Cornelia Geppert describes her studio’s past work as a form of imprisonment. She took the stage at the EA Play 2018 press briefing to introduce an emotional adventure called, “Sea of Solitude,” and finally break free.
E3 is often about the biggest triple-A titles, boasting mammoth development budgets from the biggest studios. For the past few years, small indie games have stolen the show at EA’s press conference. Jo-Mei’s “Sea of Solitude” is the latest gem under the EA Originals label, which has also given us Coldwood Interactive’s “Unravel” and Hazelight’s “A Way Out.”
EA has taken an unconventional approach with “Sea of Solitude.” No hands-on play (or hands-off demonstration) was offered to the press. In fact, Jo-Mei creative director Cornelia Geppert wouldn’t even talk about the gameplay for fear of spoiling the emotional adventure.
“When humans get lonely, they turn into monsters,” Geppert said when introducing “Sea of Solitude” on EA’s stage. “What makes this underlying concept, so important and so unique is that nearly every human being can somehow relate to or remember the feeling of being lonely. In my case, I started writing the story when I was at the loneliest in my life. As an artist, you process your emotional world by getting it out and putting it into your art.”
Loneliness is embodied in Kaye, the lead character. She has lost a piece of her humanity, as her isolation has transformed her. Players will accompany Kaye on an adventure to regain her sense of connection, restoring her.
A trailer shown at EA’s event gives glimpses of what we can expect. While Geppert was cagey about the menacing sea monster and the school filled with children apparently afflicted with loneliness, she did mention that everything we’ve seen is significant. This includes the flooded streets that call to mind “The Flame and the Flood.”
“Sea of Solitude” is a massive departure for Jo-Mei. Prior to signing with EA, the studio developed free-to-play browser games, though the idea for the emotional adventure has lurked just out of sight for years.
“I always talk about it like I was in a ‘golden cage,’” Geppert tells Variety. “In Germany, free-to-play games are huge. When we started the company, the first little prototype we had was similar to ‘Sea of Solitude.’ We pitched it, but the publishers said it was too artistic and wanted us to make it into a free-to-play game. We thought there was so much money involved, so we did it. We tried to put our heart into it for several years. We became unhappy, even though the money was good and the publisher was nice. We were withering away. We couldn’t do it forever.”
Jo-Mei decided to risk it all on “Sea of Solitude.” The studio used its earnings to develop and refine the prototype, eventually striking a deal with EA under the Origins label. Through this program, developers earn 100 percent of net revenue after the publisher recovers its expenses to bring the game to market and promote it.
While “Sea of Solitude,” gameplay remains a mystery, its origin certainly isn’t. Geppert speaks openly about how helping friends work through their depression led to her own struggles.
“At one point, as I was trying to help the people around me, I was like an empty vessel and all those other lives poured into me,” Geppert explains. “I was on the edge. I couldn’t understand the people around me suffering from depression. I would have had a breakdown, because I was so overwhelmed and confused. I started to write down my experiences and the ideas just flowed: the game design, the art style. I’m originally a comic artist, which is where the art style comes from. It all came together. It was cathartic. By letting it out, I had more space to fill.”
While “Sea of Solitude” has a poignant message about mental health, Jo-Mei is ensuring that the experience has something for different types of players. Like “Papo y Yo,” a game about an abusive parent, Geppert believes “Sea of Solitude” can be enjoyed on multiple levels.
“In SOS, we try to show how people experience different kinds of loneliness, but also how outsiders (friends and family) see those who struggle,” Geppert said during the EA press briefing. “We achieve all of this in playful ways, so that players who want to simply enjoy a fantastic experience can do so. But, the player who wants to look a bit deeper can reveal a whole emotional world beneath it all.”
The gameplay reflects Geppert’s commitment to accessibility. She wants “Sea of Solitude” to be something even non-gamers can connect with.
“We want to make it as accessible as possible, like ‘Alto’s Journey,’ so people who don’t normally play games can enjoy it,” she tells Variety. “It’s important to us.”
Geppert is also working to ensure that the mental health messaging in the game is sound. She’s enlisted the help of Russ Pitts, a former game journalist. He’s also the founder of Take This, an organization that works within the game industry to educate about mental health issues. The group operates quiet rooms at game conventions and provides access to mental health resources.
“Connie pitched the game to me three years ago,” Pitts says. “She told me almost exactly what she said today on stage. Her vision has been crystal clear since then, and it’s a powerful vision of how a person can navigate the dread and loneliness of mental health issues. I’m beyond proud to help bring her vision to life.”
EA clearly has a great deal of confidence in “Sea of Solitude.” Stage time during a major E3 press briefing is a coveted honor. Without a demonstration (or even a discussion) of how players will help Kaye on her quest though, they are left to hope that the gameplay will match Geppert’s enticing vision for this emotional journey.