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"We egg each other on like teenagers designing an unsafe skateboard trick." How Aether Interactive is able to launch two games in a month

I've maintained for quite a while that the folks at Aether Interactive are doing some of the most interesting work in interactive fiction ever. Their games repeatedly play with both the structure and interface of the genre in ways that should impress even the most cynical IF-hater. Recently the word wizards at Aether surprise-launched their newest game Sol Hemochroma and announced a full launch for their previously exclusive Subserial Network. The whole Aether crew came together to chat about launching two games in a month, and how their work is growing with experience. 

Alright, let’s cover the basics: Who are you, and what is Aether Interactive?

Matilde: I’m Matilde Park, and I like to make experimental, narrative-driven games. I’ve only ever worked in Twine, but we’ll see how far that keeps taking us…

Penelope: I’m Penelope Evans and I like to make sticky unpleasant games about the boundaries and constraints of being alive.

Matilde: Aether Interactive is the company we founded in 2017 – Aether Interactive is the name of the company that made the fake JRPG game Arc Symphony, in our Arc Symphony. So we made it the real company, we made it so Aether Interactive also made the real Arc Symphony. The two of us own the company, and from there we work with collaborators. Artists, musicians, technologists, producers. We both wear a lot of hats on our projects, but by and large our biggest talent is our narrative chemistry and our combination of sensibilities and backgrounds. We’ve started to work pretty consistently with Sarah Mancuso as a composer, too, and it’s been really great.

You just launched a game called Sol Hemochroma, what exactly is it?

Matilde: Sol Hemochroma is an adaptation of an abandoned screenplay that Penny found in our student newspaper basement. It allows you to guide this movie about four teens in Canadian suburbia encountering the terrible alchemy of municipal politics. Wait, sorry. “and”. Terrible alchemy and municipal politics.

Sol Hemochroma isn’t the only game you’re releasing this month, you’re also launching Subserial Network on September 17. How are these two games coming out so close together? Are these projects related?

Matilde: We made Subserial Network predominantly over the first five months of 2018, and it was our first time working with a publisher. Part of our agreement with the publisher was 90 days of exclusivity with them. So we made Sol Hemochroma within that 90 day period to really change things up. We had a script we found that we wanted to really adapt into something good, so we took the little period as a challenge for ourselves.

I feel like Aether has become thought of as being inherently technological or robotic, but it’s because we had a fixation going on for a few games of that intersection between, like, trans experience and synthetic personhood.

Penelope: Many of our meetings involve me suggesting something is impossible or inadvisable under timeline or tech restraints and then Mat and I egg each other on like two teenagers designing an unsafe skateboard trick and then I wake up and we made a video game.

Subserial Network was originally released as part of a bundle, what has changed from that version to the full release?

Matilde: Well, we’re just going back after this break and doing some more polish, evening out some of the pacing based on the feedback from the public. Subserial Network is really experimental – it’s like, telling a story through Outlook and Netscape, basically, and setting up what the player knows, what the player’s agency is, and their personal feeling of progression between those interfaces (and the changes to the interface and rethinking the interface as the game goes on) needs tinkering.

I also wanted to do some additions to the last two acts of the game to make use of the stuff we set up. I feel like we did a good job teaching the player, but I also wanted to really challenge them, too. The game is also, however, pretty long as it is!

Penelope: More fanfiction.

Each of your games takes place in a different time period. Why do y’all keep changing the setting like this?

Matilde: You should hear about the next one! Penny and I kind of get excited about story ideas when we get together, and we just chase them down as far as possible. Like, I read TV Tropes regularly, even now … Penelope’s been writing 750 words or whatever every single day for like a decade or something. She’s written like 25 novels. We just like to do our takes on different genres and traditions and then sometimes sort of subvert the expectations of one, too. We come at stories from a different perspective, I think; we’re often not that interested in representation for representation’s sake so much as having queer, trans perspective absolutely transform the narrative and the structure. To rethink the origins of experiences that first formed those genres. We have lives that are at odds with those traditions. So turning them on their head is also, coincidentally, interesting and satisfying!

Penelope: We go very quick about writing something so we hung on the robot concepts for a lot of content. There was a lot to explore there. And yeah we’re both TV Tropes people, we grew up on a lot of similar web content. I think we each have an invisible list of stories we want to play with, and we’re still working out how much those lists overlap.

Sol Hemochroma has a really distinct visual and audio personality. How did you go about crafting this sense of aesthetic?

Penelope: it was kind of a pipe dream of mine to work with Joan Chung (the character artist for Sol Hemochroma) — I’d seen her work at a con once and was just totally enamoured. I wanted a really striking aesthetic, a style you don’t see much of in games, and she really delivered. We worked a slightly untenable timeline so we brought in Allison for background work and she did an absolute feat of production.

Joan: From the very beginning, Matilde and Penny’s intention was to make a game that felt like a lost letter. We wanted the game to look like a crumpled piece of paper that was laid out and reassembled, and was ready to read.

