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'When you feel lonely you always feel excluded' - Sea Of Solitude's writer on loneliness and metaphors

Lonely rivers flow

You probably remember the reveal of Sea Of Solitude at E3 in 2018 because of CEO Cornelia Geppert’s excitement and sincerity when presenting the game. Geppert is self-effacing about it, and told me it was surprising to her that people responded that way.

“The actual developers of course are always passionate about their project!” she said. “I think it's normal when you do your project that you need to be passionate about it in order to make it good.”

It turns out that Geppert is sort of always like that. When I entered the room she suddenly appeared from behind a free-standing poster she’d been adjusting, exhibiting an astonishing amount of energy for someone describing themselves as very tired. She asked me if I’d like tea or coffee, and then what I knew about the game, and then if I always had milk in my tea because she couldn’t imagine doing that, and explained that she’d only really had tea when she was sick as a child and her mother gave her chamomile or mint tea. Then she drew a definitive line under the tea discussion so we could talk about the game.

Sea Of Solitude has been mostly kept under wraps since that E3 reveal, because the team are wary of spoiling anything. It’s a very story-focused and intensely metaphorical game, wherein, Geppert told me, "everything, everything you see and hear is a metaphor for something”. Even a couple of weeks out from release I only got to see a tiny sliver from the opening: the protagonist, Kay, wakes up alone on a stormy sea, and makes her first foray into the half-drowned city she finds herself in. The sea is obviously the biggest metaphor, literally and, er, metaphorically.

Geppert describes Berlin as her chosen hometown, and loves it to the extent that the game's setting is modelled after a district of it, but she was born on the Baltic coast. She knows how to swim, how to pilot a boat. “My family are fishermen,” she said. “My grandpa is still a fisherman. At 82, every day he goes out.” Geppert also loves underwater monster movies, the archetype being Jaws, so from the beginning she knew that the sea was a strong metaphor for the story she wanted to tell.

It is immediately effective. When you think of the sea, you might think of being marooned or adrift, or of the gulfs between people and places, the danger, the calm. In the game, Kay can see the city but can’t touch much of it, so the water is a barrier she can peer through but not breach. At the start, Kay is greeted by a little girl in a raincoat, who knows her name and gives her boat the power of sunny weather. When Kay is away from her little craft the sea churns and rain blackens everything. When she’s in or near it she’s safe, and the sun shines.

At one point in the demo Kay freed some trapped sunshine from a buoy, and that whole area of the map became safe to explore. The water turned as blue as the sky and the buildings gave off the air of terracotta plant pots on a warm patio. Kay sat on the buoy and dangled her toes in the water. The screen is deliberately and serenely free of any user interface or button prompts. Being alone can be quite beautiful. The clue is in the title, Geppert says. “Solitude is for me the positive form of being alone.”

But at its heart Sea Of Solitude is exploring loneliness. One of the things I liked most was that at the very start Kay said to herself: “I have family. I have friends. And yet here I am, feeling lonely. Again.” There is an understanding that, just as being by yourself is not synonymous with being lonely, you can be surrounded by loved ones and still experience loneliness. In the immediate aftermath of my most recent break up, I found it difficult to talk to anyone when I was sad about it. Geppert related. She hummed agreement. “Mmmm! You feel lonely even though the other person is right in front of you telling you how much he loves you.”

Though the world is fantastical, Geppert explains, Sea Of Solitude is based on real experience. She emphasises that it is not her experience alone, and encompasses personal issues from the rest of the 12 strong team at Jo-Mei, but the inspiration first came from Geppert’s lowest point in 2014. Though the studio had secure work making free-to-play games for a publisher they got on with, Geppert felt creatively unfulfilled, an experience she likened to being in a "golden cage".

Around the same time an 11-year relationship ended, and she found herself starting a new relationship soon afterwards. Geppert described its beginning as “stormy”. They loved each other ardently and within a few months he was proposing marriage, but then he began disappearing for longer and longer amounts of time, up to two weeks without any contact. Eventually he opened up and told Geppert he suffered from clinical depression. The combination overwhelmed her.

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Geppert started reading everything she could about depression, and going to therapy. “I started to figure out more about myself, what's going on with me, that I also have issues but I didn't know beforehand.” She now compares writing Sea Of Solitude to how singer songwriters pour their emotion into their work. “When they have strong emotional things going on in their lives they often let it out by writing it down or writing a song about heartbreak of whatever they have. I did the same just with my medium, games.”

The city is almost deserted, but it's stalked by monsters who are literal and metaphorical in the same way the sea is. In the short space of the preview I saw a sort of giant bedraggled boglin of a creature carrying a shell on her back, who called Kay a piece of shit, and screamed “Stop looking at me!” There was also a giant mermaid creature, all carp-like and toothy, who patrolled the water ready to swallow Kay whole if she stayed in it too long.

Some of these monsters are, Geppert explained, humans at their core, changed by their extreme loneliness. It is changing Kay too: she is covered in black fur, and her eyes are red. In Geppert’s first concept she imagined scribbling with pen on paper to just let the anger and frustration out, creating a bundle of strange lines. “You always struggle with, ‘Am I wrong? What is going on? I'm so different from everybody else.’ When you feel lonely you always feel excluded,” Geppert said. “That was very clear for me so I wanted to tell the story like: loneliness represented as monsters.”

We talked about how loneliness is a universal experience that, at the same time, feels so deeply personal. When you’re lonely you feel like you’re the only one in the world who is, which is the nature of the beast, really. Geppert said that hundreds of people wrote to her after the E3 presentation, saying that just her talking about loneliness openly made them feel less alone. “At the E3 presentation I talked about one form, like this mental health form of loneliness represented in depression,” she explained, “but we have several levels, and at each level we try to show one form of loneliness.”

The level of the water changes, so over the course of the game you backtrack and return to areas that you can now explore further (which is in part, Geppert said, influenced by her love of Dark Souls). The mystery, the driving force, is to find out why Kay is lonely. What event triggered it? Why do the monsters all know her? Why does she not know where she is? The team's hope is that players who aren’t too fussed can just enjoy the huge monsters and fantastic setting. But if you want to know more about the story, it’s all there if you look closely enough. Reader, I want to look closely at Sea Of Solitude.

Meanwhile, last week the public transport in England started encouraging strangers to talk to each other with things like “chat carriages” or conversation starter cards.

Fuck that. I value my solitude.

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Sea of Solitude

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Alice Bell

Deputy Editor

Small person powered by tea and books; RPS's dep ed since 2018. Send her etymological facts and cool horror or puzzle games.