Wot I Think: Castles In The Sky

By Cara Ellison on October 14th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

boyface
Castles In The Sky, the debut game from indie studio The Tall Trees, doesn’t look like much. Its little pixellated window is like a peek into a giftbox you might find in an Edinburgh gift shop. A miniature boy is holding a little balloon as if framed on the wall of a childhood bedroom. The premise of this game is small too. In Jack’s email to me he’d tell me ‘It’s a videogame picture-book about a little boy who decides to leave the earth far below, and goes off exploring in the wide blue sky’. A picture book, I thought. I expected a pleasant story. I expected not much in the way of the trappings of videogame canon: that world we come from where a health bar happens, or where a collectible might demand our attention. Sullenly, I ran the game, and expected to like it, but not think anything further of it. But sitting down in an armchair just after dinner, I experienced the unlikely: what it is like to be proven wrong.

As I’m writing this, my little cottage in Brighton is quiet. The low swishing hum of the dishwasher ruminates over the scrubbed surfaces of our little kitchen, behind me the radiator has just gurgled a little into life and is somehow gently heating my chair. My belly is full in a way it hasn’t been for a long time. I am sitting here regretting being short with a game designer who wanted me to play his game because it mattered to him. I am sitting here feeling a sense of being humbled.

Intrepid adventurer of the clouds

I was short with the lovely designer of Castles In The Sky because my laptop refused to run it at first, and I was travelling, and I had very little money and all the burdens of life had collapsed on me. That week I’d regretted choosing to become a full time writer, I’d regretted choosing to be an advocate for a medium that I sometimes feel doesn’t really want me or can’t sustain me. I’d started to become that thing that no one wants to become: a critic who stopped understanding why she’d ever started to write about something in the first place. Someone who had recently been writing because she wanted to make fun of things, not because she loved things. Being on this path is like playing Desert Bus: you must constantly correct the drift on your steering. Sometimes editors correct my drift, sometimes I have to do it for myself, but this time – this time, it was the game that corrected me.

On a Sunday afternoon, with the rain lashing down outside and all the silence in my house inside, I felt a particular sense of freedom radiate from the little boy sprite, with his hair waving in the wind, grasping his red balloon and heading up and up into the sky. In part, this feeling comes from the gently undulating soundtrack, a sort of opiate-sweet coma that makes the clouds seem more marshmallow-like in texture. Headphones are mandatory for this game; the reverent womb the music makes of your chosen device is like that feeling you get when you run hot water into bathwater gone cold. Your toes wriggle in lethargic joy. Or the feeling you get when you’ve just walked into your house from a thick, buffeting storm outside, and the fireplace is lit inside, and someone you love has already put the kettle on.

And yet the sense of feeling free, or let loose to fly, comes from a familiar mechanic. The idea is to jump the tiny blushing sprite up and up into the blue sky as night falls; to do this you hold down the mouse button to charge up a jump, and then release to ping joyfully into the sky. When you let go a grin spreads widely across his face, reflecting how you should feel at the release of the jump. The little boy will hang there idly in mid air before he begins to drop slowly onto a cloud of your cursor’s choice, and you climb more from there. If this were a platformer, perhaps this would be boring. But this isn’t really a platformer, so much as a bedtime story. This is more like taking a journey back into your childhood, where when you looked up at the sky, you thought clouds might be able to sustain your weight, if you wanted. When clouds were reachable platforms for all your idle thoughts.

The little ping-to-fly sensation is one I’m familiar with: it has the elastic of Joe Danger’s jump-feel with a slow languid pace. The hold-down let-go is one of the most enjoyable game feelings we have, and the drift and land is just right. It has a nice dreamlike quality. And so do the words that accompany you.

Will we find castles?

As the boy jumps up and up and up, text appears line by line to tell a bedtime story in poetic rhythm, uses your climb to imprint phrases upon the blue backdrop of how you should ‘bend your knees and away you go, to find castles in the sky’. The rhythm is soporific, easy-reading. I imagined myself reading this to someone I loved as I climbed clouds. I imagined that I was reading it to someone who loved me.

