Understated Works of Art: The Games of thatgamecompany

The new release from thatgamecompany, Sky: Children of the Light, is out now on iOS. In celebration, I wanted to look back at some of the works of its developer, thatgamecompany, and try to convince you all to give their beautiful, artistic, and downright weird titles a chance.

For me, it started with Flower.

The pitch for the game was pretty odd, to say the least. In Flower, you played the role of a flower petal driven by the wind. Your goal was to fly around huge meadows and collect other flower petals, creating a train of petals behind you. Beyond that, I had no idea what I was in for.

Looking back, I’m not sure why I even gave it a shot. It did not seem up my alley. I’m big into story-driven games, so a game about flower petals did not strike me as being particularly interesting. But it was a sight to behold in motion, so I gave it a shot.

I couldn’t have been more wrong about it. Not only was it beautiful, but it somehow, against all odds, managed to tell a compelling story — abstractly, of course, as we’re still talking about flower petals here, but compelling nonetheless. There’s even moments that provoked legitimate fear in me. But the rest of the time I could soar around, whipping through long blades of grass as the world’s chillest soundtrack played behind me. I was dealing with some anxiety in my personal life at the time, and playing Flower was a truly therapeutic experience. Nothing helped calm me down after a stressful day at work than soaring through the meadows and collecting flower petals.

So it was with great anticipation that I eventually downloaded Journey, the next big game from thatgamecompany. It promised a vast world in which you would meet other players and journey together.

Graphically, it looks simple at first glance. However, the smoothness and speed make it feel rich and alive. You’re traveling primarily through deserts, so there’s not a ton of green, but the setting sunlight striking the sand is incredibly gorgeous. You can’t deny the beauty that can happen when a team creates a compelling art style and uses it to its full potential.

But beauty alone wouldn’t make a game great, and there was one aspect that had me fearful from the beginning.

I’m not an online gamer. I don’t jump into lobbies and queue up, checking my loadout and throwing some smack talk in the group chat. I’m not even sure I got all those terms 100% right! But anyway, the online component of Journey worried me. Turns out, I had no reason to be. The last thing I want when I’m chilling with a game like this is to have to talk to some doofus with the handle n00BKrusher666.

But I had no reason to worry. There is no chat, either text or voice, in Journey. That, right away, makes it a million times more playable for someone like me. Instead, your character can call to the stranger’s character, and otherwise make use of simple body language to communicate intent. One “friend” I met showed me the way to a secret I’d never found before by jumping beside a sheer cliff of sand, calling to me. I was able to return the favor to other newbies who didn’t know their way around.

Still, nothing beats the climax of the game. As you approach your destination, a mountain, the weather begins to change. Climbing higher and higher, the temperature drops. Your health take a corresponding hit. Trying to make the journey alone would seem to be nearly impossible; you would likely freeze to death. However, if you’re traveling with someone (again, a real life person playing somewhere else in the real world), you can huddle together as you walk, sharing your body heat. Together, it’s difficult, but not so trying. The end of the game is rapturous, and left me feeling immensely satisfied.

Sky: Children of the Light looks to carry on the traditions laid out in Flower and especially in Journey. I’ve only been able to give it a few minutes so far, but it looks to be on the right track.

We’re lucky there are game companies like thatgamecompany. There’s plenty of room for military shooters and racing games, but the video game artform needs some of these more thoughtful touches, too.