Solar Ash brings a picturesque adventure through a surreal spacescape inside a black hole. Players control Rei in the indie game, a Voidrunner, who is on the quest to save her planet from the Ultravoid. The game is imbued with a keen sense of fluidity and movement as the developers focussed on the traversal mechanic.
After the critically-acclaimed Hyper Light Drifter, Solar Ash is Heart Machine's much-more-ambitious second game. And despite some of the hiccups mentioned in Sporstkeeda's review of the title, Solar Ash managed to be an exciting platforming experience.
Alx Preston of Heart Machine talks about how the world of Solar Ash came to be and the story they tried to tell with it
Q: To begin with, would you introduce Solar Ash to our readers?
Alx: Solar Ash is a third-person action-adventure game, where you dive into a black hole and fight and skate around giant creatures.
Q: Hyper Light Drifter was dearly-beloved and critically-acclaimed. How did that affect or translate into the development of Solar Ash? How would you say the latter learns and differs from the former?
Alx: I mean I think it helped give us a good leg up on publishers and kind of our choice of partners to work with. It was really helpful. That was probably the main thing that allowed us to do.
Q: Solar Ash boasts of a world that looks gorgeous. Coming from a pixel game, what was the thought process behind designing this space?
Alx: Designing the game was a big challenge and making sure that stylistically, it really hit all the marks. Drifter is 2D - so that was a simpler game to make in a lot of ways, you know, a lot more static.
And then jumping into third person, into 3D, it's just an immense amount of labor, generally speaking. Especially when it comes to developing the visuals and kind of hitting our style marks, there's just a lot of special technology and rendering that we had to build out, to get it to look the way that it did and kind of perform the way that it did.
So, you know, Drifter had a much more straightforward path whereas Solar Ash took years to build up, to get that to look and play right.
Q: Did you face any difficulty on the way? What resulted in the delay in the release date?
Alx: I mean, we had about a five-year cycle for us to build the game out. A good part of that was building up that tech, building up the team, transitioning from 2D to 3D which took a while.
Solar Ash ended up being a really big game, just generally speaking, just the scale of it and the amount of content in it was quite a bit. And that ends up being very expensive.
We had a much longer development cycle and we did delay it internally a couple of times. Then externally, we had to delay from an October release to a December release.
Q: Personally, the world of the Ultravoid reminded me a bit of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. What influenced you, games or otherwise, to create the story of the Solar Ash, the Voidrunners and this world?
Alx: Yeah, we had many different influences. It's always hard to point to one direct one unless it's very obvious. So for us as nerds, like sci-fi, and whatever else, there's plenty of stories and authors to point to and things like different anime that influence like Evangelion or whatever else.
Certainly, stories about going down the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland are factors as well. I think that's probably always in the back of everyone's subconscious - you've heard like very common fairy tales and stories like that.
You're probably the first one to point out Alice in Wonderland as a point of reference, which is cool. Again, like that's not something that consciously we're pointing to but sure, I think it probably has an influence there.
Q: Solar Ash, and Rei, feel like speed personified. The game is highly agile with a focus on insane mobility - traversal and flow. Is there any reason for this particular mechanic?
Alx: For me, I really enjoy games with good mobility, it's like an interesting way to traverse. And I think those are games that are fewer and far between. Sure, you get racing games, and they really obviously care about your traversal and character control and ways to make that engaging.
But you look at the vast majority of third-person, action-adventure, open-world games, whatever they may be, and they're pretty basic when it comes to traversal. It's like, oh, you can run, you can walk, maybe do a little jumping, you can get on a horse and the horse controls are pretty basic, straightforward.
And there's nothing super-engaging happening, maybe you get climbing on everything, like Breath of the Wild, which is cool but also not like the most fun thing from the control side. But it is interesting, and it builds on that.
So I really wanted to make sure we did something unique that we kind of tagged in on, I think, a factor or designing a set of design elements in our game that's underserved typically.
Q: The ending for me focused on the idea of failure, repetition, facing one’s own twisted selves and monsters. What inspired you to tell this tale?
Alx: Facing my own personal issues, and I think we've talked a lot on the team about the kind of trauma and and the vortex of what that can be and how you get out of it, how you break cycles.
And so a lot of personal experiences from myself and others - the team just wanting to ultimately be better - influenced the story. Traumas can come in many different shapes and forms.
And certainly, we all experience things differently and have different kinds of tolerances - tolerances for issues in our lives and ways that we are kind of cyclical and want to be better or to change things for ourselves. So that is mostly where it stemmed from, this desire to kind of get out of situations that might not be the healthiest for us.
Q: Given the anticipation and hype surrounding Solar Ash, how has the response been to the game since its release?
Alx: It's been really positive, you know, we've had good reviews. We have a fan base that's kind of attached to it - a community for it. So I think Solar Ash being a long-term project, and a really difficult one to make, you never quite know how it's going to hit when it's this different from the previous game that we've made.
And when it's got a lot of different kinds of unique aspects to it, it's hard to tell exactly what people will like about it, what they want. So I think overall, though, having people resonate with the traversal and the story that we're telling, and all these elements, that we spent a lot of time making sure to hit, has been good and rewarding.
Q: Did the current pandemic have any effect on the story you told? I am kind of referring to the world at the end – things to be rebuilt, a world with potential to start something new.
Alx: Yeah I think it's impossible for the pandemic to not have an effect on the things that you're making creatively. I think for us, the story was kind of long since decided before.
The themes of it and kind of the tent poles of it were long since decided before the pandemic was a thing. But I'm sure that as we were continuing to refine it and edit it and do the things we did, that the realities of our worlds bear down in certain ways that, you know, again, subconsciously probably seeped in. So.
Q: With two immensely-popular games, what has been your experience being an indie studio in the game development scene?
Alx: I mean, making games is tough for everybody. You know, we're no exception to that. Obviously, making a game for five years, it's a tough timeline for anybody.
So but it gives us a lot of good perspective and a lot of takeaways for what we want to do next, what we you know, what we're good at, what we're not so good at, things that we want to be better at.
And I think the most important thing is that it allows us to keep making stuff. Because we want to keep making games. And I think we're very fortunate to be able to do that in any way, shape, or form.
Q: What is next for Heart Machine?
Alx: We will have stuff up to show when we'll have stuff to show - more and more games. Nothing that's where we can share yet but look out for it.