A Ph.D. student at York University in Toronto, Patrick is also a Co-Managing editor of this publication, where he, along with management duties, edits essays and now does interviews. His research interests include post-retro games, affect, and aesthetics. You can see him talking (and playing) feelings and pixels on his weekly streams for First Person Scholar.
More and more these days, I catch myself in awe of how “futuristic” our world is and how many imaginings of the 21st century have come to fruition—albeit in altered ways. We don’t carry data packages in our heads like Johnny Mnemonic (Robert Longo, 1995); we carry them in our pockets. We don’t have seashells like Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla, 1993), but we do have easily-installable toilet-top bidets. Actually, the way Time Cop (Peter Hyams, 1994) saw VR in 2004 is pretty accurate to today. While these visions of future tech were wondrous and exciting, especially when paired with muscular heroes thwarting corrupt corporations and cybercriminals, they failed to address what we are facing in our current “future.” It turns out we’re far less concerned with time travelling criminals than we are with social and racial injustice in an increasingly oppressive, surveilled, and controlled present. In 2020, visions of the future need to address not only the advanced tech of the imagined era but how that technology affects a range of different people and how it can be used for good in organizing movements, fighting for rights and freedoms, and sharing information.
As a way to confront the police state we seem to be barreling toward, Tanya Kan and her development studio Vivid Foundry have created Solace State. A different kind of visual novel, Solace State, focuses on the interaction and social relationships of a group of young hackers to imagine a hopeful ground-up approach to bettering a dystopian world. Instead of a singular, white hope, the game demonstrates the diversity of faces and voices involved in mounting a revolution. On the eve of release for the biggest cyberpunk game in recent years (and maybe ever), we at FPS thought it important to highlight this alternative game in the genre that does not suffer from problematic representation or labour practices symptomatic of the AAA gaming industry.
To be honest, I’m pretty excited about this game, but it is probably best to let the developer speak for themselves.
Patrick Dolan: Can you describe the plot and gameplay of Solace State?
Tanya Kan: Solace State is an emotional 3D cyberpunk visual novel about a young hacker, Chloe, who comes to her political awakening as she seeks her friends in a biotech surveillance society. Your choices in intimate conversations, the kindling of relationships, and escalating tensions lead to multiple endings. Traverse through a metropolis where the narrative is embedded into the 3D environment as diegetic text, teeming with lore and characters from all walks of life.
This is our spin on the visual novel genre: Non-linear choices and emotional storylines, where conversations sound like they’re naturally responsive to the choices that you make, and highlighting the impact that these choices have on friends, acquaintances, and the society around you.
Change the personal, revolutionize the political.
PD: In what ways does the cyberpunk setting lend itself to the gameplay and narrative?
TK: Solace State focuses on emergent technology’s prevalence in rapidly reshaping society in the near-future city of Abraxa. This creates new opportunities to examine power dynamics of who can take ideological, social, and economic control to drive the biotech revolution—and those three spheres do not have to always line up to the same group. In the narrative, we can also question the legitimacy of entrenched structures of power and whether they actually serve the largest number of people towards a healthy, humanitarian, and happy life.
I find cyberpunk a particularly salient and storied genre to build off of. Cyberpunk centralizes finding alternative subject-positions to speak truth to power and confronting one’s humanity or lack thereof among the underclasses. Our protagonist Chloe exists right at the intersection of finding out how power and technology combine to undermine society as most people know it, and she seeks to build up a counter-cultural force with marginalized communities, and from the ground up.
PD: It seems that confronting the politics of technology is unavoidable in any responsible depiction of a cyberpunk world. How is this dealt with in Solace State?
My background in political science and cinema studies plays heavily into the game. I also draw a lot of inspiration from postmodernism, which has neat convergence points with cyberpunk characterizations. There are almost too many political science and critical studies references embedded in our narrative to name: Appadurai’s discussion on mass consumption and globalization of national imagination; Virilio’s hypermodernity and the urban space; Foucault’s panopticon stylistically shown in one of our 3D models of the conglomerates’ office buildings (there’s a lot of Foucault, but that’s a fun one); Sara Ahmed’s politics of effect and emphasis on the role of emotions such as fear, love, and pain in governance, migration, and nationhood. Solace State‘s Chloe is the very embodiment of the postmodern fragmentation of the individual in the era of hyper-commodification.
