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How Sky: Children of the Light lets players be vulnerable in a multiplayer game

“It’s the opt-in nature of conversation. When we look at the toxicity that can exist in the gaming space, I do think this limits that toxicity and allows people to feel safer. You can be vulnerable, you can choose to be vulnerable with other people, but you get to choose,” thatgamecompany head of community Robert Wing tells GLHF. “Look at the progression of communication. It starts simple with emotes, and those emotes express something about you. Then you can get to know this other player you’re emoting with, and say, ‘okay, great, like, I’d like to sit down on a chat bench and talk with you’.” 

Journey was critically acclaimed on release and still beloved by almost everyone that played it, and one of many reasons it was so effective was the seamless multiplayer experience. You could be exploring the vast desert alone, only to have another player just like you appear from nowhere. There was no voice chat, just a simple, happy emote. 

This limited form of communication should condemn any normal multiplayer experience by default, but instead, it becomes part of what makes Journey so charming and memorable – literally the journey, and the friends you made along the way. Now, thatgamecompany’s Sky: Children of the Light is taking that concept much further. 

“When you have a hammer, you’ll see everything as a nail, and we don’t want to give players hammers,” Sky gameplay designer Atlas Chen explains. “We talked about experimenting with character collision in the playtests, and players started pushing each other off of the cliff. There was a realization that if you give people feedback while doing something bad to each other, they will enjoy doing that and keep doing that. The best way to solve this is to remove the collision and you will not be able to damage the other players. So limited communication is one part of the link.” 

If you don’t give players the tools they need in order to be mean to one another, they simply won’t be. Players are limited to communicating with simple, inoffensive emotes, unless the person they’re speaking with decides to open up a dialogue. The effort required just to get that far, and how quickly the connection can be severed by either party, means being nasty ends up being a genuine waste of your time and effort while playing. But somehow it doesn’t prevent relationships from forming. 

“We see that manifest in the community. Players get really excited to hang out in the starting area and see new players, take their hand, and show them around. Having handholding as a mechanic allows people to help each other,” Wing tells us. “Players latch on to that and they get really excited, and they brag in our social spaces about – they call it adopting moths, moth being a term for our new players in the global community. They really take pride in helping each other. That’s just down to how you design it.” 

There’s a lot to be said for multiplayer games that do not treat you like someone’s nail and allow you to share that experience with someone less skilled. “I remember the story of a little girl that was able to play with her grandmother when they were very far away from each other. That was really touching and motivated us to continue to do what we do,” Chen shares. “As developers, we’re used to shopping a boxed product and moving on to the next project, but not with Sky. This gives us the opportunity to collaborate with the community on the creative side, and we are constantly hearing feedback. That is a really powerful tool for us as designers.” 

“I really do believe we have the absolute best community of players. And every day, I wake up and the first thing I do is I go and I check the Sky subreddit,” Wing adds. “Oftentimes it’s a very positive place, and that represents the broader Sky community. I get to just wake up and see all this positive energy and excitement. And hope, really.”

The global political climate is more volatile than it has been for decades, and communities are more fractured than ever after a global pandemic. With so much to divide people, it’s good that games like Sky exist to let players put down their hammers for a moment.

Written by Dave Aubrey on behalf of GLHF.

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