Activism isn’t something that gets much of a platform in video games. Road 96, 1979 Revolution and Homefront have let us experience revolutions both fictional and non-fictional, but we haven’t had much chance to explore the activism that led to them. Which is a surprise, in a way, as it’s so ripe for conflict. Do you protest peacefully or violently? How can you overcome odds that are so clearly stacked against you?
Solace State is a full-throated attempt to remedy the lack of games on the topic. While it’s a visual novel set in the imagined city of Abraxa, in a near-future that might tease at words like ‘cyberpunk’, it’s very clearly a fable for our times. Everything that happens in Solace State – give or take some neural hacking – could very well be applied to the problems we face. Corporate overreach, and governmental sponsoring of it, gets the full treatment here.
Solace State follows a woman named Chloe, who has particular talents in iconohacking. She can quite literally read people like a book, bringing up data that they have accessed, information they’re aware of, and – on the odd occasion – access their personal reactions to topics. In the past, she’s been exploited for this ability, but now she knows well enough to keep it hidden.
Keeping off the grid is challenging when someone you love has gone missing. Rebecka, a childhood friend, has gone, and it looks like the megacorp NEXIR may be responsible. Rebecka is manager for a pop starlet named Safore, and they’ve both been involved with an activist organisation that has been investigating NEXIR. A meeting with a whistleblower seems to have gone wrong, and your ability to ransack people’s minds will be invaluable to find out how.
What plays out is a thoroughly modern narrative played out with extreme confidence. The writing treats the reader with complete respect, expecting them to follow and understand some dense dialogue that covers wide-ranging themes, some personal and emotionally intelligent, and some that dallies with politics, the right to protest, and some science-fiction stuff. It’s intelligent, complex and rich as the darkest coffee. It’s brilliant, and leagues better than the usual visual novel fluff we often see on the Xbox Store.
It took us a little while to get to that opinion. The characters are all boringly gorgeous and mid-twenties, as if someone just scooped up some models from a GQ shoot. Solace State is also prone to overdoing it a bit, producing dense passages of world-building that can be hard to parse, and that’s most true in the opening moments. And it’s a bit of an activism fairy tale, as we had a similar reaction to the film How to Blow Up a Pipeline: it’s good versus pure evil, with activists who are rarely wrong and whose actions only get scuppered in ways they can immediately counter.
These flaws are kinks that get ironed out, mostly through sheer force of quality. So much of Solace State, from the writing to the music to the character art, is immaculate, which means you focus less on the issues. And Solace State gives in to its own momentum; it doesn’t get bogged down in worldbuilding and lets the propulsive narrative carry it.
Screenshots don’t really do Solace State justice. You can probably get a sense for the precise character art which manages to generate huge amounts of character from a single lifted eyebrow. But the real star is the city of Abraxa. Solace State turns it into a cardboard diorama, a large-scale model of a near-future metropolis. Then the camera swings through the city, munching through buildings like Pac-Man, hungrily looking for the characters of its story. This kinetic cinematography manages to make a very talky game seem like it’s an action movie.
The soundtrack is up for the comparison too. It’s got the pulse and throb of an Atticus Ross score, and gives Solace State a sheen that few visual novels can achieve. Presentationally, this is top, top drawer.
We keep comparing Solace State to movies because that is largely what it is, and we suspect that it will come in for criticism because of it. It’s got two hurdles for you to overcome. It doesn’t look much like a visual novel in the conventional sense, with its western-style animation and dynamic shots, which might confuse anyone who arrives from a trailer or screenshots. And it makes the mistake of promising gameplay when it doesn’t actually abide that sort of thing.
Chloe’s iconohacking is carefully tutorialised and looks like it might be intricate. You get to hack the occasional technocrat and delve into their memories. An interface pops open where you can choose to use the information in two or more ways. There’s a choice on information too, so there’s the illusion that the choice will be important. But, at least in our case, the choices were no more knotty or interesting than the ones you get in dialogue. Most of the time, you can iconohack every hacking option without fear of running out of time, so it’s the equivalent of reading some books. The promise of a step-up in gameplay never really coalesces.
Again, it annoyed us at first, and then we settled back into a strong rhythm. Once we realised that iconohacking is just a fancy set of dialogue trees, we could shrug and enjoy Solace State for what it is: a stupendously made visual novel, with all of the simplistic gameplay that entails. And there are plenty of different endings, as you would expect from the genre.
We had a deep love for Solace State. It didn’t dumb itself down. It invited us into the inner circle of an activist group and expected us to sort through its many threads. Would we be violent, political or organise the masses? No choice is easy, no consequence is expected. To enjoy it, all you need to do is understand that this is very much a visual novel, lacking in anything that looks like gameplay. Oh, and switch your brain on. You’ll be needing it.