July 7, 2016

Exploring the Atmospheric, Immersive Worlds of The Solus Project

By Daniel Kayser

One of the things that makes interactive entertainment so unique is its ability to facilitate immersion. While other mediums provide powerful experiences, gaming affords the player the opportunity to dictate the pacing, decide particular outcomes and participate in the story as it unfolds. 

This genre-defining aspect of interactive entertainment means that content creators can think differently about the experiences they want to create and, when done properly, provide a truly memorable experience that transports players to vastly different worlds.

This is the goal of The Solus Project, an Unreal Engine 4-powered title that places an emphasis on atmosphere and exploration over the typical take on action. But what makes this particular project unique is its commitment to completely immersing the player. So, how has the creative vision for The Solus Project been brought to life and how has a small team leveraged UE4 to construct an entire planet to explore? I caught up with the game’s Creative Director, Sjoerd de Jong, to find out more about the mysterious and fascinating worlds of The Solus Project.


Q: As the spiritual successor to The Ball, can you please explain how The Solus Project came about?

Like many kids from my 70s and 80s, I grew up exploring the world, usually on my own or with friends and often miles from home. The movies we watched, like Indiana Jones, were all about adventure as were the games we played, like Tomb Raider or Unreal. Plus, the space age had just passed and ahead of us lay the mythical year 2000, and the 21st century. The time of science fiction.

With The Solus Project, I wanted to recreate that feeling of adventure and exploration. I wanted to reimagine the space age and the longing for the future. The Solus Project is a game about a journey through an alien world. You are the only survivor of the first spaceship to leave the solar system and you find yourself all alone on a strange planet. The world around you lives and breathes, and you are but a small part of this big and intriguing world where secrets, and danger, are found around every corner.

Q: Considering the story and the core mechanics, the setting seems crucial for The Solus Project. What can you tell us about the planet Gliese-6143-C?

Gliese-6143-C is a harsh and barren planet, covered by a vast ocean. It is a massive archipelago that experiences very warm days and very cold nights, and lots of storms. The planet is relatively young. Life on the planet is still in its early stages. Complex animal life exists in the ocean, but the fragmented landmass has prevented land-life from taking off so far. Islands are covered mostly in grass and moss. After having crash landed on a small island however, you soon find out that you do not seem to be the first intelligent being to have set foot on the planet. Something else has been here before. You discover huge megalithic alien structures similar to ancient structures found on Earth, and thousands of remains. Who were they? What happened to them? Are any of them still alive? Is what killed them still here? We designed Gliese-6143-C to present you with a beautiful alien world with magnificent sunsets and beaches, but beneath this otherworldly paradise looms a dark secret.

Q: The planet holds many surprises for those that are willing to search. Why was the inclusion of secret areas so important to this project?

We have many secret areas within secret areas in The Solus Project, something which we feel is crucial for an exploration game. The game also feels massive. The world of The Solus Project was designed to feel large and complex, thereby making you feel more insignificant and lonely. By having large and extensive secret areas to explore, the world is perceived as not just a background for a story, but a huge environment you are only discovering a tiny part of. And beyond that we also made this game as an ode to the FPS classics from the 90s, and secret areas are very much a part of those memorable experiences.

Q: Survival is at the core of The Solus Project, but it’s more about mastering the elements and your environment than taking down enemies. Why did you decide to design a game that placed the emphasis on exploration instead of action?

My background is in designing worlds and environments, so I wanted to create an experience that would utilize my strengths to the maximum. The game is about the world itself. It is about truly being on another planet, all by yourself. I wanted to achieve the best possible feeling of immersion and atmosphere possible in a virtual environment, and to do so we focused entirely on the planet. Rather than making yet another gun blazing hero tale, The Solus Project is about the journey of a lone survivor across an alien planet. That is not to say there are no dangers though, nature itself can be very unforgiving. From tornadoes to hail to snow to massive temperature changes, nature will pose a serious challenge to your survival. And you are not the first one to have set foot on the planet. Terrible things seem to have happened here in the past, and as a player you are left to wonder what killed everyone. The lack of weapons only contributes further to the unnerving feeling you have when exploring the dark deserted caverns and hallways beneath the surface.

