One of the oft mentioned things among non-gamers about video games is that they lack emotional appeal, that nobody will remember playing a game decades from now, so time is better spent making memories via going outside and doing something. This, as most gamers can attest, is categorically untrue. Many gamers have many good memories that last many years from moments in games. Not just a memory of a good score, or something, but genuine emotional moments. Back in 2003 or 2004 when I got to one point in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, there was a choice, and I went a path I’d never go in real life, and I could have gone a more reasonable, good path, but I went the Dark Jedi route, and I still feel guilt as of 2018, nearly 2019. There are other examples, but that’s one that sticks out.
One developer in particular has taken to the task of making games that one feels an emotional attachment to, to heart. Thatgamecompany. Their games have always been simple, elegant, games as art, that often engage the player emotionally.
They started with Flow (Flash version of Flow), a game that presents a simple idea, and easily playable by players of all skill levels. It perhaps lacked the emotional impact of later games, but its simplicity, and relaxing gameplay made it something special.
Their follow-up, Flower, is one I admittedly never got to play. I’ve watch gameplay of it, and read enough to know that during the short hour or so it takes to complete the game, that it does achieve an emotional story arc. Some may say this is amazing, considering the game has no text or dialog, just you as a petal from a Flower flying around a landscape.
Next came Journey, which again has no text or dialog. The short hour and a half to two hours that one takes to play it the first time, is emotionally fulfilling though. It is amazingly beautiful in both story and art direction. It is one of the prime examples of a game that can have an emotional impact, be great art, and is a really fun game. It really is one of the Must Play Games, and with it coming to PC soon (Journey on the Epic Games Store), more people will be able to experience it, and it is an experience that one will remember. Just take a look at those screenshots on the link to the Epic Game Store and just realize there is a great and emotional journey in playing the game. When you meet other players, the only way you can communicate is with a single note, and yet, you still get connected to the other players, and may miss them when you enter a new zone if the game doesn’t keep you together.
Finally we get to Sky: Light Awaits, which is coming to iOS and MacOS for a timed exclusive, then other platforms later, and the point of this article.
This newest title is a spiritual successor to Journey, with a bit of Thatgamecompany’s co-founder Jenova Chen’s first notable game, Cloud, mixed in. It is available in only a few countries at the moment, but is being tested via Apple’s TestDrive for people who sign up via the Sky game‘s website (note, it can take many months to get in).
While it is in Beta, the core of the game seems to be there, and it holds, nearly the same magic that Journey did. There is a much more in depth gameplay this time around. There is a bigger focus on social interaction, with the ability, and near requirement, to make friends, more on that in a bit. Like all their games, it is relatively short for a modern video game, but it is far longer than all of the others put together so far. Like the others, there is no text (aside from chat, which is somewhat limited, again, more in a bit) or dialog, the whole story, the emotional connection comes via the game’s game play, visuals, and music.
Note, most of what is below is based off the current beta build of the game (0.4.4 as I write this) and is subject to change.
The game play loop starts as follows. You start on a beach, you make your way through this island to pick up a cape that allows you to fly, then fly off to a central hub called the Aviary. Here is where the daily, weekly and other special quests are picked up, along with a couple of emotes.
Emotes are gestures that the character can make, such as a bow, juggling, dancing, and the like. Emotes are the main thing you are collecting on your play through. In fact, you need to collect a certain number of emotes, each play through, in order to progress in the game.
Players also gather wax for candles from the candles scattered around the game levels. This is the game’s in game currency, which I’ll get to later.
From the Aviary, the player then can go to all the other main areas of the game, each with a couple sub-zones. Beyond the Island tutorial area, they are in order of play, Prairie, Forest, Mountains, Wasteland, the Vault, and the Storm (more is likely coming it would seem). After you finish the Storm, you are “reborn” but with all your earned max cape powers, which enables the player to go through easier, especially once they get to the Storm.
So Cape Powers. Certain actions cost cape power. Flying (soaring doesn’t cost it, but flapping to gain height does), getting hit by rain, getting hit by the Dark Creatures, water in the Wasteland, or items in the Storm, all cost cape power. Standing next to flames, candles and the like, recharge one’s cape power to its max. As players collect emotes, and “wing blessings” from friends, the players max wing power can grow. Currently I think the max permanent wing power is 7, with an 8th segment via wing blessings.
Okay, wing blessings. In the player’s own private home space, they have candles for each friend they have made in the game. When a candle is lit, it sends a wing blessing. The other player has a candle for the other player in their home space as well. Generally, as this costs nothing but a minute or two of time to light candles, is a no brainer. Give wing blessings, get wing blessings. It costs nothing but time.