Reflexive of the increased awareness of arbitrary violence in many parts of the world, Solace State‘s cyberpunk has relevance in highlighting governance, economic statecraft, media, and the power of the citizens. What sets Solace State apart from other cyberpunk titles is its emphasis on the counter-cultural intimacy of relationship-building and community-building that arise against hegemonic powers.
Additionally, Chloe’s difficulties in making political choices challenge the classical political science notion that all state actors must inherently have access to the most rational information, and are able to make the most rational and therefore optimal choices. Our formal and aesthetic design of having the text peel back walls suggests an idealism of open internet and open digitality, but even with more information, Chloe can be fallible. But her softness and emotional connection to people can also be a strength.
PD: With politics of technology, of course, comes issues of race and class. In line with this, in promoting Solace State, you highlight inclusivity and diversity. Can you describe how this plays out both behind the scenes and the screen at Vivid Foundry?
TK: We are a small team, but we make sure that our diverse cast of characters and our sociological worldbuilding goes through multiple iterations of both narrative consultants and research from social science fields. This is so that we can create a story that is robustly authentic to and reflexive of the social concerns of our times, and to humanize those who are impacted by inequality and marginalization. Even though our game has a modest budget, I insist on doing this. And frankly, why not? I’m getting such an education each time from this process. It’s so wonderful to hear what story points we’re drafting resonate, and what could use modification. It’s not unlike finding great supporting arguments for a thesis, at the end of the day.
This focus on diversity ties in with who clicks most with the project as well. The majority of our developers come from different backgrounds and from underrepresented groups in the games industry. I cannot overstate how important this is in design discussions and execution. For instance, Gabi Kim Passos, our lead programmer, highlights considerations for accessibility within our gameplay design, as well as engages me in discussion about the game narrative’s mixed Brazilian character and her perspective on statecraft.
Additionally, even in little ways I strive to be more aware of and contribute to changing the often stacked systemic issues keeping underrepresented and marginalized groups including racialized and LGBTQ+ folks from thriving in the games industry. Part of my role is to listen to others who by their experience know policies and behaviours that work for a more equitable society. This means a goal of building capacity everyday. It means reading from and listening to different marginalized communities that have been around much longer than I, and have been building up knowledge and raising awareness about such issues.
PD: Looking at the devlog, you’ve had the idea for this back in 2013, but only in the last few years has production taken off. What has your journey to 2020 been like?
TK: 2013 would’ve been my second year in the industry! The original drawings and prototype back then focused on a walking sim with minor stealth elements, inspired by the feeling of discontentment with the schisms of hypermodernity and the uneven experience of cosmopolitanism. I’ve had to spend a few more years building up confidence by working full-time in freelance and especially in developing pipelines and consultation with different creative companies.
The game’s storyline is one that has gone through so many countless iterations that I’ve stopped counting after 20. In the mid- and late-2010s, there’s just not that many pieces of arts and entertainment that talk about what happens after a protest, or the difficulties of social change. On the other hand, some of the public discourse on these topics have only exponentially grown in the last few years.
I have worked on Solace State full-time since 2018, and often have to give up a more vibrant social life for it. Because of our modest budget, I have to wear many hats, including writing, art direction, level design, development, admin, bizdev, and marketing. I chose to do overtime hours sometimes for weeks because this project is so meaningful to me and as a studio owner. However, none of the others on the team are requested to take on such hours; I’m interested in building working rapport that considers health and professional growth as key pillars of creativity and development.
It was also in 2018 that I really started to train myself better in the business sustainability side of game development. Indie game making is an incredibly difficult vocation. Mike Rose’s market research in 2019 has “found that the average game on Steam sells 1,500 copies and makes $16,000 in revenue in its first year… with average revenue declining 47% year-over-year” (Valentine, 2019).
