(Sky: Children of the Light, thatgamecompany 2019)

Games as a Service has been a much discussed experiment established by the AAA industry, one that has been wildly successful. As the arms race of technical advancements forever bloating development budgets races onward and the tightening of development cycle lengths to meet growing profit demands continues, games release at a dizzying flurry that is at once suffocating yet celebratory. Each year, a new pantheon of titles are added to the record, miles of scripts that inspire and renew, or simply experiences that last wordlessly; a breeze of mechanics and flow fusing into a torrent of fleeting endless memories.

“But,” the corporate mind may ask, “how do we make this profitable for us, a massive corporation wielding the labor of hundreds within our hand? How can we ensure consumers will flock to our products and save their purchasing power for more of what we have?”

“Perhaps the game marches on, incessantly, the celestial seasons hearkening return as the calendar turns anew. We already release a new title of this franchise every August, why not speed it up just a little? Give us a stopgap until the next tentpole is ready to reap the rewards?”

The Sisyphean task of supporting profit growth.

“Ah, yes, we can tell them that we’re no longer providing product but a service, a lasting companionship that will hold their hand through this life; never again will they need feel fear at the wall of possibilities, instead seeing our familiar and loving glow each and every night when they need it. A long day at work, a moment to unwind, we’ll be here, and we will ensure our developers never cease development! Should we continue to pour all these investments into engines, into worlds, into art, no, instead we shall squeeze every last drop from creative output ’til the drips cease and we thirst again.”

“But what, then, is the point? Certainly a Skinner Box proves endless enjoyability for a rat but these moneyhavers are wily — crafty, even. They’ll see the charade plain through eventually and move on to greener pastures. Complex as they may be, the end result is shamefully the same: boredom preceding the eager search for relief elsewhere.”

For those who pluck Destiny from their pantheon of treasures, the recurrent sentiments are common amongst its fans: “There’s so much grind, it feels unrewarding, it’s nothing more than a complicated loot treadmill.” Perhaps you’d ask, “why waste your time?” For myself, I would begin to explain the intricate, Eldritch knowledge you gain as you play and execute the Raids it holds; what other games have you and five others perfectly choreographing a bizarre, incomprehensible dance demanding precision, communication, speed, and endurance? Your reliance on one another all you have, and your reward some flashy models per the standard of the treadmill.

Oh boy, only 90 more levels and I can have a sidekick with a glowy mohawk! (Destiny 2, Bungie 2017)

That time spent, the investment of unearthing this complicated mess of mechanics and puzzles, would be far better spent engaging with and practicing any skill with a more practical application. However, you aren’t spending that time alone, and the tribulations you endure are shared. Stories arise: “Remember that time we…?” It becomes a touchstone, where you gather round the box once a week to suffer once again, the allure of a fancier helmet so enticing that you can’t turn down the chance to try again — so long as your friends are by your side.

Within a lot of games that exist under the Games as a Service (GaaS) moniker, having a space in which you and a gaggle of buddies can engage with one another while working together to achieve something is beautiful. The purpose is forever interchangeable: kill 96 other people on this island, explore the horizons of the known universe together, pretend to be super spies saving America, and so on. Fortnite, No Man’s Sky, and The Division all play into the same pastiche Destiny does; just with different flavours and dressings.

Community Manager DeeJ even outright said that the real reward for Destiny players is the friendships you make along the way.

Back before the GaaS craze, people would flock to MMOs for the sole purpose of being able to adventure and undertake insurmountable challenges with a few pals by their side. World of Warcraft’s 40-man Raids are the pinnacle of cooperative mechanical design, demanding people command a militia of other humans under a common banner for loot. But, the biggest distinction between WoW and Destiny is the speed at which new content is unveiled and released for what becomes a platform of experiences. While Blizzard stood by a fairly intermittent schedule of releasing major Expansion Packs that introduced new content to devour, Bungie has accelerated the process to a pace that has made it a titan of the industry.

Bungie is a studio that has made a fair commitment to end Crunch Culture  after their split with Activision but, regardless of their intent, the rate at which new content releases for Destiny 2 must surely keep the team working tirelessly to maintain their headstart on the update schedule. Eventually, Destiny 3 will release and restart the process, moving the post-release team over to the new project, burn-outs tossed aside and replaced to keep the machine oiled. New Raids must be designed, and if not Raids then new weaponry, new armors, new activities to earn them in; the demand will not cease, and to keep these doors open we must supply.

Source: vg247

What does a deconstruction of this trend look like? Strip away the flashy components, the glitz and glam of the endless upgrades of the Loot Treadmill, and what’s left? A glorified dress-up doll. A digital chatroom. A set of mechanics that work best when solving puzzles with others. Thus, we can see that Sky: Children of the Light is the antithesis of everything GaaS is, while still existing within its framework.

