A screen shot from the video game Sea of Solitude
Image courtesy of Jo-Mei

The Flawed 'Sea of Solitude' Has a Director's Cut, And It's Basically a New Game

Most developers take the lessons of game development into the next project. But what if you had a chance to do it all over again?
March 24, 2021, 1:00pm

Even the most basic video game takes years to make, and by the end of that process, most developers will tell you they would have done things a lot differently. The fruits of those lessons, however, are typically carried forward into the next game. It's rare a developer gets a second chance at the same endeavor, but Sea of Solitude's release on Switch, dubbed The Director's Cut, isn't just a portable version of a story about mental illness. There's a brand-new script, a new cast of voice actors, tweaked gameplay, and altered cutscenes. 

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These are the kinds of changes you might see in a "remaster" 10 years later, not a port.

"I remember I was talking to some journalists who talked badly about Sea of Solitude's script and everything," said Sea of Solitude director Cornelia Geppert in a recent interview with Waypoint, "and they were always surprised when I was like, 'Yeah, I agree with you. I don't like that, too! [laughs]”

Striking visuals, an emotionally-charged trailer, and a disarmingly charming spokesperson in Geppert, who spoke openly and emotionally about their own personal struggles, meant expectations for Sea of Solitude were almost immediately and alarmingly high. The game that shipped in July 2019 was, like Geppert, painfully sincere. It had heart. But the gameplay and storytelling were awkward, failing to merge its narrative ambitions with reality

“The kind of story Sea of Solitude is trying to tell is deeply ambitious,” wrote critic Nicole Clark in our review at the time. “It's the kind of game that might take an indie studio numerous attempts, even with the support of a giant like EA. Sea of Solitude may have drawbacks, but at the end of the day the game is still a stunning accomplishment. It's still a world I enjoyed spending time in.”

In most cases, that's that, and everyone looks towards the next game. For Sea of Solitude developer Jo-Mei Games, this was its first foray outside of free-to-play browser games, so of course such a hard pivot would have its issues. But at Gamescom 2019, Geppert found herself smoking an e-cigarette outside of a hotel with Quantic Dream co-CEO Guillaume de Fondaumière, and the two began chatting about shared admiration. Geppert said she's long been a fan of Quantic Dream's early game, Fahrenheit. Except, she joked, "for the ending."

"But the beginning was wow!" she said. 

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Fondaumière reportedly mentioned how several people at Quantic Dream enjoyed Sea of Solitude, and the two went back and forth before it was time to head back inside. The two traded emails, and later, Fondaumière sent Geppert a note and asked why Sea of Solitude hadn't appeared on Switch. Geppert explained how the game's publisher, Electronic Arts, has never really embraced Nintendo's machine, and so the option never came up.

Quantic Dream's offer was to let Geppert take another pass at Sea of Solitude. She could rewrite the script, rework the story around it, employ professional voice actors (the original game used some in-house employees), and update the cutscenes. It was almost a do-over.

Few developers produce story-driven games at the scale and expense as Quantic Dream, but in 2018, French outlets published reports about the studio that painted a picture of an ugly company culture, including details about sexist and homophobic jokes. Quantic Dream denied the stories, even taking the extraordinary step of filing lawsuits against the reporters

Those lawsuits are still ongoing.

"We'll be in court at the end of May," said reporter Dan Israel of Mediapart, one of several publications being sued by Quantic Dream, in a Twitter DM. "The trial was delayed because it was supposed to happen at the beginning of December 2019, but at the time, there were big strikes in France, against the reform of the retirement system. So, we're still waiting, but I am quite confident that Mediapart will win this case."

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Geppert spoke only positively about Quantic Dream during our conversation. In a follow-up asking specifically about the allegations, Geppert declined to comment through a PR representative.

It's rare for a developer to be frank about their game's shortcomings, but when asked why she felt compelled to revisit Sea of Solitude, Geppert quickly copped to several issues. 

