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Sol Hemochroma

Sol Hemochroma is our first adaptation, a nonlinear recreation of an abandoned screenplay. And so, in its own way (and much like our previous work) it allowed us opportunities to provide layers to the material, to tell stories on top of stories on top of stories, to reward the player for investigating further.

It’s sort of complicated to discuss the benefit of adaptation to an artist. When I was a film student, our introduction would cover auteur theory, of course; but mainstream film criticism tends to sees the auteur as a total creative presence, a director, and a writer, and a personality unto themselves. The thing is, in its original incarnation, auteur theory cherished, above all, directors who didn’t write their own scripts: who instead transformed, and refracted, other work with the mark of their signature.

I was excited to get the opportunity to finally do likewise — even if I didn’t actually lead the creative direction for the game this time. Look, you know what I mean.

As to the writing we were adapting, the story of the script’s discovery is a little odd. If you know me at all, you’ll know that my life is sort of strange anyway, so I take it as it comes.

Discovery

As I’ve said in previous articles, I met my business partner, Penelope Evans, during our tenure as editors-in-chief of the University College Gargoyle. She was a second-year student, and I was in fifth-year, and since my co-editor-in-chief dropped out, I needed to find a replacement (though, at the time, I was so sure I could just do it all myself!).

the office

Penelope was already quite reliable as a member of staff, so her candidacy wasn’t really opposed, and she fell into the job incredibly well. And we got along creatively oddly well, too.

We would often co-write articles for the paper just to cap off the issue, or to fill a page, and we got used to each other’s creative energy. We hit that stride writing partners fall into, where you can hash out criticism without it being personal: ideas either do or don’t work, weaken or strengthen a piece, and you need to be mutually honest to make it as good as it can be. So we were brutal, to the point, and fought relentlessly, but it never really got heated. Instead, it was like sparring to mutually improve your skills.

Anyway, when we started Aether Interactive in 2017, Penelope was still in university. And in the winter of 2017, the UC Gargoyle was relocated out of its dungeon of the past fifty years or so. So it fell to the team to repackage all the archives and ship them off.

I don’t know if you’re aware of the alumna that paper produces, but it’s by and large creative, emboldened, and very internal people: journalists, artists, but also professors, librarians. They started out as queers and punks in the dungeons of the college.

We collected zines going back decades; we had scraps of the newspaper dating back to the first issue along the walls, making you live with the Gargoyle’s history when you were working there, and you got to add your own work to that hall. So it wasn’t really surprising when Penelope hit the first scraps of a really intriguing script in a back bin.

Investigation

The script was incomplete: if anything, it was a third of the final draft’s length, and a little … intense. The characters were 17, but acted much older, and the script directions, really, read more like Ginger Snaps than Degrassi. It was harsh, it was often a little brutal about the remains of the human body and their purposes. It was all … very punkish with its gore. But at the same time, it was sort of uncertain, too. There was a lot of notes; sometimes in different handwriting, like it was passed around before being put into storage.

All the same, Penny and I were excited: we were in the midst of making Subserial Network, but we always look ahead to the next two or three projects. We were getting to be a bit typecast as cyberpunk creators because our current projects had a lot to do with the intersections of synthetic and transgender bodies (my fault). And of course, we’re always interested in the work we’re allowed to use: we always check the licenses of art or sounds we adapt or remix, because, well, it’s a liability to use someone else’s work.

And if this script just didn’t exist, well, we could transform some of its ideas, right? A Canadian blood conspiracy? Involving the massive, complicit violence of society and the kids who can either comply or be exiled? We had to use this somehow. And I mean, could we use the title? It wasn’t trademarked?

But the thing is, even the author (just marked “AL” in initials, great) and the title, “Sol Hemochroma,” had no record whatsoever online or in library.

I took it to the librarian at my home college at the University of Toronto — though I graduated a few years ago — and asked if it was possible to nail down this writer or the work. No luck. And while the Media Commons had no real microform collection of screenplays, they passed me off to the reference library at the Toronto Independent Film Festival, where I inquired further.

They did, in fact, collect a number of original screenplays, and of course, it was by a specifically Canadian cast: writers of the CBC, or, you know, maybe a few National Film Board auteurs gave copies.

Going by OCR and some estimations of where the initials might fit, there were a few potential candidates for supposed writer appearing on personnel lists, but nothing that concrete as to a likely creator for this kind of work.

And the script itself, well … they found one record, but it was, yet again, extracurricular to their collection, and they referred me onward. Unclear as to the intended producer or distributor agency would be, if anything. Was it even put into production?

I hoped it wasn’t just going to keep going like this. Why would this script be preserved anywhere, anyway? Maybe it was just another Garg alumnus leaving a mark. But I wasn’t much of a plagarist. It was a campaign of integrity to find at least the complete article than to inherit their ideas.

True origins

So what would you think if you were referred to the “archives of the Institute for Higher Knowledge”? At first I thought — like, the institute? Aren’t there like, a couple hundred in the country? Don’t we call them universities? Maybe this is some association of them or something?

But I tried to reach out anyway. And I got a response — oddly quick, actually. Their speculation on the origins didn’t help much.

It was delivered! Very anticlimactic, but welcome.

Ekphrasis

It was now well into Spring — Subserial was on the back half of production, about to wind down into post-production, and the real work on this script could begin. It was April 27th, 2018, when production began in earnest.

This time, preproduction wasn’t really about brainstorming themes, ideas, stories, and nailing them down, discoursing them into firmer being; instead, it was about capturing the spirit of something already discussed. I felt like a real film director! Going through someone else’s words, transforming them…being outside my own fixations. Wearing someone else’s ideas but still showing myself under the clothes.

