Earlier this year Fort Solis, a sci-fi thriller game from new developer Fallen Leaf, was announced at Summer Game Fest. Starring Troy Baker and Roger Clark, it certainly looks like it has the potential to have a dramatic story, but beyond a short trailer almost everything about Fort Solis is shrouded in mystery.
Looking to learn much more about this fascinating project, we sat down with Fallen Leaf’s studio director, James Tinsdale, who told us much, much more about the game in an exclusive interview, including the gameplay styles we can expect, how we’ll explore its massive space station location, and what it’s A-grade acting talent brings to the story.
But first let’s establish the basics. “Fort Solis is a third-person, sci-fi thriller set on the Solis Planum of Mars at an isolated mining post,” says Tinsdale.
As a story-focused game, Fort Solis is inspired by the biggest studios working in interactive fiction. “We look a lot at the brilliant narrative games that came before us, [they] are certainly an inspiration,” Tinsdale says, name checking developer Quantic Dream and Supermassive Games. “We wanted to look at narrative techniques that were used in those games really successfully, but also add elements of gameplay.”
At Summer Game Fest, Troy Baker said that the project was described to him as ‘Moon meets Dead Space’. For Tinsdale, they’re two important touchpoints. “When we initially discussed the project, we wanted to create something in the vein of Duncan Jones’ Moon. And by that, I mean the psychological aspect, the aspect where characters, motivations, or their perception of reality itself is challenged,” he says. “So, we combined that with the isolated, industrial style of Dead Space.”
Crafting something that really tapped into that sense of isolation had Fallen Leaf initially look at making a first-person game (Tinsdale notes how effective the view point was in Resident Evil 7.) But the final decision to go for a third-person perspective for Fort Solis was driven by the team’s wish for the game to be played in one continuous shot, similar to films like 1917 and Birdman.
“We’ve seen it in God of War, I think more games have done it in the past,” Tinsdale says. “We wanted to keep one cut, no edits throughout the entire game, so the immersion levels would be super immersive throughout the whole experience. For that reason we felt third-person is a far better catalyst for that.”
Fort Solis is fully open, the whole location, from the minute you arrive.
That single shot will take you through the long, lonely corridors that make up Fort Solis’ labyrinthine facility. This remote minding post, when fully crewed, is purpose built to extract minerals from the depths of Mars. It’s also the home of the Frontier Better Tomorrow project, which involves the cultivation of plants. This creates a visual contrast between the mining and botany zones of the station.
Fallen Leaf believed it was important for players to explore the station properly, and so rather than playing out in movie-style scenes that dictate where you character moves to like so many other narrative games do, you’ll be able to freely explore Fort Solis as you wish.
“[Fort Solis is] fully open, the whole location, from the minute you arrive,” Tinsdale explains. Of course, some locations will require a bit of work to get into once you’ve found them. “You will have to solve certain environment puzzles, or gain access to certain buildings through certain actions or, or progressive states in different locations.”
The Fort itself is made up of nine individual sections, each of which has one or two levels below ground. Those sub-level locations are linked by a network of tunnels, which Tinsdale says “can be unnerving to navigate” and are where the game’s Dead Space influences will likely be most clearly felt. But for anyone freaked out by those dark corridors, there is another option: you can walk between sectors across the brighter surface of Mars. But that open air comes with its own challenges.
“On the surface we have the dust storm that progressively gets worse through the chapters,” Tinsdale explains. “And if you’re on the surface, your field of vision is getting more limited. Especially by the end of the game, you may not be able to see three feet in front [of you].”
“The events of the game primarily lead you through both [surface and tunnel navigation],” he adds. “You don’t have to participate in all of them, but the player will decide if they want an unnerving, more horror-style experience, which is in the depths, or if they want a little bit of a reprieve, they come to the surface.”
You explore Fort Solis by controlling Jack, an engineer who has responded to an alert from the facility. Since Jack is not a soldier he doesn’t have access to weapons. Instead, the most important piece of equipment in the game is Jack’s multi-tool.
“The multi-tool is essentially like a wrist device that contains all kinds of alerts that helps interactions in the game,” says Tinsdale. “We wanted you to feel like you’re an engineer, not a super soldier, so, the multi-tool has a lot of different functions. First port of call is it serves as a data bank for all audio logs, message logs, we have video logs in the game. So any content discovered or found in the game is then instantly accessible from the multi-tool.
“Beyond that, it serves as a tool for doing mini-games like hacking doors, or surging a lock, or powering the LTV (Lunar Terrain Vehicle), or going into the engine of the LTV and basically analysing what parts of the engine are broken, things like that. It has a different use depending on where you are, and we’ve tried to actively make each location have multiple uses for it.”
We wanted you to feel like you’re an engineer, not a super soldier.
Jack may not be a soldier, but that doesn’t mean he won’t get into a bit of violent trouble. Fallen Leaf calls the more cinematic set-pieces in Fort Solis ‘Key Sequences’, and has designed them to go one step further than the action scenes of some other interactive fiction games.
