects both sci-fi and political overtures. I created a trailer in Feb 2015 to solidify the atmosphere and tone. I knew clearly what I want to highlight for Solace State: Conversations and building relationships and trust between characters. Which brings us to now: As a solo developer, I currently balance my time between design, game engine work, writing, and artwork.

Art style (a continued odyssey):

In Dec 2013, the game was a 3D exploration puzzler, and the models were realistically proportioned but had a very painterly texture to them.

BabelDec2013_Set2_size

By Feb 2015, I have found a simpler style: Banksy-like graphical style with painterly 2D backgrounds.

SolaceState_Trailer_OutOnStreets

 

Now, I’m finding an in-between: 2D illustrated characters that will have more diverse facial expressions and a hand-drawn look. I am experimenting with 2.5D backgrounds and 3D scenes.

AirportScene_Prev_01_size

Shown above: A Ren’Py prototype from Aug 2015. The art got a bit too convoluted, and I want a separation between characters and backdrop (kind of like Disney’s different styles between character and background art).

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This is a realtime prototype in Unity, created Sept 13, 2015. I want to see how I can push this with 2D flatty character art.

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