Making friends however, does cost a candle. Again, candles are earned by collecting the wax from other candles in the game world. Once a player offers a candle to another player, if that other player accepts it, they become friends to one another. There are then additional friend actions that can be unlocked, such as high five, hug, and chat. Some friend actions are earned with that first candle, such as the ability for one to lead another. When one makes a friend, the game offers you a chance to name them, usually one goes with a random name (very random letters, such as Axulat,Ulojaje, Ezakeb), but if one has chatted with the player, they may exchange player names to go by. Players can chat at special benches in the game world, some of which require a candle sacrifice to start, tables they can get in game (within the TestFlight Beta, I’m not sure how one gets them after the initial ones are given to the player), or any friends that have unlocked it, can chat openly. Players who aren’t friends with those players, or are friends but haven’t unlocked it, or aren’t sitting at a chat area with others, will just see ellipses in place of the actual text.
Now the core game loop involves not only collecting the candle wax, but, as noted, collecting emotes. These emotes come in two basic forms currently, the base emote and stamped. It will gain a blue cape icon on it when it is stamped. The first time one collects the emote it is stamped. These stamps can be lost when hit by Dark Creatures, and the debris in the Storm. It used to be that players could lose the emote all together on those occasions. These stamps are what crank up the cape’s max power. On completing the Storm, all the stamps are taken away so the player has to collect the emotes again to get the stamps again. This allows the cape to gain more and more power, to allow for longer flights, and act as a shield in the Storm for more hits (and against hits from smaller Dark Creatures, but doesn’t seem to stop stamp loss from a Dark Creature that the fans have called the Krill… nasty big things that fly in the sky and dive at the player when the player is spotted, Journey players will recall a similar creature in that game). So that is the basic core loop. Play all the levels, collecting emotes (or the stamp for them on subsequent playthroughs), to build the cape power, to have an easier trip next time, all the while collecting wax from candles to build more candles for the player to use on gifting and exchanging with their friends.
This brings us to the game’s current economy. The player’s character has a basic brown cape, and a basic mask (no face, just a mask). There are other masks, hair styles, instruments, capes, pants and the like that can be purchased. These are all, as of the current beta build, bought with Hearts, and some can cost a lot of Hearts. One gets Hearts only from friends, who gift Hearts at a cost of 3 candles. Unless a player exchanges Hearts live, it is impossible to tell who gifted a Heart to you, it just shows up (unless that was an odd bug on the one I got not in a live exchange). Candles are sort of hard to earn, so this is a rather expensive operation, and unless the players have chatted agreed to trade hearts (either in game or via the game’s Discord), trades are sort of rare. One would assume the Hearts will be purchasable with real world money on the game’s release. Again though, the game is in beta, and the economy is one of the things the developers are working on.
Now, there are challenges to getting some of the emotes. Not just challenges from a gameplay perspective, but actual logistical issues with some of the emotes. Some emotes are behind doors that require 2, 4 or in one case 8 players (now supposedly, the 8 player one can be done with 4 players, I don’t know it’s the one emote that’s in the game for sure that I haven’t been able to get). Sometimes on a playthrough, there may be nobody around to help with that door or puzzle, so that emote will have to be left behind for another run. The game does, after awhile of being alone, offer to take the player to another player’s area, but this does little to open the door or puzzle that the player wanted to get to at that time. Perhaps they’ll offer a way of calling outside of one’s zone, a sort of flare gun or something that will prioritize that player for the random match (pulling from friends first) who have pushed the join button when they were alone… or some other alert mechanism that makes it clear for other players that a player needs help… could be simple as when the player clicks the menu option, there’s an Flare section, and sees there’s a list of players needing help, they see a player in zone “Prairie – Village” and can click a join button there… sort of the way flares work in Monster Hunter World, just accessible via the options menu rather than a board… or a board in the Aviary.
That is my main concern about the game from a longevity point, concerns about the economy of hearts being the other. The need to have X number of players for too many emotes. Now the number of stamped emotes needed to enter the Storm is easily gotten soloable, but to truly maximize everything, one needs help along the way. While players generally come and help when they are in the area, if no other players are available when one is playing, then it sort of ruins the fun. And after about three, four or five times through the Storm, I think that many players will tire of the loop, as there is no more progression on the cape after a certain point, and really, one’s likely seen most everything by that fourth or fifth run. Yes, the game has daily quests, and might gain other events, but I fear as the player base dwindles down, there might not be enough players to help. It’s a problem now, because the player base is so limited, but I can see it becoming an even bigger issue a couple months after launch. The two player puzzles might be completable, because there might be a big enough base, but the four and eight player ones are the ones that worry me the most. Unless one can spend a half a candle to buy an NPC to help, there may be issues down the line. Of course they may rebalance the doors and puzzles then. Perhaps make it so on the two player ones, you can light the one spot, and it’ll stay lit long enough for to get to the other spot, even if that ability is only active when no other players are in the zone.
Still, despite the concerns with the multiplayer puzzles, and the occasional glitch one expects of a beta, I really like the game and think that it can do well. It’ll be another really good to great entry from Thatgamecompany. I’m giving the Hearts and candle economy time to settle, and even then it’ll really depend on if the game is free to play, or if it costs something up front. It has an addictive and simple loop. Doesn’t take too long. It is beautiful to look at, has soothing music. It is another, nice relaxing game to play from them. If you have an iPad, iPhone, or Mac, then sign up for the beta, and get it once it comes out. It’s a really good game, with the potential to be really great.