One of my favorite things that independent games can provide is a sense of community that can be hard to achieve with large scale AAA projects. This is something that developer Thatgamecompany started with the release of Journey in 2013 with its asynchronous multiplayer features and has expanded upon as the foundation for their latest release, Sky: Children of Light. Given that established base, what the development team has created is a simplistic, player-driven experience with no clear list of objectives, that will give back as much as you are willing to put into the game.
Sky: Children of Light’s story is tough to follow, as all of it is told through cutscenes that have no dialogue. You are helping restore the elder spirits of the seven different realms in the fallen Kingdom of Sky to fulfill your destiny as one of the children of light. Each of the areas that you visit and explore feel uniquely different from one another, from the frigid winter temple in the Valley of Triumph to the swampy marshlands in the Hidden Forest. With each new realm being so distinct, I never grew tired of the experience of entering and exploring each new setting.
In each area there are two major things to seek out, one is the Children of Light, that give you “winged light” which upgrades your cape making you able to fly further. The second are spirits that are scattered throughout the realm that you interact with and find out what happened to them, and this is how you gain “expressions” to help interact with other players.
What helps make the Kingdom of Sky so alive is how it uses setting to introduce its core themes, the various stages of life. From the Isle of Dawn, your “birth”, to the last realm you visit, the Eye of Eden, where you are reborn. The game also uses time of day to portray these themes, with each realm moving time forward till nighttime. Using the world to showcase its themes helps elevate a simplistic plot.
What I remember from those areas is not the inconsequential narrative, but the moments I had in those realms. One that really stands out to me was in the Valley of Triumph, where you must skate down a mountainside collecting light fragments, while other players are doing the same with a rising orchestral score in the background. The story by itself is generic and not engaging, but the moments that can happen because the framework the game provides the player are unique and fulfilling.
Now, that framework would not be rewarding without the key design element of social multiplayer. The game is marketed as an “interactive, social play experience” and once you get past the tutorial area, you start seeing other players running around in a spirit form. From there you interact with them, adding them as friends, so you can see how their character looks, gifting candles to unlock forms of communication like high-fives and hugs, or holding hands with up to eight different players to traverse the world together with one acting as guide for the other seven.
All of this is done without voice chat, every interaction with another player is done non-verbally, either using expressions gained on my journey or by emoting using the call mechanic that your character uses to find elder temples. While in the Valley of Triumph, for example, I discovered a way to break the ice that I was skating on to uncover a hidden area underneath. I started calling out and helped show a nearby player what I had discovered, and together we found a door that needed two people to light candles at the same time. That interaction was one of my favorite gaming moments of the year. While you can invite players into your game from your friends list, I think some of the magic of the game comes organically from these social interactions with strangers. .
Something that has been updated into the game and has expanded the social aspects are seasonal events. Active during my time with the game was the Season of AURORA, a collaborative season featuring Norwegian musician Aurora. You participate in a Musical Voyage with other players, where you relive memories of spirits and help them during quests while Aurora performs. The only other thing I could compare it to in the video game space are Fortnite‘s concerts, but this Musical Voyage felt engaging and crafted specifically for this game. Participating in this with over three thousand other players felt like an experience that I have not found in any other virtual social experience.
This is a port of the original iOS version released in July 2019, and you can really tell when it comes to the controls. The controls themselves are not terrible, but they do not feel tight. I felt like I was fighting against them, especially when I was flying. This is not a game where tight movement really matters, but when a majority of the traversal through these wonderful areas is flying, I want that experience to be easy and dreamlike. Instead, flying was a nightmare, never moving in the direction I wanted to go. Going through the game on foot felt better till I had to start platforming upstairs or anything that required precision. Having a controller with built-in gyro capabilities and a touchpad support, I feel there was a better solution for adapting the controls than the one they chose.
Performance and graphical quality is where the game shows it has been ported from mobile platforms. The game being blown up from smaller devices to bigger television screens makes textures look muddy and lose detail. There are two different visual modes ,High Fidelity mode for 30 FPS and higher quality graphics or High-Performance Mode for a smoother 60 FPS, which is what I played on for most of my time with the game. When playing in High Fidelity, I noticed more slowdown, textures popping in frequently and overall a less smooth experience. I had multiple instances across both modes where textures were popping in and out, or I would get frozen when talking to a spirit at the same time another player was. None of these moments were enough to ruin my overall experience, but happened frequently enough to stand out.
Playing through Sky: Children of Light, you can see the DNA of previous title Journey. While I do not think Sky has the same impact that Journey does, it is a game that expands what that title did with the ‘multiplayer social experience’. The driving force for this game will not be the simple gameplay or plot, what will keep you coming back are the social aspects. Interacting with strangers through high-fives and hugs as communication, and finding tucked away areas in the world to explore. When I first started playing this game, I was not completely sold on the concept, but after finishing it and coming back for the seasonal event, it is worth the small commitment to experience it.
Cody’s first experience with video games was Spot Goes to Hollywood for the Sega Genesis. Since that
moment, he has become enamored with the storytelling video games can offer. He enjoys it when his
writing can put a spotlight on video games that are trying to push the boundaries of the medium and
really advance what we think of a video game forward.