In 2012 thatgamecompany brought Journey to the world which is rightfully still being praised to this day as one of the pioneers of games as experiential narrative. Just a couple of weeks ago Sky: Children of the Light was released for iOS as a spiritual successor. Once again players are supposed to go through an emotionally intense experience, this time with extended possibilities for multiplayer interaction.
At first sight Sky indeed seems to be a broader version of Journey. Instead of a clearly directed and linear, well, “journey”, players are thrown into relatively open areas asking to be explored more or less freely and often multiple times. Moving through these once again beautifully designed levels feels very similar to the original. Collecting energy at certain hot spots allows avatars to take flight for a short amount of time. Traveling in groups with other players who were spawned into the same level instance makes things easier.
The biggest changes come in the form of additional social features. There are plenty of gestures, outfits and voices to unlock, allowing players to express themselves and communicate in the language of the game. It’s also possible to form long-term friendships and thereby keep in touch with your companions over multiple sessions. Relationships can be “leveled up” by performing joint gestures — basically a very explicit form of Raph Koster’s “Trust Spectrum”.
However, this is exactly where this virtual world so overtly filled with positive interactions falls apart. The game is free to play and the in-game shop offers a variety of microtransactions, primarily in the form of “candles”. Candles are necessary to make friends, deepen friendships and unlock advanced tools of expression. You can either buy them for real money or slowly grind for them.
And just like that the refreshingly humane approach of the game— especially in the context of today’s gaming landscape — is completely turned on its head. Money, once again, rules the world. Intended messages about affection and empathy become twisted life lessons:
- “Making friends costs money!”
- “If you have a lot of money, you can easily form and maintain many deep friendships at the same time!”
- “If you don’t have money, you’re an expressionless creature that doesn’t deserve affection and has to try very hard to even form a couple of rather shallow relationships!”
This is a real pity, especially given the fact that Journey is one of the most emotionally sensitive games ever created. Then again, Sky might at least serve as an educational example. Ultimately it’s a demonstration of how even highly positive messages about love, friendship and community can be perverted into their toxic polar opposites given a sufficiently cynical business model.
To conclude, let’s entertain a quick thought experiment. What if, a couple of weeks from now, thatgamecompany were to reveal their game as a work of satire? How would IGN and other gaming publications feel about having praised a deliberately inhumane and toxic design? And how many players would honestly be able to claim to have noticed the issues at all, given how normal and ubiquitous similar business models have become these days?
Unfortunately we will most likely never find out…