Fort Solis’ Game Director & Creator James Tinsdale Discusses All Things Sci-Fi, a Potential Sequel & More (EXCLUSIVE)

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We were lucky enough to speak to James Tinsdale, Game Director of Fort Solis, and Studio Director over at Fallen Leaf Studio about all things Fort Solis, the inspirations, the future, and much more besides.

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Full spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t yet played, or are yet to complete Fort Solis, take a second, go and play it – trust us – and then come back here and read the interview to gain some deeper knowledge of the game.

Fort Solis is an Immersive, Graphic, and Rollercoaster Netflix-like Video Game

Fort Solis
Fort Solis is a beautiful and harrowing tale.

Q. I described Fort Solis as an amalgamation of Death Stranding, Total Recall – the good one – and Sunshine, the 2007 sci-fi movie. Were any of those three films in any way, shape, or form an inspiration, or just a happy coincidence?

So I think more probably a happy coincidence. I have played Death Stranding, and I do love it, so maybe subconsciously, yes. It’s certainly imprinted in me. I love Total Recall anyway, don’t get me wrong. I suppose the Mars setting, maybe. The biggest thing we had was, my favorite film is The Thing, you know, John Carpenter, and I love Duncan Jones’ Moon, Alien as well.

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We had a really good discussion about the tunnel sequence in Chapter Three when he confronts Jess. Obviously, we wanted to catch Taylor in a lie, but we had that nice pause, we had the subtlety.

Not so much the monster, but the base itself, the ship essentially is a base, right? It’s that static location that can be both different, daunting, and surprising. So I think those three were probably the ones that we looked at. But there is a variety, because when you have a vision, you start, you welcome people onto the project who also have their own inspirations and thoughts, and take our art director, Mark, for instance, he’s big on Blade Runner, right? Denis Villeneuve. Yeah, Mark is super inspired by that guy, so he was probably a big influence on the art, you know?

So that’s kind of really where we started, and then it kind of evolved, you know, as we got deeper into the project. Things change, you know, when you sign, like, when Troy comes on board, all of a sudden, okay, we should elaborate on these scenes, we should have more because we have more, we have more to play with. And then all of a sudden, his inspirations and stuff come on board, right?

Q. Troy Baker, Roger Clarke, Julia Brown. How much did they bring to the project as individuals? How much did they shape it and their characters?

Yeah, each in a different measure, right? But it’s more of an elaborate process, a cleverer process because you know you can go one of two ways. When you’ve already got scripts and you’re already, going down a path, you can bring – I know Tarantino does this with his films – you can say, this is the script, this is the dialogue, this is what we’re doing. You know, and if you’re into it, you’re into it. We will not alter it. Or you can go the other way. I’ve made a lot of AAA games, you know, first party, but I really felt like this time, I wanted to collaborate and have input from people if they were passionate enough to offer it, right?

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You know, and Troy works on a lot of big titles. He’s worked with a lot of incredible creatives, right? So I was like, wow, I should be listening to this. You know, I should be listening and learning.

And then we went to shoot the mocap. I think that was probably the most collaborative of the experience because we all liked the script and the dialogue. Dialogue can change. The problem is when you’ve got an accent, sometimes the words on paper don’t fit, because the accent doesn’t really say it that way. So you can only change a line, right?

Fort Solis
One of many times you’ll be staring into space.

If you’re not from Yorkshire, I’m going to say a different, let’s say a line different to somebody who’s from South London, right? It’s very different and they wouldn’t say it that way. So you’ve got to be authentic to change the line. But I think the difference with Troy is, that he’d just, unbeknown to us, gone and shot The Last of Us to do his little bit in Canada for the series. So he came, he was already coming back with that kind of mindset. You know, he’d got into the character of Dave for the show. He was kind of a little bit evil, if you will, from filming those scenes and I think that really informed him about Wyatt Taylor and his motives.

