Image courtesy of Heart Machine

Solar Ash delivers a colorful, kinetic journey augmented by the power of scale

Brian Crecente |
February 2, 2022
Alx Preston, studio and creative director at Heart Machine, is an artist, first and foremost, who seeks to express himself through games, a medium so complex and challenging that only the truly determined/mad/angry at themselves would pursue a career in it long-term. And yet, here we are, some eight odd years later, after the Kickstarter campaign that launched Hyper Light Drifter, a game with measured success and "bleak" written all over it.

Heart Machine has grown a fair bit over the years, and he credits that to the kind people who decide they want to lend their time and talents to the wild whisperings of a starry-eyed cave dweller.
Think of Solar Ash as a sort of spiritual successor to Hyper Light Drifter. Both are colorful, explorative action games by developer Heart Machine, which—while they may share some form of distant related universe—are connected in different ways. 
 
It's not story, worlds, or characters that bond the two together, but style, tone, and atmosphere. Where Hyper Light Drifter saturates its contemplative RPG gameplay in a pixelated palette of vivid colors, Solar Ash delivers vibrant swirls of kinetic exploration on the skates of Voidrunner Rei. Both are powered by Heart Machine's artful touch and creative director Alx Preston's own desire to navigate trauma. This latest creation is described by the Epic Games Store as “Jet Set Radio meets Shadow of the Colossus, with a bit of Super Mario Galaxy mixed in.”
 
We chatted with Preston about the game's personal and canonical inspirations, how Unreal Engine helped give life to Rei's fluid gameplay, and why he's so happy with how the game's clouds turned out.
 

Hyper Light Drifter is a very personal sort of game; one that you've said tells a story that is a metaphor for some of the health issues you've struggled with your entire life. You said the game is meant to be more reflective and focused on progress. How does it reflect your journey since the release of Hyper Light Drifter?
 
Alx Preston, studio and creative director at Heart Machine: I'm a flawed person, and my trauma continues to pull me back down, but I keep pushing forward regardless. Solar Ash has allowed me to push past more of that than usual, grow creatively as a leader, and clarify the paths I need to take to improve myself personally, the work I do, and the studio we all are building together.
Image courtesy of Heart Machine
Narratively, you've said that both Hyper Light Drifter and Solar Ash take place in the same universe, though they're not directly tied to one another. What does that mean in terms of how players should try to connect the stories, settings, characters, and creatures?

Preston:
It's more of a silly comment I made in that it can be a galaxy or ten away type of universe. Really though, what's important is that you'll see how this is a Heart Machine game—the connective tissues between the games may not be direct in the sense of continuity with story and worlds and characters, but the style, the atmosphere, the tone, the importance of game feel will all be familiar to those who have played Drifter.

This is Heart Machine's second game, and it makes the leap from 2D action role-playing to 3D action platformer. What spurred the decision to make that jump?

Preston:
We wanted to create a much larger, freer, and more believable world to get lost in. Because Drifter was more constrained in a lot of ways, we wanted to be able to go pretty wild on our character control with Solar Ash and to open up the pacing of gameplay.

Hyper Light Drifter is very reminiscent of 8-bit and 16-bit games, and you've noted in the past the influence The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Diablo had on the game. What aesthetic approach did you take with Solar Ash, and are there any particular games that influence the game's design or look?

Preston:
Lots of games and media inspire us, of course, though for specific games, Mario Galaxy, Jet Set Radio, and Shadow of the Colossus are the top comparisons for design; Jet Set, Gigantic, and Breath of the Wild were all parts of our inspiration on the visuals as well, though MANY amazing artists also inspire further.
Image courtesy of Heart Machine
When shifting to a focus on platforming, what sorts of design choices did you make to nail the fluid feel of combat and movement in Solar Ash?
 
Preston:
As a team, we all care a lot about the impact and weight of character movement. So, three big elements help to nail that feel:
 
Animation—we're all big nerds for animation. We care about the weight of things; the impact, the elegance, and animation, when done well really, help to sell these elements of "game feel" to the player.
 
Getting a freeform camera to make that speed and agility feel natural and not sickening since we also have wild gravity changes at times in the game! Between all the different angles, types of collision, and optimizations, it was an immense coordinated effort to weave it all together.
 
Not stopping—we tried to make sure the player could really keep pushing forward as often as they wanted, without having to stop and get bogged down in key action sequences or traversal moments. That means you have to have attacks that move with you instead of stopping you in your tracks. Same for any vertical traversal with the grapple or runs on the bodies of these mega creatures.
Image courtesy of Heart Machine
Rei's design is striking; she looks like a watercolor in motion at times. How did you come up with that look?
 
Preston:
So much iteration, careful consideration, concepts, and experiments! We have immensely talented artists, technical artists, VFX artists, and graphics programming people that all contributed to an incredible look across the board to make it all look as good as it feels. So super proud of the team on this front (and every front)!
 
What were you hoping to achieve with the enemy design, and how did they scale up to such mammoth proportions? What drove that design decision?
 
Preston:
A strong desire to make the player feel small. If you're trapped in these cycles, you often feel confused, lost, helpless. So, conveying that in-game can be a challenge. What tools do you have to push on these feelings to instill in the player these sensations and emotions? Scale was one of the major tools to make you feel just as powerless and meaningless as you did powerful at times.
 
What made you decide to develop this game with Unreal Engine, and how has that impacted the game's design?
 
Preston:
Open source is super important to us, great support across the community, and at Epic, the powerful nature of the tool(s), and the team members who had a lot of experience in the engine that can work efficiently across several platforms.
Image courtesy of Heart Machine
Solar Ash features absolutely stunning vistas and level design. What inspired those landscapes, and how did Unreal Engine help you achieve your vision for them?
 
Preston:
We pulled inspiration from our lives, from art we love, from anime, games, and movies! Everywhere we can, as artists, things will influence and inspire. Unreal was easy to work with and allowed many members to grow with the nature of building materials and the ease of use of it all. Plus, being able to modify the heck out of it allowed us to do wild things with the rendering pipeline that otherwise would have been a major challenge.
 
Is there any particular gameplay or visual elements of your game's design you'd like to call out to explain how it was achieved? If so, please do.
 
Preston:
Oh! The SDF clouds are amazing! Signed Distance Fields allowed us to render out these volumetric clouds that react to the player and the monsters that traverse them. When you see it in action, it's wild! One of my favorite unique pieces of kit visually and an incredible achievement for the engineers + artists + designers that worked the heck out of that system.
 
What excites you and your team the most about the long-term possibilities of next-gen hardware and Unreal Engine?
 
Preston:
Flexibility, scalability, and stability. Really simple stuff, honestly. We aren't interested in triangle counts or photoreal rendering, but Unreal still allows us to dig in deep on the rendering side and do what we need to while still being relatively stable and flexible on so many platforms.
 
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Heart Machine and Solar Ash?
 
Preston:
Thank you for doing this piece! You can follow us on social media @HeartMachineHQ or visit our website https://heartmachine.com/

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