Q: Atmosphere and immersion are everything in The Solus Project. How did Unreal Engine help you realize your creative vision?

The rendering capabilities of Unreal Engine 4 along with the powerful built-in tools such as Blueprint and the material editor are absolutely awesome. They allowed us to push the graphics to the maximum and really do justice to our concept of an alien planet in all its glory. We are running 60 FPS on a regular gaming PC with all details maxed out without having to make compromises to our vision or graphics quality. By utilizing Blueprint and many of the other tools we were able to easily bring our world to life, which has been a major part of building the immersion. A good example of that is the rising tide system we have, or how flowers close at night. Those things took just minutes to create, and the dozens of similar features we were able to easily implement contribute a ton to making the world feel as if it is truly alive and evolving over time.

Q: You’ve been rolling out large updates for The Solus Project since its initial release. How has Unreal Engine allowed you to quickly iterate when designing new content to share with the game’s community?

The Unreal Engine toolset is so mature and solid that we encountered very few issues that slowed down our production. That in combination with how powerful things like Blueprint are allowed us to churn out content at a consistently high pace. Blueprint allowed everyone on the team to participate in building out functionality. For example, Jonas, our audio guy, set up all of the sound and music logic in the game on his own, while being a composer and sound artist and not a programmer. We released the first version of The Solus Project in mid-February, and by June we had already extended the game with four expansions, taking the gameplay from 2 hours to 12+ hours in just three and a half months. There is really no way we could have done that without the stability and power of Unreal Engine 4.

Q: The team behind The Solus Project is rather small. Which aspects of Unreal Engine help you maximize your efforts to stay as efficient and effective as possible?

The core team behind The Solus Project is just six people. Every aspect of the Unreal Engine has allowed our small team to operate as though we were much bigger. From the general stability and maturity of the tools, to how Blueprint enabled our non-programmer developers to step in and take on part of the functionality development and  how the engine handles large and visually demanding games with ease. While originally started as a PC game, we got the game up and running on console in no time. We also found that VR was easy to implement. In addition, performance on all platforms and devices has been awesome. In VR for example we are rendering large outdoor environments that are fully dynamically lit, with little use of LODs, and lots of translucent surfaces from the waves and the fog in the world, and yet it is running at a solid framerate. It is amazing how much you can push the engine, and we wouldn't have been able to finish the game without being able to rely on the engine for performance in the way we've done.

Q: Which types of players do you think will most enjoy The Solus Project?

We are primarily aiming at 30+ year olds who want a deeply immersive experience to disappear in after a long day at work. People who've gone through the games in the 90s and have fond memories of the first big, story driven games they've played. Unreal and Myst have been major sources of inspiration, and we think fans of especially Unreal are going to love The Solus Project. Everything from having crash landed on an alien planet, to the dramatic skies, to the many dark caves and underground structures, were designed to take you back to the feeling you had when you played Unreal for the first time. Lots of references also to many other games and movies such as Half Life, Lost, Stargate and so on. The Solus Project is all about recapturing the sense of adventure you experienced when you were growing up. You can also scale the difficulty up or down at any point during the game. The fully configurable difficulty and the lack of combat allows you to play the story at your own pace. And you can play the entire story as either a male or female character.

Q: What are your ongoing and future plans for The Solus Project?

The full game will be released on Xbox One on July 15. Aside from that we also currently have work-in-progress Vive and Oculus support on PC, and we will continue on improving that in the weeks and months ahead. Right now the game is pretty much fully playable in VR from start to finish, but we are working on extending the support further so that you can actually press the buttons on the pocket computer you hold in your left hand, and we are working on a VR inventory menu. Since the game is all about immersion, playing it in VR is absolutely amazing.

Q: Which platforms is the game on and where should anyone interested in The Solus Project go to learn more about it?

The game is available on PC (Steam/GOG/Humble) and via Geforce Now. On Xbox One the game is currently available as part of the Preview program, with the full release following on July 15. Visit our webpage www.thesolusproject.com to find out more!