Gamescapes: American game developer ‘thatgamecompany’ talks about love

In part three of the series, STIR speaks with TGC's game designer Atlas Chen to discover the story behind the endeavour to bring compassion into video games through gameplay.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Jul 21, 2020

A special quality about art is that it can be profoundly meaningful when experienced solo, and powerfully moving when the experience is shared. The potential of collective experience can be immense when it comes to performative arts such as music or theatre. There are also artworks which are created specifically with the intention to be ‘used’ by or played with multiple people. Here, it is a direct invitation from the artist to the viewer to expand on their encounter with the artwork by including a second or third person. Unfortunately, when it comes to the art of screen-based games, the stereotype of video games is often that it is socially isolating and not interactive as an activity. However, this digital medium can actually be a natural and fun stimulus for creating relationships, nurturing friendships and breaking past cultural, physical and other boundaries.

TGC takes you through magical realms, digital but surreal and deeply touching | Sky: Children of the Light | thatgamecompany | STIRworld
thatgamecompany takes you through magical realms, digital but surreal and deeply touching Image Credit: Courtesy of thatgamecompany

Referred to as ‘fellowship’, creating social frameworks in video games is an aesthetic element of the games according to the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework. This term is used almost exclusively with regard to the multiplayer games and refers to building a community, both within and around the game. Social interaction through games can be designed in a number of ways. For instance, Club Penguin enabled text chatting, while PUBG allowed for voice conversations. Other games such as Like Like, a virtual museum where players can interact with others through games within the museum, is a virtual world where the game can only be played by interacting with others in the room or better, friends. As I coursed through various multiplayer games, one game that caught my attention instantly is Journey. This game, unlike many, is both single and multiplayer. The indie video game is a timeless, widely acclaimed, award-winning work of art. I played it with a friend and found the experience to be altogether consuming and quiet revelatory. Journey uses a flawless audio score in combination with colour-themed levels through which you overcome obstacles and are supported by mysterious creatures along the way.

The latest game by thatgamecompany takes you into an ever-expanding fantasy world | Sky: Children of the Light | thatgamecompany | STIRworld
The latest game by thatgamecompany takes you into an ever-expanding fantasy world Image Credit: Courtesy of thatgamecompany

The developers of the phenomenal game call themselves ‘thatgamecompany’ and are based in California, USA. In an interview with STIR, Atlas Chen, the lead designer of their latest game Sky: Children of the Light, talks about what makes TGC's work not just globally popular, but also novel in their approach to constructing social frameworks through video game format.

“I think what motivates us is love, both the love for video games and the love of people. Many of us have experienced times when we were deeply touched by the video games. We know that games have an impact to make us better human beings since childhood. To share these experiences with others is a very natural drive for us to become creators of them,” says Chen. “If we take a closer look at those moments that “make us cry” in video games, it boils down to a heart-to-heart conversation, either between the players and the game creators or among the players. What truly touches us are people themselves, it is our humanity. I believe what moves us the deepest is what is the most fundamental to all human beings. What is fundamental resonates not only to specific demography but to all of us. At our core, we are social animals. We all have the desire to be part of a society, to communicate with others, and to be connected and understood. And for society, understanding leads to empathy, compassion, and love, while lacking it leads to distrust, conflicts, and hatred. As human beings, we all hope to see a peaceful world that is filled with understanding and love. By creating games that can provide this fundamental value we all cherish, through inspiring human to human connection, we are fulfilling our love for both people and the video games," he adds.

The landscapes and textures make the game a delightfully tingling experience for the senses | Journey | thatgamecompany | STIRworld
The landscapes and textures make the game a delightfully tingling experience for the senses Image Credit: Courtesy of thatgamecompany

While many games encourage socially dependent relationships, which in turn encourage interaction, thatgamecompany is refreshingly different. It offers no chat function nor voice and players are not tied to nor dependent on their co-players. In Sky, the chat function is unlocked by request with the fellow player. Journey, too, uses companionship to set the foundation of the partnership. This also lays the foundation for building associations beyond language barriers. Chen explains, “There are many ways that games can enhance social interaction. Here I can name just a few: games as fiction provide an alternative identity, and an alternative perspective. The reframing of players as the game’s avatar can eliminate the social prejudice and discriminations towards people’s nationality, race, appearance, gender, wealth, social status, and so on when this information is simply not available. For example, when you meet another child with a cape in Sky, to some extent you could see them in a purer way - “it’s another person, just like me”. Games as possibility spaces can create exchanges that are more compassionate than competitive by carefully selecting the possible choices provided to the players. As game designers, we can offer positive opportunities than negative choices to forge friendships and connections. Games as online services can connect players worldwide to become friends. Games as culture create huge communities of fans sharing the same languages and passions... And there are so many more ways games can enhance human to human connections”.