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We had a really good discussion about the tunnel sequence in Chapter Three when he confronts Jess. Obviously, we wanted to catch Taylor in a lie, but we had that nice pause, we had the subtlety. Troy brought perhaps more disarming body language to the scene, which is hard to capture in a space suit, right? Because it’s really thick. So a little shrug like this isn’t going to do anything.

So you have to kind of be overboard, but also, you know, subtle. So I think that really helped. We had lots of discussions about Taylor and how animated he would be, and also how much of a toll these events would take on somebody, really? It’s like, at what point, how empathetic can he be? How remorseful is he in the moment? And how well does that play?

Roger was a bit different because he’s playing the protagonist, right? So you have to root for this guy. He pushes hard in a direction where you really want the player to root for him. He’s worth saving, you know? When he goes down, you think, I want to go and get him, and he can’t just be one level of boring, if that makes sense, just yes or no character. Not just a simple NPC protagonist.

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We had to have the dialogue with Jess really do world-building, but also character-building within the same line. So that was quite a challenge. I think we spent a lot of time with Roger and Julia sort of getting the chemistry together. So it feels natural. It feels like a conversation you could have with a partner or a friend, you know? You’ve probably made the same jokes or you’ve heard the same jokes, and it doesn’t sound like we’re ticking all the Marvel boxes.

They all brought a lot to it. And more than I thought, I thought when we cast them, I thought they would… Obviously, they’re awesome to work with and they bring a lot, but they’re very busy, right? So they’ve got other projects and some stuff going on. So, but then I’d get a message in the middle of the night, ideas about a line or a script shows you they’re still thinking about it. They care about the material.  And I think we all shine in the game because of it, right? Certainly, our animation and our art brings it to life, but they just, they were so… You can tell they’re such good performances, I think, just from listening, you know?

Fort Solis
Don’t look behind the curtain.

Q. There are no loading screens, no heads-up display, nothing. It’s very immersive, but how did you balance the immersion and direct players still?

You know, we sat down, we all knew some people would be unhappy with that lack of mechanics, or they wouldn’t, and that’s fine. They’re allowed to have that reaction, of course. But the people that we really wanted to engage with in essentially participating in a Netflix show. Like I always say, the example we gave in the office was Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House, and I asked you to take the main character of the show, walk in the house, and eventually see all the ghosts and all that kind of stuff.

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Now, you wouldn’t have much gameplay there, right? You’d just be interacting, you’d be walking around, which is exactly what the show does, but now you’re doing it. So you feel more involved, you feel more immersed. And I think that was something we wanted to get across. And I think in a few years’ time, you’ll see bigger examples of what we’ve done in bigger games because I think there is an audience for that.

And as graphics improve, and fidelity improves, you can translate performances really well into the game, right? It was like The Last of Us, incredible voice performances, but the character models themselves are not based on the same mocap. It’s very differently done. They’re improving all the time, but on that level of scale, you wouldn’t get that level of performance because it costs you so much money.

10 years later, The Last of Us 2, the mocap’s incredible, right? That’s just a 10-year gap. So you’re gonna see, who knows what they do in the future, but the AAA studios are adapting it more, which means the AA studios probably do more similar to what we did. So I don’t mind, in that sense so much, going back to the UI, removing that. Because it really was a case of like, this is for somebody that watches Netflix shows, or Amazon, or just likes to binge with a partner.

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That was our aim anyway, so we tried to keep it as immersive as possible. There’s a fine line between jump scares and having them with them, are people just waiting for them if you have them? How much atmosphere does it weigh on people? Do the events themselves become more intensive if there are fewer of them, right?

Originally we had a few more confrontations, but then it’s just too many and you don’t get the intensity of the scene if you see him every five minutes. Now you know something’s going to happen, because when he’s on screen, something is, you know, okay, what’s up? Something’s going to happen now. We don’t play around with it, we don’t play with it.

I always envisaged if I was going to do a second one, Jack’s on the run in Centrepoint and you’re playing a detective chasing him, thinking he’s killed Jess and he has to prove his innocence. 

