What do you do when your game unexpectedly sets the gaming world on fire? That’s the question that independent studio Thatgamecompany found themselves asking back in 2012 after its third game, “Journey,” managed to sell millions of copies, garnering a number of highly coveted game-of-the-year awards in the process.
As lead designer and co-founder Jenova Chen put it, there was only really one approach that made sense at the time: try to make a dream game.
“We were coming off of the third game in our three-game contract with Sony, so it definitely triggered a period of self-reflection,” Chen said. “It made me want to think about what kinds of games I wanted to make, what kinds of messages I was sending with my games. And that’s when I decided that I wanted to make a game that could serve as an ambassador for all of games.”
While Chen readily admitted that the medium of video games has diversified greatly even in the years since the release of “Journey,” he still maintained that most non-gamers’ perception of games as an art form hasn’t budged much, molded by the ubiquity of shooters like the ultra-popular “Fortnite.”
With the studio’s upcoming game “Sky: Children of the Light,” he hopes to move that needle a bit more, toward an understanding that a game can be so much more than a way to scorch your nerve-endings as you blow your friends away again and again.
“Sky: Children of the Light” is a story about a fallen kingdom above the clouds, where you play one of many Sky Children who work together to spread light back into the world and its constellations. Thatgamecompany is targeting the release of “Sky” in July, first on iOS and Apple devices. It also plans to released versions for Android, PC, Mac and consoles at a later date.
Though Thatgamecompany’s output comprises some of the highest-profile examples of “non-violent games” outside of classics like “Tetris,” Chen said that he never really set out to explicitly excise such gameplay concepts from his work. Instead, he said, he was motivated by a sense of wanting to connect non-gamers with the medium, and he simply realized over time that the rampant violence in big-budget games contributed to that gap. “When I made one of my first games, ‘Cloud,’ I didn’t even think of it as a non-violent game,” Chen said. “But I got a letter from someone who played this very short game, and the writer told me that it made them cry, and that I should start a game studio that made only non-violent games. And that’s exactly what I decided to do.”
“Sky: Children of the Light” follows closely in the footsteps of the developer’s previous games: a soaring orchestral score, a focus on unique modes of traversal as a locus of gameplay, and pastel-soaked visuals that recall hazy memories of childhood. Under development for six years, though “Sky” will eventually come to console and PC, it’s intended primarily as a mobile game, a decision that fans of Chen’s work might find a bit surprising. As with many of the game’s more arresting design decisions, Chen ascribed the shift to a single word: accessibility. “I want gamers to be able to show their skeptical friends that games are more than what they think,” he said. “If there are 200 million consoles in the world, there are 2 billion smartphones. Well, if you’re trying to reach the most people possible, then it’s an easy decision to make.”
In his experience trying to show “Journey” to non-gamers such as his wife, Chen said that they tend to run into the same problem: manipulating both the movement stick and the camera stick simultaneously just isn’t easy-grasped for most people. To compensate for this, “Sky: Children of the Light” has several distinct control options available, including two virtual sticks, a simple “move-or-look” set-up — one finger to move the character, two fingers to move the camera — or simple finger flicks. It might sound like a small touch to some, but for this massive pool of possible players, it’s a serious breakthrough.
As for what you actually do in the ambitious, sun-soaked cloud world of “Sky: Children of the Light,” it’s a bit unclear. In a 30-minute demo, Chen revealed that players fly and jaunt their way through seven different lands to try to find sleeping “sky children.” Waking up these dozing comrades will give you different powers, including a plethora of emotes and cosmetic options. The anonymous companions of “Journey” have been replaced by an MMO-light server that allows eight different players to be on the screen at once, which you can friend or even chat with as you “level up” your social skills. While it all sounds like nothing we’ve ever seen before – a combat-free MMO that acts as an expansive third-space for online strangers – perhaps that’s what we should expect from the team that managed to turn the abysmal SixAxis control scheme into a moving work.
“With ‘Journey,’ I wanted to make a game about the struggle of all human beings, and the beauty of that struggle,” Chen said. “With ‘Sky,’ I’m trying to make a game about love, and the universal appeal of it. I’ve had testers tell me that this game replicates the feeling of the first time they had a crush on someone, the mystery of it. You don’t know who this person is, but you know that there is this thing called love, and it’s possible for you to love another person. That’s not what I intended to make, really, but that is what this game is. It’s about the bonds that tie all of us together…When I meet someone on ‘Sky,’ I sometimes get this feeling like, ‘is this flirting? Is this cheating?’ Well, of course it isn’t, but that mystery is still there. And that’s something I want to invoke.”