Solace is a side-scrolling platformer. Or, it could be action-adventure and exploration. Maybe it's a sim for raising unique pets.
Solace is all of these things while simultaneously being none of them, because it's a game that doesn't actually exist. Atlanta-based musician Judson "Tettix" Cowan created a soundtrack and concept art for a game he never intends to make. Although he has a clear vision for how the game would play, it differs wildly from what other people imagine. Solace, it turns out, is a lot like a Rorschach in gaming form.
Cowan intended for his nonexistent game to be ambiguous and mysterious, but he enjoys the changing form new people give it. Some say it's like a scripted film, where others imagine jumping between the x and y axis of the game's backgrounds. Others liken it to 2D side-scroller Aquaria, or give it Metroidvania elements. It's a completely different interpretation, Cowan said — and that's incredibly cool. Accompanied by 22 different tracks and 22 images, Solace is the kind of game that Cowan, as a musician, could never build any other way.
"I'm so enamored with games, but I don't really have the technical skill to make one," Cowan said. "This is the closest I could get — [an] interesting experiment in exploring what exactly defines a game. Does it really need to have gameplay to be entertaining?"
In this way, Cowan is not alone. Titles like Ed Key's Proteus push the boundaries of what people define as games, sparking some to define an "anti-game" or a "non-game." In a way, Solace is a game of imagination.
"It feels like a child. You don't want to let your kid go. You don't want to see it grow up into something terrible."
"Spoiler alert, if you wanted it to be a mystery," Cowan said. "I had really lofty ambitions for it. It's kind of a non-existent genre of game — like a big eco system where every creature you see in each of the artworks is a different player."
Cowan's version of Solace, the musician says, would be a lot like a massively multiplayer role-playing game. It combines the ambient multiplayer of games like Journey or Dark Souls, where a player has only simple tools to communicate, and the exploration element of a Metroidvania title. Players roam the world of Solace looking for materials to evolve their characters. Permadeath is ever present, and players must be careful about where they explore or who they trust. Wander too far and you could end up in a scuffle with someone twice your strength.
Interaction, though limited to basic gestures or sounds, is another key element. Players can choose to either work together to evolve into greater beings, or stab each other in the back to upgrade faster. The only way around losing everything upon death is to find what Cowan calls anchors. Anchors are collectible items that allow players to build upon their former stats. They can be applied to evolutionary charts, which will respawn each new creature with specific abilities. The goal is to make each run easier while simultaneously delving into dangerous new territory.
"I liked the idea of this world where exploration became either opened up or limited by the upgrades you've garnered," Cowan said. "If your character got too big, you couldn't fit down small tunnels anymore, and an entire portion of the world became off from you. You couldn't stay safe from larger enemies anymore, because you couldn't hide in tunnels. The interaction between players has always been interesting to me, and I think that's where the genesis started."
Each piece of Solace was created with these elements in mind. Cowan first came up with the idea for the game, then "built from the music up." When that was complete, he created concept art for each individual track. The headphones went on, the song looped and Cowan sketched the humble outlines that would color his world's personality and characters.
Still, Cowan is adamant that Solace will never see the light of day as a playable game. Not today, not tomorrow and not even as a Kickstarter. It's easy to piece together snippets, like he's done, but nailing down an entire world is difficult. And even if Cowan could find the right people to help him put it together, he still wouldn't bite.
"I wouldn't want to half-ass it," Cowan said. "It's very close for me, and I wouldn't want to let it out if it wasn't going to be exactly as I'd imagined it. It feels like a child. You don't want to let your kid go. You don't want to see it grow up into something terrible."
Solace exists today as it will forever: as pieces of vibrant concept art, complimented by haunting and beautiful musical gasps. It's available for free to whoever wants it.
"I kind of like the magic of it not being a real thing," Cowan said. "It'll never be a real thing. There's something's interesting about that."