Over the years, I’ve learned to really look forward to my meetings and demos with Jenova Chen. The chief creative voice behind games including Journey and Flower, Chen approaches game development from a different perspective than many game makers, and talks about the process in a different way than many other developers, as well.
After a long development process, Sky: Children of the Light is targeting release in July, first on iOS, but eventually across the spectrum of mobile phones and tablets. Like all of the games previously released by thatgamecompany, the core concept of Sky is quite easy to grasp. You play an adorable individual, given life and energy by light and fire, and you explore a world of fallen stars, attempting to rediscover them and place them back into the sky. Along the way, you explore a variety of unique realms or lands, reachable through portals from a central hub, and most locations feature a mix of on-land exploration and grand elevated flight sequences, where your character can float and wing freely across a beautiful landscape of clouds and sunbeams. And all of it is meant to be played with others at your side.
That description isn’t how Chen describes his game, but simply what I can gather as he and I wander together through the playspace, even as he speaks to me about the more philosophical and artistic goals that fuel the project. Where Journey explored themes of loneliness, and the way a single other person could be a lifeline and companion, Sky: Children of the Light is about the broader webs that connect us as families, friends, and strangers. Chen hopes the game design simulates many of the brighter aspects of human interaction, like friendship, generosity, cooperation, and community. He’s interested in the way that people connect and build relationships, and how those relationships only truly form through non-selfish acts and discovering the world together.
While flight and exploration of the various realms is certainly important, an equal effort has been put into the ways in which players can interact with one another, usually in loving and relationship-forming ways. Emote options let you shake hands and hug, celebrate successes with each other, or sit quietly on a bench and have a private chat. You can collect musical instruments in the game, like pianos and harps, as well as musical notation sheets, which can be played by tapping in-time with on-screen prompts. Once you sit down to play some music, other people can sit down and join you with their own instruments, and you can make music together.
The game is also explicitly built to allow for dedicated gamers to play with their non-gaming friends, partners, or children. Controls defy the traditional “two analog stick” move and camera rotation pattern, and instead you simply swipe with one finger to hop in a direction, or drag with two fingers to change the camera position. In flight, intuitive motion directions let you swoop and dive naturally. If even that level of 3D navigation is too involved for some, the game allows literal hand-holding with other players. Want to guide your non-gaming spouse to that cool new island across the way? Offer them your hand, and now you simply take them with you wherever you go. Up to eight players can hold hands and move as one.
From the central hub, you’ll move into one of six distinct realms that each offer different tonal experiences of play. Among the six there’s a valley that allows for competitive flight racing with your friends, a mysterious forest filled with moments of exploration and discovery, a romantic dim-lit vault filled with secrets, and a daylight-suffused prairie of interconnected islands, filled with opportunities to meet strange creatures, almost like an alien petting zoo. In addition to these and other lands, there’s also a seventh realm that only opens up once a week, and offers more challenging “endgame” content that Chen equated a bit with a raid in an MMO.
Throughout it all, you’ll be finding and collecting fallen stars, which once discovered transform into individual NPCs with whom you can also form relationships, learn new things from, and acquire new hairstyles, masks, and all sorts of other items with which to customize your character. These fallen stars each have their own personality and things to share with you, and they slowly help to pull the curtain back on what has happened in this unusual universe.
During my time wandering the game world with Chen, we played some music together, and then he led me by hand into a realm where we had to act together in order to make a giant flying manta ray appear. Once it was flying along the wind currents, we could float down onto its back and ascend to as-yet unexplored areas of the realm.
Sky: Children of the Light is clearly a game interested in letting players discover its charms for themselves, but I have little doubt that fans of the developer’s previous work will find a lot to love here. There are elements of play that seem to directly reference aspects of Journey and Flower. However, this game is a far more social and interactive experience, and clearly one meant to have players return to on a more regular basis over many days, weeks or months, and with greater options for customization and personalization.
Mobile games have a reputation at times for shallowness or flash for the sake of flash. Whether that’s always deserved or not, Sky is a game that is set to offer something decidedly different for players when it begins to roll out this July. While there’s a lot I still don’t understand about how it all fits together, I was immediately charmed by the game’s heartfelt messaging and quiet moments of joy, and I suspect there are a lot of other players who are similarly ready for a mobile release that offers this unique breed of meditative, joyful, and socially connected experiences.