Imminently you’ll catch the string of a red balloon again and find that the music drops for some birds to drift by. A little pot plant appears on a cloud and somehow it isn’t out of place at all. You continue on up, the wind always blowing the fronds of your little boy’s brown mop. The sky changes its lazy haze; the shadows move.

There are little orbs suspended in the air that you can collect as you climb; these are not really collectibles. I have come to resent the canonic language that has me call them that; in fact, that I have already used the word ‘platformer’ and ‘collectibles’ with regard to this game makes me feel restrained, like I’ve been handcuffed as a writer. The terms place an expectation on this game that is absolutely irrelevant. You can ‘collect’ these orbs, but they are for nothing but making tuneful noise. They aren’t really for possession; there is no counter. As you ‘collect’ them, they ping little toy bell notes that are their own reward – there are no other sound effects in the game. Those noises remind you of play like it used to be when we were very very young, when play wasn’t a competition but an experience, a journey you were on to make your environment tell you something. When you made mud pies just because you could. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? To play? Play is its own reward. The orbs are their own reward. They are not ‘collectibles’. You cannot use them to redeem a prize, like tokens at a village fair.

The music changed. I travelled above a wall of cloud into a blushing dusk, and the words suggested that all lost balloons, wherever they are, would find new owners.

There’s a rush of old feelings for me in that moment where those words clash with a hot air balloon rising proudly from behind the cloud cover. My heart swells. I don’t recall primary school; I’m not quite sure what happened but I have blocked out the memory of that time. But the game’s idea that all lost balloons might find new owners is an allegory that hauled up the hopes that I think my ten year old self had once. I think perhaps ten year old me wanted to think that all lost balloons are found by someone, just like all little boys grow up, except one.

At some point in the night, fireflies appear.

I feel sleepy happy

The best games, the ones that make your limbs ache, the ones that make your eyes water, the ones that touch inside your mind and reset your faculties like a tiny tripswitch awaking some decadently manufactured android: the best games change something in you by the end. These days this happens more and more often to me than I ever imagined it would. When I was twelve I thought that Tomb Raider was the height of adventure: the only thing that in my teens could possibly have stung me like a cattle prod into leaving Britain’s rain-battered salt-clouded shores, sent me careening through years of bitter-tangy spirits in novelty shot glasses, pockets full of jangling Baht when I needed dollars, and sitting soggy in a jungle whilst grass bugs sacrificed themselves to my dinner.

But recent games have gently curbed my rigid, adolescent idea of what games are. It might seem like games are getting more tiresome, particularly to those of us who have had a lifetime of looking at the stupid art on the front of graphics card boxes. Mainstream games are staying the same, because they continue to want a mainstream audience. But some people are making other games with different ideas in mind because they would like to say something interesting with their mechanics, their story – sometimes both together. Money might still factor. But at least those designers get to hold out their hands to cradle the player. I felt like something had changed in me, by the end of this game. I felt hopeful as my little boy adventurer climbed, finally, into bed.

I am hungry for marshmallows for some reason

Castles In The Sky is a tiny window into a delightful bedtime story. I imagine parents reading it aloud to their children as the child is fascinated by the huge bounds the boy makes through clouds. Very little happens but kites and planes go by; the music gently ebbs into your mind and as the story ends you feel peaceful and contented. It has thawed me a little, from a week of thinking only about GTA V and how serious life must be all the time. It has made me think about how five year old me used to listen to stories in our community library crosslegged and have to shut up, at least for a little while.

There’s that bit, isn’t there, in Pixar’s masterpiece Ratatouille, where France’s infamously grumpy and difficult to please critic Anton Ego is cooked a meal so evocative of his mother’s cooking that he cries. I admit to feeling this way about this game. This silly little game thawed me like a discarded Calippo. I beg of you, particularly if you have a young family – and even if you don’t – you should play this tiny game and feel content, at least for a little while. It’s just like eating a really great ratatouille.

The game comes out on October 18th, but you can preorder it here.

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52 Comments »

  1. TheBarringGaffner says:

    Well shit, that was powerful. I guess I’m buying this game.

  2. GernauMorat says:

    Good read. Will check it out

  3. Yosharian says:

    Completely off-topic but ratatouille is fricking horrible

    • kouru225 says:

      No offense, but I want you to die a horrible death.

