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.

Popular on Variety

More Gaming

  • Insomniac Games - Spider-Man

    Sony Is Acquiring Insomniac Games, Studio Behind 'Spider-Man' for PS4

    Sony Interactive Entertainment clinched a deal to acquire longtime PlayStation games developer Insomniac Games in its entirety, the company announced Monday. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed “due to contractual commitments,” according to Sony. Insomniac Games is the developer of PlayStation 4’s top-selling “Marvel’s Spider-Man” and other PS games, including the “Ratchet & [...]

  • westworld awakening art

    HBO Launches 'Westworld Awakening' VR Game With Survios

    Ever wanted to enter the world of “Westworld?” Now you can — except it won’t exactly be like you might have imagined it. Instead of being one of those guests living out their fantasies, you will be a host, slowly coming to grips with your life being an elaborate illusion. “Westworld Awakening” has been produced [...]

  • Telling Lies - Logan Marshall-Green

    Sam Barlow's 'Telling Lies' Government-Surveillance Thriller Game Sets Release Date

    After more than two years in the works, “Telling Lies” — the investigative thriller from acclaimed game creator Sam Barlow — is ready to take the stage. The game, produced with and released by Annapurna Interactive, will be available next Friday, Aug. 23, via Steam and Apple’s Mac and iOS app stores. “Telling Lies” will [...]

  • David Messinger, Activision Blizzard

    Activision Blizzard Hires CAA Veteran David Messinger as CMO

    Activision Blizzard tapped David Messinger, a former 15-plus-year veteran of CAA, as its first corporate-wide chief marketing officer. Messinger, based in Santa Monica, reports to Coddy Johnson, Activision Blizzard’s president and COO. It’s the first time the video-game company has appointed a CMO who will oversee the global marketing operations across all of Activision Blizzard [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Oculus Co-Founder Nate Mitchell Is Leaving Facebook

    Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell is leaving Facebook 7 years after launching the first Oculus Rift headset with a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. Mitchell announced the move on Reddit Tuesday, calling it “bittersweet news.” Mitchell said that he would take some time off to spend with his family. And while he committed to still being involved in [...]

  • nomadic seoul

    Nomadic Expands Abroad, Opens VR Center in Seoul

    Location-based virtual reality (VR) startup Nomadic is getting ready for an international expansion: The company will open its first VR center outside of the States in South Korea later this month. The new location, housed in the CGV Gangbyeon multiplex in Seoul, is being opened in partnership with theater chain CGV and technology provider CJ [...]

  • Singularity 6 - Anthony Leung and

    ‘Meaningful’ Games Start-Up Singularity 6 Raises $16.5 Million Round Led by Andreessen Horowitz

    Singularity 6, the start-up founded by ex-Riot Games developers that’s aiming to create a community-oriented game where players “can feel like they are valued and belong,” closed $16.5 million in Series A financing. The funding round was led by venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, with participation from seed investor London Venture Partners (LVP), which previously put [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content