It’s really the satisfaction of everyday learning from my great team, and the satisfaction that we’re connecting with people who really want this game, that makes balancing my business stresses worth it. My passion for this game has continued to grow even in 2020. I feel so much part of my element when working on this.
PD: Community and communication is a big part of Solace State the game, but they also seem to be a big part of the development. Can you tell me about how game making communities have played into the production of the game?
TK: We are focused on building our Discord channel which encourages engaged and nuanced discussion about politics, care, empathy, and diverse narrative content and games. Just being around folks who are excited about Solace State gives our whole team such joy and energy!
Earlier in the year and in 2018 and 2019, I have also participated in diverse capacity building through the Ryerson incubator Transmedia Zone at the Creative Innovation Studio. It’s incredibly meaningful to be around founders in adjacent industries who share their learning experience about how to tackle unusual problems in digital media forms. Most recently I’ve also had the opportunity to give back to Seneca College, where I gained my post-grad in Game Arts, to share with students about my trajectory in game development.
I’m also very thankful for the communities of Pixelles and Game Devs of Color. Pixelles provided me with the GDC scholarship in 2019, which pushed my business development to the next level. Game Devs of Color Expo invited me to participate as speaker and exhibitor for the first time in 2018, and the quality of each of their exhibitors and presenters is so inspiring that I think of them as a light at the end of the tunnel whenever I come across hard times. It’s super moving to be included among them! These are underrepresented and marginalized folks encouraged to speak their truths, without being considered second fiddle, a checkbox filled for the token diversity member, or shunted aside entirely. Game Devs of Color organizers take care of their volunteers, presenters, exhibitors, and visitors every step of the way, including offering their contributors paid experiences. They’re a master class of great event organization.
PD: With the game’s release date coming, I assume you’ve been heavily promoting it. How have your recent experiences with online promotion during COVID been?
TK: We’ve been very lucky that we had the opportunity to participate in many digital events this year, which opens up new opportunities to reach audiences around the world, without expensive travel costs to both us and consumers!
We started off the year with a bang in late April with LudoNarraCon, which was so incredible to connect with audiences who love story-driven games. We created a massive livestream for over 7 hours long just talking about different parts of development, from arts to political content to music. This is followed by the Steam Game Festival Summer Edition, where we further honed our livestreams to talk about more new content.
In August, Indie Arena Booth at Gamescom was a unique experience as we partook as the Ubisoft Indie Series Award Grand Prize Winner of 2020, and we got to build a virtual booth! We can customize art assets to have urban towers, and visitors from all around the world can interact with the hidden Easter eggs that we put in the level. We are also nominated for Best Story Game at Indie Arena Booth presented by Mixtvision, which is such an honour!
And finally, in September, we are honoured to be selected as part of EGX’s Leftfield Collection. I’ve looked up to the Leftfield Collection for so many years; this is so immensely exciting! I was also invited onto the PAX Panel “Beyond 1010: Representation in Indies, The Industry, and Beyond,” moderated by Jenny Windom, and with Josh Boykin, Cara Hilstock, and Victoria Tran, all of whom continually inspire me. To round out our September, we participated in the lovely Game Devs of Color Expo. Gabi and I had such an exciting interview with Sharpie, and our new trailer was selected for their Direct showcase!
Because so many people are excited about our video content—we’ve had over 9,800 concurrent viewers at one livestream during the Steam Game Festival, and over 1,000 concurrent viewers at one show during Game Devs of Color—we’re looking forward to growing our Youtube content this winter! Please look forward to it!
If Solace State sounds good to you, pop it on your wishlist on Steam store and share your excitement for the game by joining their Discord channel. Tanya is always happy to share the narrative ideas and texts that inspire Solace State. On Twitter, you can also follow both Solace State the game and developer, Tanya Kan/Vivid Foundry.
Valentine, Rebekah. “Mike Rose: Indie Developers Are Pricing Their Steam Games Too Low.” GamesIndustry.biz, 10 Sept. 2019.