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Altruism is Paramount in Thatgamecompany’s ‘Sky’

From “Flow” to “Journey,” every experience thatgamecompany builds revels in emotional storytelling. The ability to evoke empathy through music and minimalist art styles has become a hallmark of the studio, and its next project, “Sky,” is no exception. What’s new for the team, though, is that “Sky” is a fully online multiplayer game.

“‘Sky’ is probably the studio’s most ambitious project to date,” Jennie Kong, story writer at thatgamecombany said during a talk at GDC. “Over the past year, we’ve been aggressively beta testing two key components of the game: the multiplayer aspect, and the emotional aspect. We want to get both of these right.”

Kong’s presentation, titled “Evolving Storytelling in thatgamecompany’s ‘Sky’” took attendees through the process of building the game, from concept to its current, near-finished state, and illustrated the lengths the team has gone to make sure emotion is at the heart of the experience.

“Sky” takes place in a far-flung fantasy world where light has disappeared, and it falls to the players to work together to spread light across the many realms. The challenge, Kong said, has been to make an impactful emotional experience on the level of “Journey” or “Flower” in a multiplayer setting.

“I feel that over the past decade emotional storytelling has seen some highlights, primarily in linear experiences,” Kong said. “[‘Sky’] will touch upon both aspects of non-linear story as well as more MMO-type storytelling.”

The core of “Sky’s” emotional engine is the concept of altruism. Selflessness. Kong wants players to connect with others and build their own stories through interaction. The main currency in the game is candles, and you can spend candles on new interactive emotes. For instance, spend enough candles and you can hold hands or hug another player.

“People like hugging in the game. When you play, you’ll see why,” Kong said.

The idea of a collective journey may be the foundational idea behind “Sky,” but it took lots of iteration to arrive where thatgamecompany has landed. Kong described the beta testing process and painted a grim picture of negative feedback from players. The problem, she said, was that players felt the game lacked direction, a reason to help others spread the light. This proved a difficult hurdle for the team and required looking at the design philosophy from a different angle.

Going in, Kong was adamant that the gameplay of “Sky” be built around the concept of friendship, and that would lead to lead to the sense of altruism the team was aiming for. However, after exploring player feedback, the team realized that the reverse was more effective. By leveraging altruism first, by providing players with the tools to be selfless, friendships developed naturally. As an example, Kong said that the team added in several locations that had nothing to do with story. Places like an ice rink and a crab pit don’t help progress “Sky’s” story, but players flocked to them anyway. They built their own stories together here, Kong said.

That’s not to say that “Sky” isn’t ripe with its own lore and non-player characters. As the story progresses, players will meet eight elders who are responsible for the loss of light in the kingdom. Like everything else in the game, these elders saw loads of iteration and refinement.

“It felt very cliche…the idea that, hey, here’s a child of light, and we’re here to help the world,” Kong recalled. “And here are these elder dudes that just ruined everything, and somehow they’re evil.”

The tragic foundation for the world of “Sky” was there, but Kong recognized potential to reach beyond tried-and-true character development. And so she approached the elders’ background from a different angle and landed on the concept of the anti-hero. Today, the elders’ backstory is filled, not only with tragedy but with ambiguity as well.

At its heart, though, “Sky” is a story about growing up. “[It’s] very much a coming-of-age story, Kong said. “We liked the idea that the character could be growing up through the game’s time. We felt this was a positive message to send out.” The team wanted to capture a child-like wonder through the game’s traversal system as players fly about the sky kingdom. “We wanted to leverage some language and motifs around childhood. I think that’s why the characters were designed as children.”

Announced in 2017, “Sky” will release on iOS and Apple TV first, with other platforms to follow.

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