Thatgamecompany’s Sky is in testing on iOS this weekend. It has a section where you slide down a sun-soaked hill to uplifting music. It has muted grey caves and cold, colourless plains patrolled by antagonistic, hulking constructs. It has a shared world with drop-in and drop-out cooperative play. It has relatively featureless anthropomorphic characters that use bursts of sound to communicate. It has a lot of the things that made Journey unique, but it brings a whole lot more of its own to the table. The movement is a rhythmic, inertial skip; there’s a skill tree and unlockable emotes; you can directly interact with other players, and even chat with them. Some of these are not good things.
Journey largely worked because it was a mechanically-light interactive hike. Sky is, by comparison, a game. A really gamey game. The problem is, it still tries to operate as if it has that simplicity and hands-off teaching. It’s trying to re-tread that same meditative success, but the subtlety and accessibility are gone. The mechanical complexity that Sky layers on is too much, with cryptic and poorly-explained interactions muddying the joy of exploring its bucolic world.
The only time I managed to open the game’s menu was when I took a screenshot using the standard iOS method—something that the game vocally didn’t agree with. It popped up a bar of icons, a tooltip telling me to use that to take my screenshots, then never actually explained how to make that bar re-appear.
It goes to the other end of the spectrum, too. Interruptive markers and waypoints would appear in my periphery, but I never knew what they meant. At one point, I was halfway through a meditation cutscene when a glaring red icon at the bottom of the screen warned me that my Wi-Fi signal was too low to maintain a stable connection with other players.
The emotional impact of Journey lay mostly in the comings and goings of other Travelers. A player could appear at any time, sticking with you for two minutes or multiple hours. The players that stayed became a source of comfort and warmth—particularly in the later areas. When someone you’ve been journeying with for a while suddenly disappeared, it was heartbreaking. Sky lacks that same emotional gut punch, even though it practically forces you into deeper interpersonal communication.
The unlocks are gated behind hearts, which are given and received by sharing your candlelight with other people. The idea is that it promotes travelling together, but it ultimately commodifies the social elements, putting a price on your time with other people. And I haven’t even mentioned the microtransactions yet.
The idea that you can skip the very core of Sky’s existence by spending real money is disheartening and antithetical to what thatgamecompany are trying to accomplish with the game. It hurts even more that it doesn’t explain why you should spend that money, it just expects that you will. I’m still not sure if the game will be free or not, but I’m left genuinely hoping that the microtransactions don’t make it into the final product.
If I sound down on Sky, it’s because there are also some great high points: the world is almost watercolour in motion, I still enjoy simply being with other people in the world and Vincent Diamante’s score is a stunning companion for exploration. It’s a technically beautiful thing, even in its unfinished state. It never missed a beat on my iPad Pro (the 2017 10.5” model) and the only bugs I encountered were a few camera issues. Even on my significantly smaller and less powerful iPhone 7 Plus, a visible resolution hit couldn’t detract from how good this game looks. It will certainly play better with a controller, but this is an astoundingly capable game for tablets and phones.
“Sky does a lot of things Journey did better” is not something I wanted to feel about a game that is, ostensibly, six years in the making. It simply doesn’t engross me, no matter how hard it seems to be trying to. And yet, I’m unusually interested in seeing the final product, and ultimately what thatgamecompany learned from the success of Journey.