If you have spent any time on the internet at all, you already know that it can be hard to get away from negative and toxic content, video game communities included. Hate speech, trolls, unwanted aggression, intolerance, and so on continue to poison many digital gathering spaces. One element to the creation of toxic digital spaces is the anonymous nature of the internet, but ThatGameCompany seems to have designed Sky with that cautiously in mind. Sky proves that anonymity itself doesn’t have to be fuel for negativity, but rather can exist in a system where everyone is uplifted. In this IOS exclusive the main way players progress through the game is by interacting with others in an anonymous format, and yet I was genuinely uplifted emotionally every time I logged on.
The gameplay goal of Sky is simple, the layout is somewhat similar to Journey The classic indie adventure from the same developers. Players progress simply by traveling the distance from the start to the end, while looking for Spirits and Ancestors to open each new area. Levels are made up of simple puzzles and large play areas that offer exploration and sightseeing as the main activities generally. Players spread their wings and fly through the open sky and narrow wind tunnels, through forests in the clouds, and into ancient temples and ruins. The players only resource/HP to really manage as far as world progression is the light that fuels your flight ability, which can easily be gained by standing near any fire, candle, friendly creature, and even other players. Players must locate ancestors in each level which somehow brings life back to the lost souls and allows for the next level to be explored. All Ancestors and Spirits found move the player closer to gaining new cosmetic items and allow the option to build relationships with other players and spirits themselves. This loop of gathering light to fly, flying to explore, and exploring to “rescue” the spirits and ancestors on each stage make up the body of the game. The game is certainly best experienced with companions, and many of the obstacles to success in Sky such as the flame draining rain or getting lost are also alleviated with a friend or two to help.
I wanted to enjoy Sky a lot when I discovered it but was concerned that the beautiful landscapes and scenic skies would clash with my player-to-player interactions. I was delighted immediately as I started my adventure, and quickly found I could not have been more wrong. Not only did the developers find a way to keep player interactions focused on the positive, but they built player reciprocity and giving into the actual progression mechanics of the game. It is clear that Sky is doing something great, and other games could take a note from it’s successful focus on positivity in it’s handling of multiplayer interactions.
Here are some of the mechanics that created such a positive a beautiful experience:
- You name others, not yourself
When you encounter another player in the environment they are grey and without distinction, like a colorless ghost. Offering friendship to them is shown as you offering a candle to them, and rather than showing a name they picked for themselves, you will give them a name that is only for your reference. The grey melts off the shadow as light illuminates your new friend, and all their cosmetic items and chosen style are no longer hidden. This is when the player is prompted to name their new partner. No more immersion breaking names made of crass middle-school humor between the numbers 420 and 69, now the only names you see are the ones you give others. Sure if you wanted to you could fill your screen with silly and wildly inappropriate names, but if you did it wouldn’t bother any other player’s scenic pleasant experience. Names are only visible to those who named them. in a small way, this feature also has the secondary benefit of giving a small amount of creative control over their game of Sky. Someone who wants their world to be more mystical may name players based on fantasy names, or name friends based on the context of meeting (which is what I do). If I am playing and I meet someone in the rain who gives me fire when mine is out (a wonderful mechanic also just put in there to be nice and promote cooperation), I may name that person something like “Friend in Floods”, or “Shrouded Healer”. All friends are added to your progression menu (shown as constellations in the sky), and you can then freely boots all your friends light levels when you log on.
- Giving and receiving is mutually beneficial, so everyone benefits from sharing the light
Though it does cost a lamp to friend another players (an item crafted by collecting lots of light), this is still essentially paying a small amount of candle light now to get more in the future, as boosting friends light is free and is the best way to get people to send you light back.
- You can offer to help others by letting them tag along for a ride by holding hands
If you are having trouble finding some of the more well hidden spirits and candles you can always offer to take the hand of someone else and both characters will hold hands. One person is in control then and is free to fly or walk around the map without worrying about their new friend getting lost or falling behind. The ability to hold strangers hands and to fly around in an incredibly beautiful environment with someone else is magical. I’ve had a lot of good experiences just hanging out with new friends and bringing light to other players we come across. There seems to be no limit to the number of players who can hold hands and at one point I had joined a group that had 5 players all soaring and adventuring across the landscape together.
- Actual player to player chat is always consensual, opt-in, and you must be friends first
Another feature that seems to help greatly in making sure that chat and social interaction is as positive an experience as it can be is that chat is only available to friends, and you actually have to sit on a bench in the game together, and both opt to have a conversation. This small barrier that requires consent and intentionally leaves little reason or room for harassment. It’s more about letting people talk one on one if they have spent time in game together and want to communicate, rather than a message board for anyone in the game to shout through. It’s more spontaneous and intimate, because the players have to find a bench first surrounded by natural beauty. Again, of course people can still inject negativity into another players experience, but if desired players can opt to just not see messages and just enjoy the music and scenery.
- The setting of the game is clearly about wonder, beauty, collaboration, and sharing
With all the helpful steps that the developers took to ensure that players feel deep positive feeling while playing their game, the setting might be the strongest influence of player behavior. Though the various game mechanics make it harder for people to be a jerk while playing, it’s really the visuals, music, and story that make the player want to be respectful and kind to others. It is true that the specific themes in Sky may not always translate well to other more competitive games, but the concept still works. Things like being able to vote for teammate medals at the end of an Overwatch match are a great example of devs giving players opportunities to opt-into positive interactions in a competitive game. If the future of gaming is to reach bigger and more diverse audiences incorporating intentional mechanics and themes of positivity into future games is a vital element. Sky is a great example of how relaxation, collaboration, and entertainment can all exist within one game, bringing those who engage with it, closer to one another, and can even encourage compassion and other positive emotional skills that are vital to our national and personal prosperity.
If art is powerful, as I believe it is, interactive art has a particularly impactful influence on those who engage with it. I’m grateful to have a place as peaceful and simple as Sky to visit at the end of a day full of stress or anxiety. Interactions with others are usually focused on exploring together or simply exchanging simple gifts, and demand little from players with social anxiety. And while the visuals and music are incredible and would make for a peaceful experience by themselves, the ability to experience the seamless immersion of Sky with other players is the most magical part of the journey. We are all in this life on Earth here together, let’s work to make physical and digital spaces both places that welcome all and encourage cooperation and creativity.