The dream weaver

With his social game Sky, Jenova Chen aims to foster caring amid the chaos.

Some developers obsess over cool weapons, deadly adversaries and dense storylines. But Jenova Chen, the creative force behind unforgettable games like Flower and Journey, takes a very different approach: his focus is on how to make players feel – whether joy, sadness, pride, fear, even love.

This is especially true of Sky: Children of the Light, his latest and most ambitious work. More than six years in the making, Sky casts you as a childlike being with the ability to generate and spread light. Sent into the world to find fallen stars in the form of spirits, you’ll help celestial creatures return to the heavens.

In Sky, exactly who you are (and why you’re there) is a mystery you’ll unravel through play. “At its core, Sky is a mystery game,” says Chen.

The game, says Chen, is engineered to elicit “positive, warm, fuzzy feelings – which I feel is missed by the rest of the games industry.”

That’s why you’ll collaborate with other online players along your journey (up to eight people can occupy a space simultaneously). As you solve Sky’s clever puzzles, avoid treacherous monsters or simply hold hands while soaring among the clouds, Chen hopes you’ll form genuine connections with strangers and strengthen bonds with the friends and family who join you.

It’s a lofty goal. But Chen and his colleagues at Thatgamecompany are on a mission to engineer more collaborative, altruistic gaming experiences. In over a year of testing with tens of thousands of players, the team has served as virtual gardeners of sorts, says Chen. “The fun part of the work is to fight against our bad behaviour. We trim the things that are ugly and nurture the things that are working.”

Chen grew up in Shanghai and moved to Los Angeles in 2003 to study at the University of Southern California in its fledgling Interactive Media Storytelling department.

One of those positive features: allowing players to express themselves through how they look, what they wear and how they act. One play tester, a woman who suffered from severe depression, shared how liberating this part of the game was for her, says Chen. “When she played Sky, she felt she was more of herself.”

She also appreciated the sense of connection she found with other players. “The game has a lot of layers of self-expression. There’s no doubt you can identify your friends just by how they move around,” Chen adds.

Sky’s seven realms are subtly themed around stages of human life. The first level, with its fluffy white clouds, represents childhood.

Unlike the self-contained, linear experience of Journey, Thatgamecompany’s previous release, Sky is a much larger, open-ended game. Seven distinct realms, each subtly symbolising a stage of human life, await exploration. Thatgamecompany plans to add a steady stream of new characters, objectives and other goodies over the coming months.

The team decided to debut Sky on iPhone and iPad to make the game as accessible as possible, says Chen. More important, players who might never have touched a videogame can pick up Sky and immediately understand its controls, delight in its world and seek out the connections it offers. “This is technology meets humanity,” he says.

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