How a Turbulent Relationship and Professional Ennui Inspired Indie Game 'Sea of Solitude'

Sea of Solitude-Cornelia Geppert-Publicity-Inset-H 2019
Courtesy of Jo-Mei games
Creator and writer Cornelia Geppert's new project deals with issues of loneliness and depression inspired by the game maker's real-life struggles.

Earlier this month, German independent game studio Jo-Mei, in partnership with publisher EA, released its first narrative game Sea of Solitude, an adventure that tackles mental health issues with a unique art style and cinematic direction. 

"Many people think that in Sea of Solitude the main character has depression, but this is not the case. She just needs to figure out life," Jo-Mei co-founder and Sea of Solitude writer and director Cornelia Geppert tells The Hollywood Reporter.

The inception of Sea of Solitude is deeply personal for Geppert, stemming from her own personal romantic relationship and frustrations with her professional career. 

In 2014, five years after founding her studio with partner Boris Munser, Geppert entered into a new relationship after ending a long-term romance. "At the beginning, it was the best thing you can imagine," she says. "We were very much in love and talking about marriage and it was almost perfect. You know when things seem so perfect that there is always a hook?"

That hook presented itself a few months later when Geppert's new boyfriend would "vanish" for periods without a word to her. What started as unannounced disappearances lasting a few hours eventually grew into a 14-day absence. "It was so shocking for me to understand because he’d always come back and say he didn’t feel well and apologize and everything was fine again," says Geppert. "I didn’t ask more questions because I was just happy he was back."

Eventually, her boyfriend revealed he suffered from clinical depression, a mental disorder with which Geppert had no personal experience . "I started feeling really down because I couldn’t handle the two different men: the very nice one and the one who vanished," she says.

Geppert began reading up on the subject and through her research learned more about herself, as well. Professionally, her studio had signed a lucrative publishing deal to create free-to-play games but the projects left Geppert feeling unfulfilled. "The years went on and I got more and more unhappy because we were developing these commercial games. I was afraid I’d destroy my company when I told my co-founder, 'Please let’s break off the publisher contract and let’s start making some really strange art games that maybe will destroy our company,'" she says with a laugh.

Luckily, Munser was on board and the dual issues of an unhappy work life and stressful romantic relationship provided Geppert with the inspiration for what would eventually become Sea of Solitude. "I did the only thing that an artist can do when they’re overwhelmed with emotion and let it out by putting it into their art," she says. 

The game centers on a young woman named Kay who traverses a strange world overrun by the sea as she is harassed and harangued by monstrous creatures that question her self-worth and fortitude. Throughout the game, Kay fights off corruption infecting the world and her own issues of self-doubt and loneliness.

"We always wanted to reach players that have struggled with certain things that we have inside the game and have them not feel as alone anymore," says Geppert. "So many people feel lonely and it's something we're embarrassed to talk about."

While its themes are deep and reflect a growing trend in the industry of creating titles focused on mental health, Sea of Solitude is also marked by a beautiful — and, at times, terrifying — art style designed by Geppert, who began her career as a comics artist when she was just 17.

"I always loved flat-shading. My first big inspiration and why I fell in love with comics was Akira," she says. That inspiration bled into Sea of Solitude, a fully 3D-rendered adventure developed for the current powerful console generation. "We always wanted to make Sea of Solitude in 3D, so I tried to bring this 2D style into a 3D environment," Geppert explains.

The art style of the game quickly garnered attention. In 2015, Jo-Mei posted a few GIFs from the game's production stages showing off its aesthetic direction on Twitter. The response was instant. "There was a huge wave of people contacting me saying that they loved the game and many publishers contacted us," says Geppert.

A competition soon brewed between competing publishers over Geppert's project, one of which was industry giant EA. Always focused on making games for an international audience, Geppert set up a meeting with the American publishing company. "Halfway through the meeting they stopped and said, ‘We don’t need to see anymore or hear anymore, we want to publish your game,'" she says. 

Four years later and Geppert's game is now available worldwide on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, and Jo-Mei is already working on its next title.

Although there are a number of other female game directors and studio heads across gaming, it is largely still run by male creators and execs. "For me, it was always an advantage to be a female in the games industry," says Geppert. "I get treated a little bit special because I am one of the few women who has their own company. I hope in the future we will all be completely equal and it won’t matter how you look or what gender you are."

As the head of a smaller studio, Geppert knows the challenge of competing in a landscape that continues to grow. "As a little indie studio you always live a little hand-to-mouth and it would be awesome not to always be stressed and have a little bit of a buffer at times," she says.

Like Kay, Geppert is sailing onward, ready to tackle the next challenge. "We take all of what we've learned and improve it for the next game," she says. Hopefully, for Geppert, the next game won't have personal roots that are as turbulent as Sea of Solitude's.