APPLE DESIGN AWARDS
Reaching for the Sky
Jenova Chen created a game that feels unlike any other. Here’s why.
Sky: Children of the Light
Play Together with Compassion
Many game creators dedicate themselves to designing big spaceships, terrifying adversaries, massive open worlds, and dialogue-driven narratives.
Jenova Chen goes in another direction entirely: He crafts titles designed to make players feel, to experience everything from joy to sadness to pride and even love.
The cofounder of indie darling studio Thatgamecompany, Chen helped mastermind the studio’s roster of emotionally rich and artistically beautiful games like Flower and Journey. But his 2020 Apple Design Award winner, Sky: Children of the Light, is especially different.
More than six years in the making, the game casts you as a mysterious being with the ability to spread light. Each of the levels, which you explore in whichever order you please, represents a chapter in the human experience. Collaborate with other online players to solve puzzles, unlock secrets, or simply join hands and glide through the air.
If this all sounds slightly enigmatic, that’s the idea—the game’s story gracefully reveals itself the more you explore. “At its core, Sky is a mystery game,” says Chen—one that’s engineered to elicit “positive, warm, fuzzy feelings—which I feel is missed by the rest of the games industry.”
We caught up with Chen after his ADA win to ask where his novel approach to gamemaking came from.
Did you always want to be a game designer?
My dad was in the software industry, so at maybe 7 years old I started coding. From that point all the way to college, I was a computer science student. All engineering, all math. But I knew I didn’t want it to be my entire life.
Even if you’re not passionate about being a swimmer, if you’re thrown into the water early you’ll swim better than the people who never got in. So that was me: the mediocre guy on the engineering path who was ahead of everybody because he started learning computers early but who always dreamed of becoming an artist.
Your games are more about feeling things than claiming rewards or high scores. Where does that philosophy of design come from?
When I was in grad school at USC, I ended up in this trustee meeting with all these super-rich people. I thought, “Is my idea of a successful life being some guy driving a fancy car?” Ultimately, I realized the only thing that’ll be sustainable and produce happiness is contributing to people around you. Money and fame come and go, but contributing never goes away. So I thought, “What is that contribution? What can I leave for society?”
I got into making game projects, and one of them [the 2005 game Cloud] touched a lot of people. It was a student game, the sort of thing you upload to your personal blog so people can download a ZIP file. About 600,000 people did—it was huge. And we started to get letters: “You’re beautiful people,” things like that. People were crying because of the game.
I’d never seen a game where you can give another person a hug, ever.
That must have been an incredible feeling.
I’d never thought a game could be a positive thing, you know? People started saying I should release it commercially, to show videogames aren’t just about violence, that fighting games can be an expression of positivity and healing. Because of that encouragement, I thought I should start a game company, that maybe it was God telling me what to do.
And now Sky is doing something similar on a massive scale.
I’d never seen a game where you can give another person a hug, ever. In Sky, you can hug. The game is genderless and ageless. A lot of players make emotional connections with each other. And the simple fact that you can leave something, an object or an experience, that can change so many people’s lives for the better is the coolest thing.