      • Yosharian says:

        See, this seems like the sort of post that demands moderation, rather than my admittedly-a-bit-snarky post in the ‘other’ recent article. Oh well, c’est la vie.

    • Cara Ellison says:

      There’s a nice little speech in it about criticism that may or may not be relevant, but it always makes my toes tingle when Anton says it: ‘In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the *new*. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.’ Aww.

      • gwathdring says:

        I loved that bit. Also the rats were ridiculously adorable.

      • Yosharian says:

        Oh no no I meant the food, Cara =p

        My grandmother used to make it every time I went to France to visit the family, and the only thing worse than having to taste it every time was seeing the disappointment on her face when I yet again said that I couldn’t eat it. A bit of a sad memory.

        But yeah, I hate the food. I’m sure the film is quite nice, Pixar isn’t it? They’re usually pretty good.

        • Ross Angus says:

          If it’s any consolation, that’s how I read your original comment. I can’t make the dish taste of anything. I’ve given up and started adding fresh coriander. If anyone expresses puzzlement at this, I limply claim it’s “fusion cuisine”.

        • Hmm-Hmm. says:

          Say what? Well it’s possible, but have you ever tried it like this (for approx. four people)?

          -1 or 2 paprika
          -1 courgette
          -1 aubergine
          -1 or 2 onions (depends on your liking)
          -Plenty of garlic (I loves garlic) Try at least three cloves.

          Slice/cut all of these fine enough. No big chunky bits. You can crush the garlic if desired.

          -Olive oil
          -Herbs from the provence (Italian herbs will do in a pinch). Let’s say about a tablespoon. But you can start with less and taste if you need more.
          -Optional: tomato paste. One or two cans.
          -A bit of pepper (taste the rest first)

          -(marinated) chicken drumsticks (one for each person)
          -rice according to your liking

          The cooking bit:
          -Put olive oil in a pan, heat it for a little while, add the onion and garlic. Stir the contents for a bit.
          -Add the vegetables and some olive oil on top, keep strirring.
          -Add the herbs and after a while, taste.
          -Add tomato paste, pepper, stir, taste.
          -Keep stirring and let the ingredients mingle and taste until satisfied.

          Done. Of course the rice has to be cooked and the drumsticks have to be baked (and possibly marinated). The chicken tends to take the longest, mind.

          For me, the tomato paste really finishes it.

          • Ross Angus says:

            Paprika? Heavens!

          • Hmm-Hmm. says:

            Well, I’m not arguing with the way it tastes. I wasn’t that fond of ratatouille until my girlfriend taught me this recipe. Although the tomato paste is my personal addition.

    • warthog2k says:

      I concur (about the food) – there’s no place for Aubergines in the civilised world.

    • Ninja Dodo says:

      You wot? Ratatouille is delicious. Also the film was rather good, though I’m gonna go for maximum pretentiousness here and say it was better in French. (the original American voice track was kind of jarring)

  4. somnolentsurfer says:

    You’ll remind us when it comes out, right?

  5. Durkonkell says:

    Beautiful.

    Are these the seventy billion words you wrote over the weekend? If so, I’m glad they found a home.

  6. Mercurial says:

    Made me teary and want to play it with my 4 year old. Pre-ordered.

  7. LTK says:

    Read the words “by Cara Ellison”. Was not disappointed.

    As a result of this article, I’m sitting here with a big goofy smile on my face and I don’t know how to get it off. Help?

    Also, in these images it looks like the boy is wearing earrings!

  8. cpt_freakout says:

    Great article, and welcome back!

    … and yes, that’s why we’re all here (I think), after all. And after all these years, as well.

  9. steves says:

    Bloody hell. No, I’m not crying, just…got something in my eye, that’s all.

    Fantastic article.

  10. RobF says:

    This looks so lovely.

  11. Faldrath says:

    *applause*

  12. Bluerps says:

    Wow, this sounds amazing.

  13. lowprices says:

    Excellent read. It’s managed to completely sell me on a game I had never even heard of before now.

  14. Feet says:

    At £1, consider it bought just for the lovely piano soundtrack from the trailer.

    I shall show it to my 2 year old son.

  15. Ross Angus says:

    Lovely words. Thanks, Cara.

