This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Sole takes players to vast cities bathed in darkness, having players unveil their presence, histories, and story with light.
Thomas Sharpe, director at Gossamer Games, spoke to Gamasutra about their powerful student project, talking about the challenges of telling a story with place, how the game captures their own feelings as new artists, and how it captures a lawn-mowing-like joy.
My name’s Tom Sharpe and I’m the director of Gossamer Games and Sole.
Outside of a handful of small class projects, Sole is my first full game production. I got my undergraduate degree in game production at Drexel University and was lucky enough to be one of the first students accepted into an experimental game incubator called the Entrepreneurial Game Studio. There, I was given the freedom, time, and team to develop my creative vision for Gossamer.
Because we hadn’t yet formed a strong creative direction for the studio, the concept started incredibly vague. We began with the imagery of carving through darkness as the foundation for the project’s visuals and gameplay design. But, through years of iteration, we began to develop a more focused vision for the message we wanted to communicate in Sole. And what started as a top-down mobile strategy game evolved into a full 3D adventure game.
Our goal at Gossamer is to create games that reflect upon our own important life experiences and capture those feelings through gameplay. As a brand new team of artists, there’s a ton of uncertainty and doubt about where to go and what to do with our lives. So, we decided to create a game about wandering through the dark and being lost in a mysterious world. But somewhere along the way you develop a sense of direction and everything starts to make sense, which is a perfect reflection of the team’s experience discovering our creative direction and artistic voice.
We created the game in Unity and use FMOD for our dynamic soundtrack implementation. We also use a handful of great assets such as Rewired that make cross-platform development much easier.
We’ve spent a lot of time designing and testing environments that feel vast and open while ensuring that players aren’t ever frustrated by the lack of direction. So many games let you know your objective right up front and are built around the dexterity challenge of overcoming enemies or obstacles. Finding the balance between gameplay that feels open and mysterious versus frustrating or boring is a super tricky line to walk.
One of the hardest challenges in making Sole has been figuring out how to tell our story without any real characters or dialogue. The primary objective of the story is to raise questions rather than provide direct answers, and our hope is that every player walks away with a different interpretation of the world.
Because there are no characters or text to communicate the story, it puts a lot more emphasis on the environmental design of the world. Every area of a level has to have a reason to exist, both in the gameplay and narrative. We spent a huge amount of time talking about what narrative questions certain locations would address and how we could express the backstory of the civilization by what is and isn’t in the world.
From the very beginning, we knew that the act of exploring had to have an interesting hook to stand alone as the game’s core mechanic. The satisfying visual effect of “painting with light” that illustrates your progress through the world feels hypnotic and expressive. It’s always interesting watching some players methodically combing over the levels to reveal every last corner, while others go straight to the key locations. I think it definitely scratches the same itch as mowing a lawn or vacuuming a room.