Now that Scottish Games Week is over, we want to give some special coverage to the worthy winners in the first-ever Scottish Games Awards. Today, in the final article in this years’ series, we’ll be looking at Amicable Animal, the developer behind SOLAS 128, winner of the Audio award.
We sat down with the game’s Designer and Programmer Tom Methven, as well as its Sound Designer Steven McSeveney and Composer Jamesy Downie, to discuss the game’s inspirations, the power of a singular vision, and the importance of accessibility in games.
SOLAS 128 began, as many great games do, with a game jam project. A Global Game Jam project, in fact. “Steven, Jamesy, and I had been meaning to make a jam game together for ages and in 2019 we were finally all at the same one at the same time,” said Methven. “So I grabbed them and convinced them to make a rhythm-based anti-Tetris game with me called HJEM.”
HJEM wasn’t an early form of SOLAS 128, nor did it evolve into one later, but it did serve as an excellent test project for the trio, proving they could work well and deliver a finished game together. It also stirred memories of a past project Methven had abandoned a decade ago; a laser/pulse deflection game that was missing a crucial something. “After working on HJEM I thought the missing element might be having everything move to the music – adding a rhythmic element would help communicate how things interacted.”
Spurred on by this revelation, Methven spent a few months crafting a prototype version of his idea. Once it was in a playable and, crucially, enjoyable state, he got in touch with his old game jam partners about taking it further. “I reached out to Steven and Jamesy and asked them if they wanted to do a slightly bigger 3-month project with me and, well, it turns out that rather than the 30 or 40 puzzles I thought I’d be able to make, I ended up making a huge, interconnected world of 180+ of them. Two years, and one publisher, later we were releasing what came to be known as SOLAS 128!”
As with all great creative projects, in games or otherwise, SOLAS 128 drew inspiration from a wide range of sources. “The inspirations are a pretty strange grab bag of things, really. I played a bunch of C64 games like Deflektor when I was very young, and those early puzzle games always stuck with me. These were revived in the Flash era, where there were lots of beam-deflection games too. I’d always wanted to make a game like that.”
The game, appropriately enough, has its creative roots in music as well, specifically synth and vaporwave, which Methven notes he “Listens to while he codes.” These styles of music informed not just the game’s audio, but its visuals also.
“I realised the glowing neon art style was one I knew how to do, and one that would work well for a puzzle game. The simplicity allows people to focus on the puzzles and keep the layouts in their head to think about when they are away from the computer. It also fit the concept of synaesthesia through gameplay, which I’d always loved from Mizuguchi games like Rez and Lumines, especially with the rhythm powering everything.”
A Higher Goal
Beyond its artistic inspirations, however, SOLAS 128 had an ideological inspiration as well; one which ultimately proved to be the catalyst for the project: “What really made it come together, however, was when a developer of a popular puzzle game basically said puzzle games about colour can’t be accessible. I decided they were talking rubbish and set out, in a small way, to prove them wrong.”
“I wanted to make a game where players were constantly adding and splitting colours (in this case by colliding pulses) that as many people as possible could play. I ended up designing these additive glyphs for the pulses – shapes which can add and subtract alongside the colours so colourblind players can still enjoy the game – and they became this strange alien language which seeped into the aesthetic of the whole game. It was a delight to work with the accessibility community from very early on, and watch how it shaped the design and mechanics of the game itself.”
Accessibility remains a huge issue in the world of games, particularly for the blind or partially sighted, as seen in Blind Burners’ presentation at Scottish Games Week’s More Than Games event. Seeing projects like this use accessibility as part of the foundation of their design, rather than an afterthought, is incredibly encouraging.
These elements all undoubtedly contributed to the game’s win at the first Scottish Games Awards, but its success was also, in Methven’s eyes, down to its commitment to a strong central vision. “I think it’s partly because people can tell when a game is made by people with a very singular focus;” he said, “when developers are making a game for a certain type of person, because they need that game to exist. I love huge bombastic AAA games, but by definition they have to try and appeal to a broad audience to make back their money. Smaller indie games, like SOLAS 128, can be weirder, more focussed, more experimental. More personal, I suppose. They allow players to step into someone else’s brain for a few hours, and while that can be confusing sometimes, perhaps even frustrating, it’s interesting.”
Whatever the reasoning behind it, the game’s win at the Scottish Games Awards was a huge deal for the team. “Winning the Best Audio award feels validating in that as a small, 3-person team with practically no budget, we managed to achieve a quality in our audio work that is worthy of recognition. That’s a very significant thing to me personally.” said Sound Designer Steven McSeveney of the win. His sentiment was echoed by Composer Jamesy Downie: “We put so much emphasis on the sound design and music to make it one of the most important parts of the game. For this to not only be recognised but also awarded is an amazing feeling. It’s so satisfying to know that the players appreciate how this game sounds and its impact on the gameplay.”
Methven shared in their elation, but with more of a vicarious pride than a personal triumph: “For me, I’m most happy that Steven and Jamesy are getting recognition for the work they did. Composing and Sound Design are sometimes poorly appreciated disciplines in the games space, perhaps even an afterthought. So, it was a delight for me to have the opportunity to work with them from very early on. I see the award as congratulations for them putting up with me!”
A Week to Remember
When he wasn’t claiming awards, Methven also found the time to take in the rest of Scottish Games Week, and the range of events that it offered. “I thought it was generally a great week. The Education Symposium was my highlight by far – as I’m a lecturer in my day job, it was so nice to get together with other people in the Scottish ecosystem and see just how much love and passion for games and games education there was in Scotland.”
“For the other events, it was nice to meet people in person I’d only talked to online, or not seen for years thanks to COVID. I don’t think I’ve networked that much for ages! Personally, however, I hope that next year there is more of a focus on creation and games and less on the future. It felt, at times, like we were talking too much about ‘what might be’ and not enough about the amazing things happening right now. This was, of course, just the first year so it couldn’t have everything, but it’s got me fired up for next year, and to see the event get bigger and more inclusive!”
With the sun now fully set on Scottish Games Week, and the final winning game enshrined in the Hall of Champions, the time has come to work on bringing that bigger, more inclusive second year to life. We’d like to thank all the award winners for their help on this series, and we look forward to seeing what new champions will be joining their hallowed ranks next year.