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"When we made Sea of Solitude, it was so many firsts," said Geppert. "The first console game, the first time I ever wrote a story. It's a big 3D game."

The first thing that needed to change, in Geppert's mind, was the script. She recalled a meeting with Electronic Arts, in which the publisher said Sea of Solitude was, perhaps, in danger of being misunderstood by relying too much on subtleties and metaphors. The publisher was fine with whatever direction Geppert went in, but Geppert recalls agreeing with their analysis, resulting in a game script that was overly talkative, holding the player's hand.

"I remember I was talking to some journalists who talked badly about Sea of Solitude's script and everything, and they were always surprised when I was like, 'Yeah, I agree with you. I don't like that, too! [laughs]”

"So I sat there and thought about it and thought this is likely true," she said. "I don't want people to miss what I want to say. So I edit more. And it was my decision. But when the game came out, many said "it's so on the nose, it's so much" and they were right! [laughs] I hate it! No, no, no, no, no. It is great but it could have been less."

Specifically, she pointed to numerous instances where the game's main character, Kay, would explain what the player was seeing...while the player was looking directly at it.

In the end, roughly a third of the script was removed, words now deemed unnecessary. What was left was then handed to writer Stephen Bell, who contributed to indie darling What Remains of Edith Finch and has been a narrative consultant on a number of other games. Geppert then worked hand-in-hand with Bell to figure out how to rewrite and reconfigure.

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"I think almost every line of dialogue in the game was either changed or tweaked in some way, even if just in terms of placement," said Bell in a behind-the-scenes video feature.

Geppert described the experience of working with Bell was like attending school. Despite some elements from Sea of Solitude being plucked from her own personal experience, watching Bell play with those ideas didn't bother her. She tried not to be precious about her writing.

"I should have paid him for it because I want to get better at writing, but I don't have the time to go to school again," she said.

The other part of Sea of Solitude that's bugged Geppert since release was the game's voice acting. Early on, Geppert fell for the voice of the game's lead animator, Miriam Jud, who had "such a fitting voice in my eyes." But the voice acting also became one of the main critiques.

"Melodramatic dialogue and weak voice acting ensures that the mechanics never serve anything other than platitudes," wrote Christpher Byrd for The Washington Post. " [...] I found myself reimagining the game with different dialogue and voice acting and imagining what might have been."

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Usually, that "imagining" stays strictly within the realm of imagination.

"I loved how my animator spoke it, but hearing a professional—it was shocking for us," said Geppert. "The game feels a completely different level of professionality. They know how to pronounce everything, [so] that it gets more feeling and depth added to everything. It was a hard way to learn. Hire professionals, even if you love the guys and love the voice of your friends."

Jud, who is no longer with the developer, did not respond to an email from Waypoint asking about her experiences on the game and what it's like to see her voice acting swapped out.

Given how closely Geppert tracked responses to the original Sea of Solitude, I wondered if she'd spent the game's launch day watching livestreams of players experiencing the new story, where she might have a chance to watch their emotional reactions in real-time. But as it turns out, Geppert is unlike a lot of modern game developers: she can't watch the streams.

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"I have to be honest," she said, "I watched the testers back in the days because I needed to. I can't really watch. I hear what others tell me how they reacted. I'd go insane. I run away. It's so weird for me to see somebody consuming the art you did in a real emotional way. I can't. I can't still. I need to try again. But last time I ran away."

Co-workers will pass on anecdotes, but in terms of processing feedback, Geppert sticks to reading reviews from critics—that's it. Watching an actual person is too personal, which is one reason why her future projects will, according to her, draw less on personal experience.

Earlier this year, Jo-Mei received funding for their next game, codenamed "Ocean" at the moment. Geppert couldn't talk about what the studio is working on next, but she will be part of the creative process, including the writing. She's also hoping to have a full-time co-writer, because the process of working on The Director's Cut was fulfilling. After that? Who knows.

"Maybe the next game I can handle it well enough to do it on my own," she said.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).