Los Angeles Studio Heart Machine Lets You Rollerblade on the End of the World
We spoke to Solar Ash creative director Alx Preston about the evolving nature of development, and coming out of LA development co-op Glitch City.
Say what you want about Solar Ash, it’s likely the world’s first rollerblading sci-fi apocalypse game. You play as Rei, a “Voidrunner” on a dissolving planet near a black hole, who intends to activate the “Starseed” and save your nearby home planet. Along the way, you learn the stories of various aliens who have lost track of their histories as the entropy of the dying world loosens their memories.
At a glance, it’s a gamer-y, jargon-heavy mouthful, but developer Heart Machine injects the title with a strong emotional core and thrilling sense of mystery and discovery.
“It’s mostly just about this forsaken space in a lot of ways,” says creative director Alx Preston. “And characters that are trying to really break their own cycles of almost self-inflicted pain via the waves of trauma they’re really still navigating.”
Los Angeles–based Heart Machine Studios, which previously released Hyper Light Drifter, brought some of their core team to a game that ostensibly takes place in the previous title’s same universe. Though Heart Machine now has an office in Culver City, creative director Preston’s origins in the industry lie in his co-founding of Los Angeles co-op work space Glitch City around 2012.
“We were all just tired of working out of our houses, and we wanted a space to work in together,” Preston says. “We were all independent artists, developers, whatever else, and it made sense to go find some sort of group office space that we could be in together.”
Hyper Light Drifter’s development began in the Glitch City space. Its Kickstarter was something of a games crowdfunding phenomenon, bringing in more than $645,000 on a $27,000 goal. As a result, the game’s scope expanded greatly, and it eventually released to largely rave reviews.
After Hyper Light Drifter’s success, Heart Machine got its own office, which Glitch City also moved into before getting a different space in Koreatown, where it now resides. “I no longer do any of the event planning [for Glitch City] or anything like that,” Preston says. “I’ve got my hands full with Heart Machine stuff these days, but I’m still a member and visitor and it’s still a healthy community overall.”
Though less involved with the co-op, Preston stresses the importance of having a community as a games developer: “It’s important for developers of a certain scale to have that community. It’s important to other folks to make sure that they maintain connections and have people to talk to and kind of share the trials and tribulations of development. Otherwise, it feels pretty lonely because making games is a really challenging prospect.”
Solar Ash transitions its predecessor’s world from 2D bespoke, chunky pixelart to clean, large-scale 3D spaces that allow the player to really flow around on their Voidrunner rollerblades. There are cloud formations you can skate around continuously, and rails you can grind like you’re Tony Hawk on the edge of a dying star. Both games share a love for mysterious environmental spaces, and massive, Neon Genesis Evangelion–inspired bosses and monstrosities.
“The jump to 3D has been a pretty transformative thing for the studio,” Preston says. “We were really trying to execute on this kind of very ambitious scale of game for a team of this size. And we hope that we’ve actually achieved that. At the end of the day, I can go back and look at the original pitch from five years ago that I was kicking around internally, and look at what we’ve ended up with at the end of this journey, and it’s very much in line with what the initial vision was.”
There’s also been a huge transition in the amount of narrative between the team’s two games. Hyper Light Drifter was a quiet, thoroughly minimalist experience, begging for player interpretation, while Solar Ash is more narratively transparent, with voice acting, a clear timeline, and an explanation of the world’s lore.
Though there’s a simplicity to the title’s structure — destroy all the malevolent goo anomalies in an area to unlock that area’s boss, defeat six bosses, in six different environments, to potentially save your dying home planet and beat the game — Rei is an anxious, driven character whose arguments with other characters illustrate the world’s predicaments. She is particularly frustrated that seemingly everyone else in the world has either given up on, or completely failed to stem the entropy from taking over the world.
“Rei definitely is kind of suffering that cycle [of trauma] as well, and trying to break free from their own grief and kind of elevate themselves above it,” Preston says. “But it doesn’t always work out.”
While the writing process for Solar Ash began with Preston, it grew to be a more collaborative, shared effort. “Pretty much every aspect of the project has grown to kind of fill the needs here,” says Preston. “There’s just too much, ultimately, for any one person to do it all, and you need to rely on other folks to champion their sector.”
The team brought on Zoë Quinn to do narrative design, and other members of the team, like Evan Hembacher, Tyler Hutchinson, and Steve Lerner also contributed to the game’s story. The game’s audio also grew to necessitate multiple roles: Rich Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace, who scored Hyper Light Drifter and the horror film It Follows, returns for the new project, with Troupe Grammage and Sky Lu composing additional music.
As the scope of the Heart Machine’s projects has changed since 2012, so has the market for independent games. “Crowdfunding in general for games is not really as robust or as clear an option as it once was,” Preston says. Kickstarter is a much smaller space for independent developers today, possibly due to the popularity of Steam Early Access titles as well as donors becoming jaded from donating to failed or disappointing projects. However, if interest from crowdfunders has waned, games publishers have stepped up to fill the gap.
“[In recent years] you started to see a lot more publishers open up their doors, and do more prestige-style stuff with small developers that have a clear voice,” Preston says.
Hyper Light Drifter was self-published on most platforms upon its release, and then by Abylight on Switch and iOS. This time around, Solar Ash is being published by Annapurna Interactive, which is the prestige, boutique games arm of Annapurna Pictures. It’s a studio that meticulously brands itself by working with more weighty, experimental narrative games that are frequently nominated for year-end awards. Think of it as the A24 of games publishers.
According to Preston, this shift in the market has given developers more weight in their relationship with publishers. “You’ve seen that change where smaller developers are asking for owning their own IP and more fair shares in the split, and kind of that participation in the process,” he notes. “It’s reassessing what the role of a publisher can be.” Preston says much of this wasn’t possible 10 years ago.
Another shift that Preston sees in the industry is the ability to use development tools for free, like Unity or Unreal engine, as well as the wealth of online tutorials and guides. “There’s never been a better time for developers to start to get into games development,” he says. “And it really doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you have good internet access, I think the advantage of Los Angeles, specifically, is that there’s a ton of talent here.”
Rei’s journey in Solar Ash is often grim and can be taxing on the player. While the game is easy to pick up, it can demand a lot in terms of remembering locations — the game has no mini-map — boss patterns, and making the right jump without falling 300 feet and having to climb a structure all over again. There are moments of frustration that aren’t always fun — having to rollerblade to an exact location at the perfect time, only to fail and spend five more minutes climbing back up to your previous location is a common issue — and many of the characters themselves are confused and morose.
But the moments of connection to a side character’s tale, or the zen feeling of gliding around infinite clouds to a soothing, synth-heavy soundtrack make it all worth it. I particularly liked a section of the story focused on regenerating the world through mushroom spores. The sometimes nerve-wracking gameplay gives heavier resonance to the moments of peace, and to the characters’ seemingly endless struggles in this malevolently stagnant universe.
“You want it to resonate,” Preston says. “Everybody on the team who’s worked on this wants it to have an impact and wants people to have an opinion on it, whether negative or positive.”
All screenshots taken by the author