Has Stones of Solace changed from its original concept, and if so how and why?
It didn’t change a lot actually!
I made a twitter thread when I started working on it, illustrating some of the steps I went through : https://twitter.com/dzifyr/timelines/1018929256993132545
The very first scene I made featured a shrine with a frog.
The first prototype featured a first version of the offering part, and three different statues to look at. At this point, all the shrines were in the same space, you could freely switch from one to another and choose the one you wanted to make an offering to.
You could also pick the flowers around the statues. They would go in a minimalist inventory that would grow over time and that you would have to manage while constructing your offering basket.
From the inventory system, we discussed the possibility of the statues reacting differently depending on the offerings made. Maybe some liked flowers, others liked rocks. Some preferred symmetry while others enjoyed a messy basket. You would have had to collect a lot of items and discover what each of them wanted. It was more “gamey” than it is now.
But the more I was thinking about those puzzles, the more I felt I strayed from the initial idea of relaxation behind the game. Introducing challenges meant introducing a failue state, or at the very least a “great and good solution” kinda situation.
We talked a lot with Armel (who’s has been helping me out on the game) about this, trying to figure out what was the game’s essence. And we realized that in order to go back to that safe and chill space I wanted to build, we had to go back to a more minimalist setting. By removing the puzzles first, so that the basket construction would become only aesthetical, and by removing the possibility to grow the inventory of items by picking them around the shrines.
Removing player agency was at the core of making the game more relaxing, as now every shrines feature a collection of five items to pick from, giving you something different to play with everyday without fear of missing or failing anything. Away with the anxiety inducing inventory management. The real purpose of the game is not to make the statues happy, it is to take time for yourself.
You freelance as an art director, right? How do you split that with personal work on Stones of Solace and other games? Are there certain times in particular you find yourself working on it?
I do freelance as an art director yes, and I tend to be multi project pretty often. Ideally I always have two projects at the same time so I can switch from one to another. I think that’s a way for me to bring new ideas and to keep motivated on every project I work on.
I don’t really have any rules about the way I split my time, it is rather organic. SoS was started on a vacation/gamedev trip (Game Jam Island 2), and then I kept working on it in small sessions during the year, when I had a pause between projects, sometimes on weekends too, but never too long.
Usually my personal projects have structures that allow this non-continuous way of working. Stones of Solace is like a collection of little scenes and small objects, so once I had my core mechanic, I could add content progressively, and more importantly, stop whenever I wanted. It was the same with Sacramento. Even if it’s a single world, it was built as a collection of different spaces that I could work on separately, whenever.
The only rule I had regarding the making of Stones of Solace was to only work on it if I was happy to do so. Building those little scenes was, at first, a way for me to relax too, and when it started to look like something I could release, it felt wrong to put pressure on myself.
Both Stones of Solace and your previous game Sacramento are inspired by (and in some ways about) memories of places. Do you think that's a coincidence, or do you think there's something that draws you to this kind of work?
Both projects were started during or after a big travel.
Sacramento was made right after a train trip across the US, where I collected different views of the landscape in watercolors. I started working on SoS during a trip in Indonesia for Game Jam Island 2 organized by Free Lives. I didn’t travel much outside of Europe, so both were very striking experiences.
Another reason might be that I’m not very good when it comes to write stories or dialogs, so usually I tend to find solutions to make my games as silent as possible. Sceneries can tell stories without the need for text.
Do the rituals in Stones of Solace carry religious or spiritual significance for you?
Not really, no. The original concept for the game was inspired in a way by the Balinese traditional culture, and the offering baskets that you could find pretty much wherever on the street.
I focused on the actual basket-making part, and the process that might go through your mind while constructing a gift rather than the spiritual part of it, that frankly I have no business talking about.
As I said above, by removing the different needs of every statue, we kind of shifted the purpose of the offering. While in the game it looks like you’re still making a gift to a stone, what you’re really doing is making a gift to yourself, by taking some time to chill and compose a visually pleasing arrangement.
With Stones of Solace coming out, do you know what's next for you?
Exciting times ahead! I’m working on another game with Armel. We don’t have a proper pitch yet, but as of right now, it’s an interactive graphic novel about lil witches, with procedurally generated characters and branching narratives (need to work on that line eh).
The procedural witches have different traits of personality and abilities, and you will shape the story not by repeatedly picking what’s to happen, but by delegating that choice to one of the witches. They will then act as they see fit, depending on their personality.
We want to make cute and silly stories out of that system, with the help of our friend Pierre, who previously wrote for Bury me, my love. We’ve been waiting to work on it for a long time, so this is pretty exciting. We got a bit of funding for it, so the scale/goal is not the same as SoS. What I mean is, it won’t be free :)
And then, we are moving to Canada next year!! Exciting times ahead!