This is my interpretation, but as we approached the story, I felt as if we were looking at a memory that was ingrained in the mesh of human consciousness, and it was a little old. Maybe a couple of decades. The sentiment behind the story felt...real, aged, maybe vintage, but more like a cinema of horror class with a room of seventeen year olds who knew more than they let on. And were a little ironic, or punk-y about it. We talked about this in the beginning - the kids wear outfits from a punk movement in the 1970s, and the spirit of that era accounts for most of how the characters turned out.

From there, the visual aesthetic was easy to craft. I used a lot of paper textures and made sure that the characters felt aligned to the intent of Penny and Matilde’s writing. My style is a mix of manga and western sci-fi comics and it felt like - when Penny found me, that Aether Interactive knew what kind of artist they were looking for, and we jived very well, creatively. It was almost absurdly easy to connect with their sense of aesthetics. The visual personality formed naturally.

The bulk of the backgrounds were done by our layout artist, Allison Lownie, who did a great job. I only drew two of the backgrounds, but what was important was to think of them like storyboards, or like flash cards. They were meant to feel like quiet, quick impressions that one of the characters might have drawn if they wanted to remember what happened on the day of the game.

Sarah Mancuso (Sol Hemochroma’s composer): Sol Hemochroma is a project that came together extremely quickly (two months production time!), so thinking back on its production and development is something of a blur.

A wide range of different ideas were considered for the soundtrack during pre-production: at one point it was going to be focused on solo piano, and at another it was going to be all analog synth sounds. At one point I had proposed using OPL FM synthesis a la early PC games, when we were considering an entirely different visual aesthetic. Eventually, Matilde came up with the idea of a dreamy 80s guitar soundtrack and got really excited about that approach, so that’s the one that ended up sticking. I really love dreamy guitar pop, myself, so it was fun to get to write a whole bunch of it for this!

Once we had an overall direction set, it was still something of a challenge to figure out exactly what to do with it. I had some loose descriptions and a handful of reference material (Memory Tapes, The Cure, John Carpenter), but it felt like we were in somewhat uncharted territory here as far as translating that into a visual novel soundtrack. To some extent I had to just trust my own assumptions about what would work best. I recall one point early in development when I was second-guessing myself about the music, worrying about whether I was on the same page as everyone else, Matilde reassured me to “Trust Sarah. I do.”

The first song to be written was Philosophy, or rather, the first minute of it. It had completely different percussion and the dreamy chord strums weren’t there yet, and I could tell that things just weren’t right yet. Antimony was the next to be written, and it set the tone for much of the rest of the soundtrack. Once I went back to Philosophy and made some changes with Antimony in mind, the overall direction started to materialize and make sense to me.

Writing so much music in two months was a challenge nonetheless, especially coming right off the heels of Subserial Network and some concurrent work I had been doing for other game studios. I think the most difficult point was when I tried out three or four completely different possibilities for the second half of Litharge before finally coming up with one that felt right to me.

In the midst of my Litharge struggle, Matilde asked me if I could write an explosive album opener for Trituration, the intro theme, and that was evidently just the direction I needed to propel myself out of my creative slump. I took some inspiration from Chris Slusarenko’s work on the Carbon Whales song “The Jeep” to have it kick in with a big arpeggiated lead melody. Reprising it at the end for Dissolution was also Matilde’s suggestion and tied things together nicely, I think!

By contrast Subserial is much more reserved as a virtual desktop. What about these games made you want to make such different UI’s?

Matilde: Subserial’s look was meant to blur the frame between your computer and the game. The goal was that you had to start using your computer to play the game in its own way. We’d get this comment during beta testing where people wouldn’t know how to navigate by keyword without writing down the keywords for reference, so they’d have to open Notepad and write it down in there, and they were like, “Can you make a new window to put information in?” Well, that’s the whole point! You have to open some other program to solve the problem. That’s how Subserial works. There’s always information to salvage with your own tools outside the “game’s borders”.

And once you really learn that during the game’s playthrough, what a game is sort of gets pushed open a little bit further, as cliché as it is to say. It’s that concept that really first excited me and made me want to make Subserial. I thought it was a really intuitive idea, but also a really challenging one at the same time.

Sol Hemochroma is meant to be really material, organic. It’s meant to look like pieces of paper in layers, so it has this crisp, black and white, parallax thing going on. The VN format and the look of a storyboard can have a lot in common … that was our whole guess, anyway!

Finally, if people haven’t checked out an Aether Interactive game before, what should they know about these games?

Matilde: When I direct games, I try to think of them as something you spend a night with, get a personalised experience with, bring your own baggage with, and then have something to talk about after. They aren’t places to live within like Fallout or Skyrim. They’re places to live in like a movie, like a visit. They make a really clear image, they have a really clear message to impart, or questions to ask, and there usually isn’t any moral answer. There’s just what you think of what occurred. I really like thinking of them like movies. That really fits the scale we work at, since we make games quickly, with the scope of a feature-length film (or a mini-series, at most).

Penelope: I think our games are reliably sad, visceral, complex and loving. Aether tries to evoke a really strong sense of memory, usually memories unfamiliar to you—experiences from a life you half-lived, or never lived, or can’t even imagine. To me our games are returning to a place in your mind and dwelling there for a while, regardless of whether that place existed before you started playing.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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