He wouldn’t wait, he wouldn’t say anything. He panics because she goes to hit the button knowing Jack’s going to escape, and he just reacts. He’s holding an axe. So when you react with an axe, you just kill her, right? And I was like, and it keeps that same level of intensity, right, throughout the game. And we wanted that to be something that perhaps would hit home with players. The absence makes the immediate more important, right?

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Fort Solis
Wyatt Taylor… Savior of the Earth or crazed murderer?

Q. With the way the game ends it can be viewed as both a definitive ending and also open-ended, so what’s the plan going forward? Are you intending to keep it standalone, letting it breathe? Or are you looking to expand the universe? Are we seeing more of Jack?

Yeah, we have multiple different paths we can go as a studio. So, a sequel is always something you plan for when you create an IP. Obviously, there’s a business element to it. You don’t just create IP and leave it. You know, it’s commercial. So few indies release a game to actually get to the end, right? So to release a commercially viable IP is something you need to support, especially when people get attached to it, right? They want to see more. They’re willing to help support more. So that gives you a very easy path to making a sequel when the publishers are growing an IP.

Or do you take the lessons you’ve learned and tell a story differently with us? On a bigger scale, it’s very difficult because you have to make that choice. I always envisaged if I was going to do a second one, – have you seen a film called The Fugitive? -, Jack’s on the run in Centrepoint and you’re playing a detective chasing him, thinking he’s killed Jess and he has to prove his innocence. And it’s, you know, set in a big BladeRunner-style city and there’s obviously more action, more budget, stuff like that. That would be a really cool sequel, I think. Then we can bring Roger back and do all that. Or do we go and tell the story in a new world with new characters and a completely different focus?

There’s always a challenge when you make games because do my staff want to spend four more years on sci-fi? Do they want a break? You know, do they want to do something that otherwise is different? You know, a lot of discussions to be had as we go into pre-production, but we’ve not decided yet. But we will see. We will see. And we will certainly support Fort Solis over the next few years anyway.

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Wyatt’s actually trying to break in and open the door, so it’s the axe marks, but he’s trying to break in because Nick won’t let him have access.

Q. You say you’re going to support Fort Solis, for at least the next couple of years. Now, do you just mean updates, downloadable content, expansions, or all of the above?

Well, it’ll be predominantly patches for now, and then we’ll bring it to other systems. So it’ll be Xbox next year. Some future consoles, which I can’t tell you about that aren’t announced yet. So like, we’ll be doing, yeah, we’ll be doing a range of console support, right? Bringing it to different consoles. We’ve announced the Mac version, so that’ll be coming out.

Then we’ll look at content. You know, probably next year, because content takes time. We have to mocap it, we have to think about what it is. Do people want a pre-chapter? Do they want a post-chapter? You know what? So maybe we could do it, but we’ll see. I don’t know in what form at the moment. Again, it’s not really planned. Probably something we’ll look at in January, and see how we wanna progress that. And we’ll hopefully bring it to as many platforms as we can in the next 12 months, so other audiences can play it and see it, basically.

Q. Did you have to cut anything or lose anything from any of the versions because of hardware restrictions or time restrictions that in retrospect you wish you could have kept?

Yeah, absolutely. Like, we had a lot of mirrors in the game, but then ray tracing doesn’t work anymore. So we had to take the mirrors out. We had a few jump scares in mirrors that we had to take out. We had sort of our web partitions streaming issues that we had. Had to change the scale of the locations.

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We had to change some of our asset renderings ahead of time to have it in one take because Unreal 5 wasn’t quite there yet. Obviously, it is now in 5.3, but we had to make quite a lot of compromises to choose to work with a new engine, but we knew that when we made the choice. But yeah, absolutely. There are lots of things you thought you could do, but you’d plan to see in a certain different way. And it’s ultimately, as a professional developer, you can’t become attached to what we call cloud ideas. It’s the reality of what you ship. If you don’t, you can have the best idea in the world, but if it doesn’t fit within the confines of the tech, you can’t do it.

