Thatgamecompany has a beautiful relationship with sound. In Flower, you are the wind, guiding petals as they make daisies and roses bloom, each emitting a musical note as it springs to life. In Journey, your only means of communicating with other players is through delightful chirps. In Sky: Children of the Light, you can enjoy a full Aurora concert in the new season of music. Soundscapes are what pull everything together for Thatgamecompany.
“Music is the most efficient medium to communicate your emotions,” Jenova Chen, founder and creative director at Thatgamecompany tells me. “Words are a very poor medium. A low-resolution eight-bit image. That's what words are. Music is a high def, very nuanced, emotional language. TGC is an emotional game company, not a rational game company.”
When he saw what Fortnite and Roblox were doing with in-game concerts, he felt the opportunity to create something special had been wasted. “[Fortnite] had 11 million people watch the concert, but I didn't feel the sense of the raw emotional experience when you go to a physical concert,” he says. “The feeling that there's tens of thousands of souls, that they’re real, they’re next to you, that makes people emotional. I didn't feel that.
“A lot of the innovation and the maturing of a medium is about spreading the emotional accessibility. That [Fortnite or Roblox] concert is very summer blockbuster. It has lots of impressive spectacles. Not all concerts are about that. They've demonstrated a concert that is virtual space, but [not] what I felt was the essence, or the emotional power of the concert.”
Chen believes that part of the reason other in-game concerts have failed to live up to their potential is the lack of ability to connect to the players sharing the experience with you. In most cases, all you can do is jump up and down. In Sky, you go on a journey, enjoying a visual and sonic performance as you and the other players transform into birds, fish, and magical creatures as Aurora sings to you. During the final song, everyone erupts from their seats and you can hold hands as you fly with each other through the swirling crowd. At the centre of it all, of course, is Aurora herself.
“We collaborated with Aurora because my wife and I were trying to name our daughter,” explains Chen. They liked the name Aurora and Googled it, accidentally stumbling upon the Norwegian singer in the process. After attending one of her concerts in New York, Chen asked her if she’d make music for Sky. “She said, ‘I played Journey four times, I’m a huge fan of the game, I’ll do anything.’”
After seeing the concert for the first time, Chen was lost for words. “When you see that? I don't have the right words to describe what it is,” he says. “You have to feel it. I was quite moved. One of our devs was saying, ‘I thought the star was Aurora but after experiencing the concert the star is the players.’”
Having a large group of players present for each show was vital to Chen. He told me that while he loves the connection you get from the smaller gigs with an indie artist, his time at a Taylor Swift concert made him eager to implement a huge crowd so that more people could share the experience.
“I have a family now,” Chen says. “I want to make games that will entertain not just myself as a hardcore gamer, but my wife who’s a casual player, and my daughter who's only four and a half years old. I want to be able to take all of them with me to a virtual event and have something emotionally accessible and relevant to the whole family.” This is what influenced him to make a mobile game in the first place, he wanted everyone to experience it without compromise.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why he chose Aurora for Sky’s concert. I’d never listened to her music before, but even so, I felt waves of emotion wash over me as I partook in the experience, swimming, flying, and running with the thousands of people around me.
Chen is delighted by the response the concert has gotten. “Certainly love to see people say we beat Travis Scott. A lot of people said this is the most spiritual concert they've ever attended. I'm really glad to see many people cried at the concert. That's our goal.”
Hopefully, this is just the first concert of many. It took Chen and the team 18 months to make it work, but now the foundation is in place, I’m excited to see what more they come up with. “It's a dance between us and the players,” Chen tells me. “We do our best to touch them, and their words and appreciations keep motivating us.”
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