A surreal landscape from their latest release Sky: Children of the Light | Sky: Children of the Light | thatgamecompany | STIRworld
A surreal landscape from their latest release Sky: Children of the Light Image Credit: Courtesy of thatgamecompany

The video games created by TGC are not only creators of stunning aesthetic experiences but are also keenly tuned in to visceral human sensations and emotions. Chen recalls one such experience when he says, "We saw a tweet from a Japanese player sharing a manga she drew, which is about her story of how the warmth from the friendly players in Sky saved her from committing suicide. I was in tears reading it. It shows how powerful love and support from other players can be”. He elaborates, “We live in a time where life is more and more fast-paced and people are more and more isolated. Depression rate is surging nowadays. Supportive social relationships are important for people who are facing low times in their life. As gaming becomes the largest entertainment industry (bigger than films and music), game creators have the responsibility to create more games that foster human virtue and altruistic communities. In the earlier years, our company mission started as “creating timeless entertainment for positive changes in the human psyche worldwide”. This is the commonality between our past titles, Flow, Flower, Journey, and Sky. With Journey and Sky, we continue this thread onto the next chapter, which is making our games multiplayer, with the goal of bringing more people together and inspiring human connection along the way”.

Sky encourages interaction and communication between players | Sky: Children of the Light | thatgamecompany | STIRworld
Sky encourages interaction and communication between players Image Credit: Courtesy of thatgamecompany

While I played Journey, before I ever connected with TGC, I noticed that the soundtrack was a significant influence on my experience. A cursory search on the internet revealed that the game had actually won multiple BAFTA awards in 2013 for this game including one for original score. This remains a keystone in all digital game experiences created by the Californian team. “Before I joined TGC, I heard the story that the music of Journey was composed very early in the development stage, and it influenced and inspired the game’s level design. This tradition has been carried over to Sky as well. When we want to provide the most emotional experiences, alongside conceptualising the arts, composing the music often is the first step and it guides designers to craft the gameplay and level design to deliver the emotional experience,” informs Chen.

Sky is a 2019 release and the universe within grows continuously | Sky: Children of the Light | thatgamecompany | STIRworld
Sky is a 2019 release and the universe within grows continuously Image Credit: Courtesy of thatgamecompany

Their most recent game Sky: Children of the Light is available on iOS, Android and is coming soon to Nintendo Switch. “We just released our latest adventure, Season of Enchantment, which reveals a deeper layer of Sky’s world to the audience. The team is currently working hard on future updates, including a new area of the world that we are all excited about. The world of Sky continues to be revealed, and we are working to improve the quality of experience for our existing players to enjoy the world and social engagement even more,” says the lead designer.

thatgamecompany is a diverse group of game lovers and their list of recommendations are reflective of this - Dark Souls, Animal Crossing, Kind Words, One Hour One Life, Death Stranding, Nier: Automata and Pokemon Go are just a few of the games they play. thatgamecompany was founded in 2006 by Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago.

Atlas Chen, lead designer of Sky: Children of the Light|  thatgamecompany | STIRworld
Atlas Chen, lead designer of Sky: Children of the Light Image Credit: Courtesy of thatgamecompany

Click here to know more about video games as an artform and read the other articles in the Gamescapes series presented by STIR.

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About Author

Shraddha Nair

Shraddha Nair

Nair is a writer and curator based in Bengaluru, India. Her curatorial practice is a method by which she negotiates with and navigates the complexities of human behaviour, an interest which flows into her writing as well. She believes that art and collective experience hold immense capacity in the cultivation and development of action and emotion.

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