So, and it’s not just that, it’s time, right? Okay, we’ve got four characters in this scene. I’m like, well, then we need 10 animators, six months, and more mo-cap budgets. You can’t do everything, so you have to figure out, content-wise, what works best within your realm, if you will. And then you’ve got the technical constraints on top. And it’s about being professional and shipping something that’s complete and done well with those considerations already made that the public will never know. They’re just seeing it at face value.

When they buy the game, it’s like, this is the game we’re buying, and off we go, right? They don’t care. But with every game, you’re building crumple zones. You make gold, silver, and bronze tiers of what you can achieve quality-wise and content-wise, and you work within those. Usually, you land around silver. Very few games ship everything gold, but it does happen. There’s loads of content on the shop floor, if you will, that we could use, that we use, or even do a special edition with. So we will see down the line. We’ll save that for a rainy day. I know we’re planning behind-the-scenes stuff where we show off additional footage and stuff we did.

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Fort Solis
Red and moody, approach with caution.

Q. You mentioned a potential special edition. Did I just hear ‘Director’s Cut’?

Yeah, I’m sure. A year from now, we’d love to do something like that. I also would not just put out the same game with a different name. It’d have to have a good amount of content that’s viable to people, especially for those who have already bought the game already. I’d certainly like to do it as an upgrade, you know, like a fiver (£5) and you get a new game, if you will. If you’ve already bought the game, I’d publish it like a series.

I mean, if it’s worth people’s time. Time is the most important thing we have. Which goes back to Taylor, right? Like all you have is time. If we can’t do it, I won’t do it. You know, if it’s worthwhile and it adds a lot of weight to the game and a lot of extra content, then let’s do it. But if not, I’m perfectly proud. I’m very proud of what we put out. So I think it’s quite complete as it is, at least in our minds.

Q. I will end this interview with a question that has burned me ever since I’ve played the game. Was there an alien or some sort of creature on that planet?

No, so we joke about that because we had to have some kind of Alien-like jokes in the game, right? So what actually is, is Wyatt’s actually trying to break in and open the door, so it’s the axe marks, but he’s trying to break in because Nick won’t let him have access. So it looks like claw marks, even though Taylor knows it’s him. And Nick’s paranoid because some of his staff have alien rocks and stuff in their rooms, and they’re like believers. So even the rock and the claw marks on the rock in the room, everything like that, it’s like kind of when Nick’s like, “look, come on, guys, there’s no aliens walking around outside, come on.” but there’s no CCTV on that ramp, right? So like, you can’t see Taylor, which is why he’s trying to break in.

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It’s all there, I guess if you look at it, but it’s just kind of like, you know, obscure jokes, if you will, at that point, about alien controversy and conspiracy, because at that point, if you were on Mars, if me and you worked on Mars, we’d be like, “there must be something on this planet. And we’ve got a city down the road where we live, working on this base, there must be something here.”.

You’d be paranoid, you would think there has to be, you would think there’s no way we can get off our rock, land on this rock, live on this rock, and there’s nothing here, like, come on. But no, there’s no actual alien in the game yet. Well, who knows, I’ll go back to Total Recall, like you said, what if you get to Centerpoint and there are loads of alien people walking around? True. And it’s all mingled, you never know. We’ve seen one small part of Mars. We might end up seeing a bigger part.

There we have it, that’s our interview with James Tinsdale, talking all things Fort Solis, Alien, and many more sci-fi inspirations and settings. What do you think? Have you played Fort Solis? Let us know what you think of the game and of the interview in the comments!

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Written by Luke Addison

Articles Published: 432

Luke Addison is the Lead Video Game Critic and Gaming Editor. As likely to be caught listening to noughties rock as he is watching the latest blockbuster cinema release, Luke is the quintessential millennial wistfully wishing after a forgotten era of entertainment. Also a diehard Chelsea fan, for his sins.

Twitter: @callmeafilmnerd