One of my obsessions about this time last year was Sky: Children of the Light by That Game Company. I have always had a soft spot for independent game companies, and any kind of game designer who puts care, wonder, and beauty at the top of their list of design goals. That Game Company\’s visionary, Jenova Chen, is such a one. His team\’s previous games, Flower, Journey, and the rest, have embodied that vision of peace and beauty in gaming.
So when I learned that their next game was going to be a non-combat MMO, I was immediately intrigued. Once it launched on iOS I was all in.
Sky is a perfectly lovely game. It\’s a sumptuous world, a true sky kingdom full of heavenly beings existing alongside invasive darkness. Using little-to-no dialogue it tells a heartwarming story of life and death, grief and the afterlife, light and dark. It. Is. Beautiful.
A single playthrough feels just like a proper TGC creation, or something by Team ICO (TGC\’s spiritual predecessor, in my opinion). You get a complete, gorgeous, minimal journey. You will make friends using one of the more intriguing and thoughtful social mechanics of any game ever. And you will tear up, guaranteed.
After a single playthrough, however, the MMO/mobile portion of the game kicks in and the contrast is stark: you go from meandering (mostly) peacefully through a fully realized, mysterious, lovely world, to repeating the same steps in that world over and over to grind out currency and gear. Now, I\’m not afraid of such a grind. I still play LOTRO and still love it, even though I\’m at one of the grindier parts of the game (that being level cap). So, I ground it on in Sky. I was happy to give them some money for a season pass, happy to log in every day and do the quests necessary to get the thing.
This grind includes (or did about this time last year) a social component of logging in each day to send a friend a present. The kind, heartfelt social system I mentioned above became a matter of checking the box, just like any other mobile game or MMO.
As I say, this is not terrible. It\’s kind of par for the course. So, I did it and got the things (including one of the rarest capes in the game). It can be quite nice having a place to go and things to do in a virtual setting each day, part of the appeal of these games.
What ultimately killed it for me was the difficulty of the game. Besides being about exploration, Sky is really a platformer devised by console game designers. Many of the repeatable tasks one has to do for seasonal content, for example, involves leading these spirits around and learning their stories. The trouble is that I rarely felt in control of my character when precise action was needed, so leading them around found me dropping off edges and throwing my phone across the room. Maybe it\’s me, maybe it\’s playing on an iPhone, maybe it\’s the game itself, but Sky became one of the more frustrating gaming experiences of recent years.
When I logged in this week to see what had been going on since I last played about six months ago, I found a terribly luscious addition to the game in the \”Sanctuary Islands.\” Just like the rest of the game, it was a treat to drift around and admire the greenery and the lovely music. But when it came time to do the thing and get the goodies, it was the exact same problem. I had to lead this spirit around at half speed, under threat of death by crabs, through an awkward terrain unable to find reasonable camera angle. It was irritating and frustrating.
So, I may pop into the Sky kingdom from time to time and admire the world, floating here and there in a gorgeous landscape, but the grind is over. It\’s not worth the frustration. Not while I have Shelob to defeat.
It begs larger questions about game design, repetition, risks, and rewards, but that\’s for another day.