[Our correspondent Ian Adams spoke with the student team behind the musical shoot 'em up Solace about the game's unusual concept, independent development, and the team's aspirations after graduating from DigiPen.]

Developed by four DigiPen students as a sophomore project, free-to-download PC indie game Solace combines the core elements of arcade shoot 'em ups with a carefully constructed musical score that syncs with the game's on-screen events.

While the game plays very much like a traditional arcade shooter, every shot the player fires plays a unique musical note, which allows the player to control an increasingly complex soundtrack through his or her actions.

The game's levels are based on psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief, with each level in the game featuring unique visual, musical, and interactive elements that correspond to a level of the Kubler-Ross model.

The game won in several categories at the 2010 DigiPen Game Awards, including best music and most innovative design, and has been featured in indie games showcases including the PAX 10 and IndieCade.

Gamasutra spoke with the student team behind the game to discuss its unusual concept, its independent development, and the team's aspirations after graduating from DigiPen:

Can you describe the game?

Daniel Rosas: Our game is Solace. It's basically a music-based top-down shooter, so every single bullet that gets shot plays a music note. Basically, as more enemies come in, more instruments will be added to the soundtrack, and you just create this huge symphony of sound as you’re playing through the game.

The game is sort of "bullet hell" style, which, to generalize, is not typically done on the PC, partially because in those shooters you want such specific hardware control, down to when slowdown becomes a factor. Has developing for PC made the game any harder to develop?

DR: Not really. We actually just use "bullet hell" ideas and overtones. We wanted the beauty of having the bullet patterns and all that stuff, but we're so forgiving when it comes to the player actually being shot that it shouldn’t actually really hinder us at all.

What have you guys enjoyed about independent development?

Robert Francis: Just how informal it is. You get someone to come up and play a game, and the guy looks like he’s an accountant or something and then you talk to him and he turns out to be the head of some company, or you get some guy in shorts and flip flops, and his hair's messed up and you find out he's one of your favorite developers. There's a sense of ease of talking to a ton of people and just getting noticed, actually.

Jami Lukins: I love the freedom. I was the only artist on the game, and I got to pretty much have free reign on what kind of art I had for the game. It evolved naturally and organically through time, through what the team wanted, as opposed some nebulous, overlord producer wanted.

I’m going to take a shot in the dark and guess that you’re a fan of flOw.

JL: (Sighs) Yeah… I never saw flOw before I designed [Solace]. I was at GDC running around with my portfolio and people were like, “Wow, it’s just like flOw!” So I looked it up later and I was like “This is exactly like my art, only way better. I’m so sad right now.” (laughs)

DR: Myself and another guy on the team, we absolutely loved flOw and Flower, so a lot of design decisions that we made kind of came from an influence of Jenova Chen.

JL: I really stole the art pallet from Flower actually (laughs). I studied how they used light and color, and used that as a case study for what I did with color in the game.

Do you see yourselves continuing with independent development when you graduate, or are you more interested in getting hired by someone with money?

DR: As awesome as it would be to get hired by an awesome corporation and have my entire life taken care of because of a fantastic paycheck, indie development is amazing, because you get to make your own rules. You get to make the game that you want to make, not the game that somebody else is telling you to make. If anything, I will be looking for a company to work for, but I’m really anticipating it being a small company, somewhere where I can have some creative control over what we’re doing.

RF: I have a lot of loans, so given where the economy is right now, if I get a job I’ll be happy. I’m more on the technical side; my creativity doesn’t really show through to the user. So I don’t feel like my creativity would be squandered in a corporation. But I like indie development, because I like the ability to be able to do practically everything.

JL: I’d like to work for a large company actually, because I’d like the chance to work around more senior level artists, so I can learn from them and grow as an artist. I’m very interested in user interface design, and there really wasn’t any UI education at DigiPen, and I mainly had to teach myself.

Did any of you work while going to DigiPen?

DR: Actually, DigiPen during the summer will offer us certain jobs. I got the opportunity to teach middle school and high school kids how to make games, so they sent me all the way to Spain this summer to teach, so that helps make some money.

JL: I taught an online class, I taught introduction to 3D animation, and I also teach advanced animation. And Robert had an amazing internship at Nvidia actually.

What are the differences between your vision and expectations for the game versus the reality of making it and releasing it?

DR: The mechanic is in there. The original idea of shooting bullets and making music, that’s the original idea, that’s what we wanted. And we were really going for some experience, so I think we definitely delivered on that. The five stages of grief part came late in the game, which threw our artist for a huge loop.

DR: Everything is actually pretty close to what our original idea is.

JL: I freaked out. They did it first semester, and they had another guy on the team, and he left, so they didn’t have an artist. I joined second semester, and then the game was one thing and then Dan comes in and says, “Five Stages of Grief! What do you think?” and I’m like, “That’s a complete art redesign, are you kidding me, we only have half a semester left, I’m only one person, how could you do this to me?”

DR: Yeah, everyone hated the idea. And then two weeks later they loved the idea and apologized.

RF: Yup.

JL: Oh, I’ve apologized profusely, because if we hadn’t done that redesign, our game wouldn’t be what it is today.

RF: That's our development cycle. Someone suggests something, everyone shoots it down, they do it anyway out of spite, and then everyone loves it.

Will you guys be doing a senior project at DigiPen as well?

DR: We did this for our sophomore project, so we’ve got two more projects, one for junior year, and one for senior year. But if you get an internship you don’t have to worry about the senior year project.

How has being in the PAX 10 affected you guys?

DR: Yesterday we had 600 hits on our website. Usually we get 20.

RF: Normal DigiPen YouTube videos have maybe a hundred views at the most. We’re approaching over 2,000 for a video we released a month ago.

DR: A lot of the incoming freshmen are looking up to us now. If anything we’re kind of like a beacon to show, hey look, you can actually do something with your student project, so put your heart into everything.

JL: We got into IndieCade too!