That said, the script was discussed to hell even in final draft: notes were scribbled all over the margins, with possible other story paths; some, more choice alternative dialogue for specific sequences, stood as a daring request to an editor. I began to understand the benefit of this adaptation as game designers: we could adapt everything the film could’ve been.

We liked the idea of examining the materials, the physical elements of this film left incomplete, to tell its story, in its presentation. We wanted the player to feel like they were handling a bunch of storyboards themselves, as they went through a particular version of the film that was never made, a kind of inside feel to it.

I also wanted Penelope to have a try at the reins, so she ended up taking over creative direction of the project, picking our hires and making the big artistic calls. I just tried to facilitate the way it should feel to her. We went to the city, the sites, of the script, and the game to get in touch with it. We filmed the trailer during the trip. A fitting little elegy to the the origin.

Her call for the game’s look was that she really wanted a specific artist, Joan Chung, to draw the art. All of it. It should feel like it all came from one person’s hand, somehow animated.

Recreation

Joan had never worked on a game before; Penelope was familiar with her work from, well, fan art culture. She used to be in Toronto, but moved out west, and she was intrigued by the incongruity of our profession and hers — luckily for us, intrigued enough to get on board.

Penny is extraordinarily well-connected in cultures and scenes tangential to games: and it’s often people who make really interesting work in the context of video games. She can find hires from Tumblr, from conventions, from fanfiction scenes, or people still in college, up-and-comers, and see the ways they would add a lot to the feel of a game precisely because they didn’t work in games at all before she reached out.

And Joan — well, her work is incredibly special to me because of the way she imagines bodies and environments: they are more psychological than physical. They represent the insides of a person above all, and distort and enlarge their supposed bodies and presentations to show their internal image, what she saw, or felt, inside, when she looked at them from the outside. At least, this is what I inferred.

For the characters, we wanted a more or less timeless feel, which involves a sort of anachronistic flair: let’s not just get stuck on the 80s, just because it’s a script about the 80s. Let’s think about what kids of the 80s would have thought was cool about their past, right? So it was more mod, it was more punk, it was clean. It was distinctly not 80s, not era-specific.

Of course, Sarah Mancuso is by now an Aether mainstay and signed on to compose the soundtrack: this time it wasn’t meant to be vapour or cyber. It was meant to be 80s alternative, jangly, flanger, postpunk, dreamy.

I personally kept thinking about the idea of guitar-led leitmotifs — and a crossfade that would make the environments into base music tracks, that these guitar lines would enter and transform. If you got close to a specific person, their theme would influence the music of the place you were in. It felt really cool, but it just wasn’t within scope to do so.

Reconstruction

In converting the scripts into, well, multi-linear, interactive writing, we took a few liberties. I’m almost curious if I should just not disclose what it is we changed; or to let you guess what seems to be “too modern” for the script, because the things we did or didn’t keep might surprise you. Like, I was surprised by the queer aspects of it. But at the same time it’s not like queer people just didn’t exist in film then — and for a burgeoning, younger writer, I’d think it would be far more likely to write a sympathetic narrative with at least some queer youth than another horror story about, I don’t know, spooky transvestites or whatever.

Anyway, our efforts were leisurely. We would spend a few days a week at first going through it at our usual haunt, The Sovereign, side-by-side with our digital notes, retaining and disposing of the raw materials. Here’s an example of a comparison, now that we’re all done:

Sol Hemochroma original script sample

How did the reconstruction end up going? Well, some of the more spiritual elements of Isaac, I ended up reading into — it used to be a bit more implicit, since she was so internal, so — almost scared?, of the external world. She’s really hesitant, but we played her a bit more defensive.

Jason’s … whole … state, his situation, was actually played up more in the script, as some kind of hook for commercials? And we toned it down a little. I think if they actually filmed it, he would sound like a ghost or something, running the voice through a reverb filter. It would’ve been pretty bad. Low-budget, Canadian genre film? A kind of, 1980s Telefilm Canada fare? Or maybe worse – since we’re talking truly independent, fraudulent investors? Well, you bet they would do that kind of stuff…

Scope adjustments

As it happens when you hire people outside games, Joan found the task of making backgrounds more challenging than at her first estimate, so we started handing them out more broadly between us on the team and letting her focus on characters. We ended up hiring Allison Lownie mid-way through production as a background artist as a friend of Penny’s, since her work was so good as an ad-hoc hire.

And the soundtrack was initially planned to be larger, but it turned out we needed less music than we thought — we were aiming for “feature-length,” after all. We tend to assume 18,000 words per hour of playtime; but we forgot that variation precludes a decent portion.

So the game seems to come out at about 45 minutes, with a substantial amount of varied content between playthroughs. We were aiming to release on Penelope’s birthday – you always need a deadline, you know – so it forced our hand in a few areas.

Overview

The feel of Sol Hemochroma was meant to be like guiding a movie to its conclusion your own way: to have your character be real to their age (with player responses only available in the format of various adolescent neuroses), but also rewarding enough to explore the “world” with. To show a decent amount of variation and stay true to what the film was about; to have a feature film experience and a materially-focused one, too. We wanted to rethink what a visual novel presentation could infer: we wanted a VN to feel more like a movie, more Telltale than dating sim.

We often experiment with interactive work and it makes our ‘games’ hard to place. Going forward, we definitely want to play with more well-worn interactivity modes (mechanics, stats, physics, the whole thing), but we’re happy with how we recontextualised this kind of play. I think it really feels like a movie rental. I think it really blurs the line between storyboard and visual novel.

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