“Key Sequences are our big, cinematic moments in the game, but we wanted them to be completely playable,” says Tinsdale. “We looked at amazing set pieces in God of War and The Last of Us Part Two, which were hugely a big inspiration for us. But we also wanted them to be fully playable. And we also wanted different paths within these key sequences. If I don’t participate or if I put the controller down, what happens? If I participate really successfully, do I get a completely different outcome? We really wanted that to be a factor in these huge cinematic moments.”
As a narrative-style game, Fort Solis doesn’t have combat encounters in the way a traditional shooter or action game does. “We don’t have a ‘B to punch,’” Tinsdale says, “but we do have a lot of moments where you can choose to [punch]. And again, this is hearkening back to something like Supermassive.
“If you choose you want to be aggressive in that moment, okay, we have an animation for that. And that might lead you down a very different path. If you choose to be calm and just want to see where this moment goes, that might take you to a different path. The choice is still the player’s. And we wanted to enforce player choice, we didn’t want you to just do a QTE where the result would be almost formulaic.”
These ‘Key Sequences’ are reserved for the most adrenaline-fuelled segments of the story. As a thriller, though, Fort Solis will naturally (hopefully) be filled with dramatic high-points delivered through its characters. But with the facility itself abandoned, Fallen Leaf had to use a classic video game method to add characters to the story without them actually being there.
“We were like, ‘How do we tell a story of the crew without the crew mostly present?’ And we thought audio logs is a good one for this,” recalls Tinsdale. “Video logs are really expressive, and sometimes can be quite haunting as well.”
The key to the Fort Solis story, though, will be the performances of its three central actors: Roger Clark, Julia Brown, and Troy Baker.
Clark plays protagonist Jack Leary, an engineer who Tinsdale describes as “quite vulnerable”. Fallen Leaf wanted Clark on the basis of his incredible performance as Arthur in Red Dead Redemption 2, which was a showcase for his motion-capture skills.
At the start of the story, Jack has answered an alarm call from Fort Solis. “He thinks it’s a system malfunction,” says Tinsdale. “He needs to go and see if the system’s okay. As events transpire, he realises it’s not [a malfunction].”
Troy’s character is probably the biggest character in the game.
Joining Clark is Julia Brown, who plays Jessica. “We really wanted to fill the void of not just having characters walk around in silence,” he says. “And Jessica is [Jack’s] companion. She’s with him all the time.”
“Jess’s character is the opposite of Jack; she’s younger, definitely smarter,” Tinsdale says. “We try to show what would Mars culture in 2080 be like through her. She’s into way more different things than Jack is. And we try to show a little bit of humour and use her predominantly to help offset the tone.”
Jessica and Jack’s dynamic is partially inspired by the central pairing of Henry and Delilah in Campo Santo’s Firewatch. But unlike Firewatch’s Delilah, Jessica becomes a much more immediate presence in the game. “We have a chit chat system between the two […] and then later in the game she becomes playable in certain segments,” Tinsdale reveals.
Finally there’s Troy Baker, the third and final headline act in Fort Solis. “Wyatt Taylor, Troy’s character, is probably the most complex, and probably the biggest character in the game,” Tinsdale explains. “He goes to quite a few different vulnerable states. We really want you to empathise with him. He’s not a movie villain, he’s a doctor. He’s very concerned with what’s happening [at Fort Solis].”
“You’ve got Jack, who’s really loose, you’ve got Jess, who’s really smart, and you’ve got Taylor, who’s very strict and by the book,” he adds. “Hopefully the three of them give three different perspectives of the events of Solis. And when it’s all said and done, and the dust is settled, you can decide which one you think was right. Because hopefully, with our narrative, players should have a choice at the end. Not in terms of game, but in terms of what their thoughts are, away from the screen when they put the pad down. Who do they agree with?”
Tinsdale likens this approach to that of John Carpenter’s The Thing, which concludes with surviving characters Childs and MacReady sitting around a campfire, and the audience has no idea if either of them are infected. A viewer is left to make up their mind as to what the truth of the situation is, and empathise with the duo’s futile situation.
“I really like that,” Tinsdale says. “That’s the style we went with with the ending, depending on which one you get.”
Yes, Fort Solis has multiple endings based on branching pathways, as is the tradition of the genre. “We wanted our really big moments to have really decisive outcomes,” says Tinsdale. “Every big moment should change the characters in some way, have some effect on them. There’s always a cost to these actions. So we thought that would be cool to up the ante throughout the game, leading up to our final scene.
“The final scene can go many different ways,” Tinsdale promises. “That was something we played around with a lot. So, I’m really interested to see what people think, and also fascinated to see which ones people go for.”
Much of what Tinsdale says is encouraging, particularly for fans of narrative games. Fort Solis has the star power required to truly sell the emotions of its characters, and the open environment will hopefully add a feeling of freedom that is often lacking in the games of Telltale and Quantic Dream. This is, of course, all the work of a small studio, and so expectations must be kept in check, But Tinsdale tells me that he hopes Fallen Leaf’s ambitions will be an inspiration to other similar-sized developers. Hopefully it won’t be long until we finally see Fort Solis in full, uncut action and discover just what this little studio from Liverpool, England is capable of.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.