A recent mobile title from thatgamecompany (@thatgamecompany), Sky is something of a dark horse. It plays similarly enough to the previous title from thatgamecompany, Journey; the player traverses a strange, surreal world full of beauty and wonder, carrying with them a flame to distribute to a once-proud civilization, urged onward by a gnawing desire to surmount a pinnacle that erupts light. Along the way, the player will stumble across others like them and can chirp to communicate. Light platforming and some minor environmental puzzles create a loop of entering a new area and exploring to find Spirits of the forgotten populace dotting this landscape.

Sky is an outrageously gorgeous game, begging exploration of its vistas.

These Spirits each offer a tree of unlockables for the player, but unlike Destiny where these unlocks drive the push forward into higher-leveled content that then drives the player into even higher-leveled content, and so on, the rewards on offer from these Spirits are cosmetic. They provide single use “Blessings” as well, but these carry an intent of playfulness: Anti-Gravity spells that make you and your nearby friends floatier, make you glow, shoot off fireworks, or place a table down that you and others can sit around and chat.

Sky is built around Seasons, much like Destiny and other GaaS progenitors, which last a few weeks featuring new content, and then disappearing to make way for the next Season. Unlike Destiny, these periods serve to introduce new cosmetics to the world with a light load of daily activities to unlock them. Grinding out all the activities rewards the player with the heady achievement of Having All The Things, not even providing an engorged number to measure your dedication. This then prompts a familiar question: “Why waste your time?”

Time spent with friends is never time wasted.

Unlike Destiny, Sky’s endgame isn’t built around complex and stressful events to center your social gatherings around, but instead facilitates a place for friends to gather and simply be together. The surface-level mechanics provide a slight amount of social lubricant to give you a reason to hop in together, but the most secretive areas and rewards tucked away from first glance simply reward gathering. An early area with a hidden zone plops you in front of a massive sealed door, with eight seats at its base. Should you manage to accumulate the people, it opens. Of course, should you lack the requisite number of acquaintances necessary, this becomes a game of patience wherein you must wait for enough people to stumble over the threshold and choose to wait with you.

Your perseverance is awarded with the only option available to pass the time: conversation. You cast that Table spell you figured would just gather dust, and rather than taking down some bullet sponge, or waiting for an opportune moment to flee cover together, you and the others who gather share stories and jokes, passing the time in earnest. Through and through, Sky utilizes its instances of a shared world to create a social space that is propped up by a GaaS coat of paint.

There are microtransactions to ease the burden of currency collection, Candles, and thus the collection of cosmetics, but the secondary currency, Hearts, can only be traded for with Candles so many times. Thus, the sole source of income for Hearts becomes being gifted them by friends (which requires 3 Candles to gift 1 Heart per day), continuing to build social interaction and the paying of attention to the needs of others at the heart of the game.

Objectives supplied by the ownership of the Season Pass, and thus the crux of “completing” (as much as collecting all the items counts as completion) always has one of the four daily obligations requiring the intervention of others: hold hands in a group of four, open a two-player door, etcetera. Even the post-game, after completing the main story, sees the player Ascend and forgo all their collected upgrade materials (collectibles that allow longer flight), prompting them to return to early-game sections to retrieve these materials, and hopefully help newer players with the ropes in the beginning of their journey. Furthermore, of the key aspects of the game is the flight mechanic which has a limited charge that can be rejuvenated by resting near fire or simply from a shout of a passerby, promoting cooperation and banding together for the most basic of activities: exploration.

Crossing this desert is an arduous task, but it doesn’t have to be done alone.

Similarly to Sky, social multiplayer spaces are abundant in the wide world of games. Easy examples to point to are Second Life, Habbo Hotel, or applications such as IMVU, but what these examples lack is a purpose outside the gathering of friends. Then there are the more obscure examples, such as Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, an MMO focused entirely on cooperative puzzle solving within the extended Myst universe. While featuring a full-fledged single-player campaign, all of its locales along with expansion content can be played with a group of friends.

Together, you and your group uncover swaths of the history of an ancient civilization, a lost culture, all while solely focused on puzzles built around that lost culture. Much like Sky, your primary time spent in the game is socially focused: talking to others, engaging with the playerbase to seek crew that can solve challenges requiring multiple players. It’s really something of a proto-Sky, given its pacifist gameplay and focused intent.

Uru features lush environments dense with oblique puzzles that’ll take more than a few heads to unpack.

Social spaces have been the frustum many a game have been hinged upon, especially when it comes to the multiplayer-centric offerings the industry has cooked up over the years. Whether it’s Everquest or Anthem, the game is always better with a group of friends by your side. But, as the industry shifts further and further into promoting GaaS platforms, we must ask ourselves what the toll is on development teams. Endless reiteration not only breeds trends toward the safe and profitable, but requires backbreaking labor that burns developers out.

We don’t need huge, flashy endorphin-rush-inducing, psychologically refined Skinner Boxes that exist to endlessly trap you. All that we need is a lush hillside, sun breaking over the horizon, our friends at our side. The moments we create will not be owed to byzantine game structures, but instead we will craft them together; our own slivers of time encapsulated by ourselves, reliant only on understanding.

Sky: Children of the Light is currently available on iOS and is in beta on Android. Myst: Uru is available in its entirety on the official website.

Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.