Games

The Emotional Story Behind the Music in 'Sea of Solitude'

Singer-songwriter Stella Angelika was just returning to music after a personally traumatic event. She had no idea her work would so closely parallel the game it ended up in.

by Patrick Klepek
Jul 18 2019, 11:00am

Image courtesy of Electronic Arts

Sea of Solitude is heavy, a “beautiful but imperfect exploration of loneliness,” as Nicole Clark nicely put it a few weeks back. Its ambition never quite matches its execution, but a game so boldly honest about its vision, a desire to talk about mental health and the way it impacts individuals and those around them, was refreshing. The game achieves its best moments when everything—art, sound, gameplay, story—work to ground its monstrous metaphors. Sea of Solitude’s music plays a huge role in making this work, a quiet but impactful score.

One of the most important tracks in the game, “I Picture You Before Me,” is featured at two key moments: the beginning and end. It sets the tone for the emotional journey players are going on, and eventually bring closure to it.

The “I Picture You Before Me” featured in Sea of Solitude is an instrumental track, but there’s another version that appears on the official soundtrack. It’s a very different work, a deeply personal song with lyrics inspired by songwriter Stella Angelika’s own hardships. It was directly responsible for helping sell the developers on part of the game’s emotional core.

Production on the score weirdly started around the same time composer Guy Jackson was compiling a folder on his hard drive called “sad, sad situation,” inspired by the famous Elton John track, in which he had begun compiling a series of tracks with a more melancholy vibe.

“It wasn't like, ‘Oh my gosh, I've got to learn how to write really deep, emotional music,’” he said. “I was doing that.”

One of the early meetings Jackson had with Sea of Solitude developer Jo-Mei Games, a studio he’s collaborated with before, was trying to figure out what music made sense for the story being told. That’s when Jackson booted up his computer.

“I said ‘Oh, here's a track I did awhile back,’” he said. “I just popped it on and I turned around, and at the end of the track, they were just bowled over. Because she's [Cornelia Geppert, CEO of Jo-Mei and designer on Sea of Solitude] a very emotional lady. She's not scared of showing her emotions. There were a few tears rolling down her cheeks.”

“I still need to cry EVERYTIME when i hear you singing on the Soundtrack, honestly!!” wrote Geppert in response to a tweet from Angelika about the song around the game’s release.

That track was a rough draft—a “sketch,” as he called it—with Angelika, who’d come into Jackson’s studio months back to collaborate on a few tracks. It wasn’t a song Jackson, nor Angelika, had in mind before sitting down with one another. “I Picture You Before Me” came about after Jackson started playing on the piano—and patiently waited for Angelika to sing.

“I just thought: microphone, piano. I sat at the piano and I just started playing,” he said. “Music just comes out of my fingers into the keyboard and I had the computer recording whatever would come out, and after a few pregnant pauses, I was saying ‘Come on, Stella, sing! Are you in the room?’ [laughs] I was looking the other way, I didn't want to embarrass her.”

Improvisation was relatively new to Angelika. Though she’s since spent a lot of time in a jazz group, where improv is key, that wasn’t the case at the time. She was suddenly on the spot.

“I had these lyrics on my phone,” she said, “and I guess I probably took quite a while to come in. [laughs] I was just getting the vibe. It took me a while to work out what I wanted to sing over it.”

Sea of Solitude
Photo courtesy of Will Jackson

She wasn’t coming up with lyrics on the spot, but looking at her phone. The lengthy pause had less to do with figuring out what might work, but coming to grips with an emotional return to music itself; the words on her phone were written at an especially difficult time in her life.

“When those words were written, I'd had to drop out of college,” she said. “I was training to be an opera singer and I basically, within my first year, began my battle with anorexia. It got to the stage where I had to drop out because I was too thin to sing. It broke my heart, really. I moved back home to London and to recover. [pause] It's definitely a process, and you often get worse to get better. I became very depressed, and I nearly killed myself. It was a really dark time, definitely the darkest time in my life. At that time, I was beginning to find music as an outlet again. The things that I was feeling really went into this little sketch.”

What appears on the soundtrack is largely what Jackson and Angelika recorded that day. It’s cleaned up, of course, and has some polish, but the core—Angelika’s improvisational singing, the lyrics—are from that “sketch” worked out in the room.

Just like the game, it’s raw, and that’s part of the appeal. It feels like a parallel work. Sea of Solitude attempts to translate the varied and impacts of depression through interactivity, and “I Picture You Before Me” is doing something similar, just as intimately, through song.

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mental health
Sea of Solitude