  16. Tim James says:

    Someone do one of these for One Finger Death Punch, but with the childlike joy of making action figures punch each other over and over until you decide to stop.

  17. PopeRatzo says:

    Balloon-Face!

  18. Aether says:

    Games can be amazing sometimes can’t they. This is my favorite piece of yours, that I have read. It was both wide and deep with vibrant imagery, and I dare say that if you continue to write like this I will never stop reading. Thank you Cara.

  19. Freud says:

    Nice read. Some games can be played for relaxation, contemplation and meditation. This sounds like one of those.

    • colossalstrikepackage says:

      “the best games change something in you by the end.”

      Bang on, Cara.

      My current list is:
      To the Moon – first game to make my wife console me
      Far Cry 2 – gave up violent games for a year after it
      The Walking Dead – Clem!!!!!
      Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – the perfect use of interactivity in a game. Wept profusely multiple times…

      Cannot wait for this little gem to blow me away.

      Thank you Cara.

  20. ElVaquero says:

    More of this, please. Games like this and Cara-dispatches like this. MORE.

  21. gnodab says:

    Wow, thank you so much for this article Cara!
    This reminds me why is still spend some time every day on RPS, even though I constantly miss Kieron and feel at times alienated by John’s increasingly preaching articles. I mean no offense. I love John and would never dream of stopping listening to Rumdoings, but sometimes I feel he lost his joy and positivity when writing about games, or rather his ability (or willingness) to communicate it. But before I go off topic too far and incite some flaming comments, I just want to point out that this is exactly what makes this article so great for me. It reminds me of the joy of gaming in general and of the incredible joy of finding RPS so many years ago in particular. It reminds me how bewildered and excited I was when I first found people who could actually write and who cared deeply about games. How I spammed my friends with links to video game articles! Like they where beloved poems or books. You need to read this, it’s bloody brilliant! Imagine ten years ago having favorite articles which you would reread just for the pure enjoyment of the writing….
    As for the game itself, I am now almost afraid to play it, lest it’ll dispelled this magical feeling. But I’ll be sure to purchase it non the less, since the creator already earned the game’s tiny price tag by inspiring this article, even if I’ll somehow manage to dislike it because I’ve become a horribly jaded old grumpkin.
    And I think you more than made up for being short with the designer by writing this wonderful article. I just can’t imagine him coming away dry-eyed from it. And to the developer: It is ok to print this out and to put it in a frame. It is not vain, but human.
    Also the pure exploration and sensation aspect of it, together with the music, reminds me a lot of the first Knytt game by Nifflas. I wish there where more games like this. And I hope this will be one of them.

    • warthog2k says:

      My sentiments exactly. Cara’s articles have been a warm hug in a room of lukewarm shoulders.

      RPS always spoke to me about the joy of games and gameplay; intelligent creativity versus ‘moar graphics’; about finding those hidden gems buried under mountains of poorly thought through cynical cash-ins.

      It was a lovely way to start my day. Thank you Cara.

  22. csudvm2003 says:

    Count me in as another pre-order because of this beautiful article. Nice to read another one from you, Cara!

  23. Laurentius says:

    I still don’t understand why BeatBuddy received such a cold shoulder beck then in your WiT. Doesn’t make sense…except of course attention span, first hour of BeatBuddy was good, 15 minutes game is even better hmm…

  24. ScoutAbout says:

    I always love to read your words, Cara. This is really beautiful! I’ll play this game based on the lovely description in this piece of writing.

  25. SuicideKing says:

    Brilliant. Loved it. Thanks, Cara!

  26. Likethiss says:

    This was the best writing on RPS i have read in a very long time! Marvelous.

  27. Enkinan says:

    Well written, I recently had FEZ give me the same warm refreshing fuzzies. I’ll have to check this out.

  28. wodin says:

    Cara..Freja sent you an email…

  29. Themadcow says:

    Based on this WIT I spent the piffling amount required to purchase this game / interactive story and can wholeheartedly recommend it. My 4yr old boy loved jumping through the clouds for 10 minutes while I read him the poem. Considering he’s usually more into Ben 10 and Spiderman it was nice to see him take great pleasure in an altogether more innocent adventure. Cheers Cara!

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