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Behind Solar Ash's eerie, alien game design

Heart Machine co-founder Alx Preston discusses the design direction of eerie alien adventure game Solar Ash.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

January 14, 2022

6 Min Read

Alien adventure game Solar Ash is the latest creation from Heart Machine, the development studio behind the critically acclaimed Hyper Light Drifter. Like its predecessor, Solar Ash combines the moody technicolor vibe of a science fiction world with tight and focused movement mechanics--but this time in a three-dimensional open environment, instead of a top-down two dimensional world.

The open desolate areas and ominous behemoths go hand-in-hand with gameplay that sometimes feels inspired by Sonic Adventure 2. Instead of memorizing and reacting to enemy attack patterns, players are encouraged to glide, grind, and grapple across open terrain as they quest to save their home planet from a supermassive black hole.

Woven into those high-speed challenges are a number of tragic character moments where player character Rei and a handful of NPCs grapple with what feels like an intensely personal apocalypse. 

We reached out to Heart Machine co-founder (and Solar Ash lead designer) Alx Preston for a quick chat about the game's design direction, and to learn what choices helped bring this unique title to life.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity

Game Developer: What were some of the biggest design decisions that have guided you through the development of Solar Ash?

Preston: We had to cull our ambition in a lot of ways, and we still ended up with an incredibly ambitious project. It was an extremely challenging game to make, with anti-gravity, massive creatures that move and even walk, the size of entire levels which you can traverse on. You can imagine the enormous (figuratively and literally) set of problems they presented. So, deciding to keep pushing on these elements, to keep them in the game, were major decisions that lead to a host of ripple effects throughout the duration of development.

This is Heart Machine’s second game, and it makes the leap from 2D action role-playing to 3D action platformer. What spurred the decision to make that jump?

We wanted to create a much larger and freer world for players to experience and get lost in. Hyper Light Drifter was very restricted in a lot of ways. Pixel art is beautiful but 3D gives you so much more to play with, especially when it comes to scale. The desire to let players feel lost in a massive realm was the key factor.

Making Hyper Light Drifter seemed like a hell of a process—were there any major lessons you learned in that game’s development that shaped how Solar Ash was made?

You learn a lot about what not to do and what you want to do next time around.

Hyper Light Drifter, at its core, was about five people all figuring out a lot of things as we went. That was limited, and I knew I had to grow the team to match the ambition of Solar. However, that didn’t always pan out, and ultimately there was still pressure with the complexity, scale and raw technical know-how required to make such a unique game.

A Solar Ash screenshot shows a small player character standing in desert landscape and patches of green water against a night sky.

I don’t think I appreciated until Hyper Light Drifter was out how personal and intense the game felt. (I saw some of your interviews with Vice talking about how the game intersected with your health challenges). With so much of yourself poured into that game, what kinds of personal energy did you want to put into Solar Ash?

We were a much smaller studio when we made Hyper Light. Now that we’re a bigger team on Solar, I had a lot more conversations with folks on the team, especially early on, to deliver a project that resonates with more of the team involved in making it. I think we’re all in some ways drawn to lonely, broken places or people.

For me personally, I try to establish this feeling in my work that even a broken environment or story can offer different outcomes. You find ways to make the desolate premise engaging and transformative, even in the face of great destruction, sorrow and loss. There are still ways to find a lot of positivity out of that.

I’m actually having a hard time (in a good way) figuring out if Solar Ash is a fantasy game or science fiction game. It’s got this alien-ness that could fit in either genre. What kind of otherworldliness did you want to capture in this game, and at what points did you have to go “no, too weird,” and dial it back?

You can go wild with the look of an “alien” planet in sci-fi, but that’s not to my taste. I think drawing people into an unfamiliar place is the big challenge; so we had to balance that out by keeping it a bit more grounded, thus allowing them to see more familiarity, make a connection, while also still feeling a bit lost.

"Too weird" is when the mushrooms grow eyes that follow you.

How have your thoughts evolved about some of the “Dark Souls-ification of games” discourse? Do you have any thoughts on how games like Solar Ash can remain challenging, but accessible enough for people to explore the worlds you’ve built?

No real evolution on that front: Dark Souls continues to be a reference point for reviewers, gamers, and developers alike because it has a strong, identifiable core. That challenge can strike a nerve or a chord, and that’s powerful. I think you’ll start to see more “Ring-likes” soon too.

Solar Ash is difficult just because of all we ask you to pay attention to - camera management, giant creatures to follow, fast platforming and timing. That alone takes up so much of our overhead. So, we have very little space to play with when speaking to difficulty at that point. Ultimately, timing becomes the key factor I think, for our game and others as well. Let the players play at their pace, even in high-stakes action sequences. Give them time to react.

A Solar Ash screenshot. A grey, feminine alien with missing parts of her arms and body floats in the center of a desert scene. A text box from the character

Narratively, you’ve said that both Hyper Light Drifter and Solar Ash take place in the same universe, though they’re not directly tied to one another. What does that mean in terms of how players should try to connect the stories, settings, characters, and creatures?

There is some common connective tissue between the games. In every game we make, we hope to inject that special Heart Machine DNA so that anyone looking at one of our games will immediately recognize “oh, that’s a Heart Machine game.”

However, the two games are only in the same universe in the sense that they both literally take place in the universe (unlike the Marvel cinematic universe where the stories are all connected). The elements I enjoy in games, certain game design sensibilities, and definitely the style I push for and direct will come through in Solar Ash. But it’s its own game and identity.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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