If I were to formally explain Castles In The Sky, I would say that it is a game about jumping and gathering small circular objects that make a dinging noise when you touch them. I would say that there are moments when the player is challenged to figure out the best angle at which to jump, and those moments are often followed by angling the player character into a better space from which to make the next jump. After performing a number of these jumps, which can take anywhere from ten to twenty minutes, the game ends.
To describe the game in such a way would be missing out on a number of other things occurring. As the player jumps, there is a beautiful little bedtime poem that appears and disappears alongside animations of clouds and airplanes and flocks of birds that enter the dreamspace of the game as easily as they drift away. The piano-based soundtrack, which is packaged with the game, lulls the player as she advances; playing with headphones ensures that the player is sapped of energy just as the young character she controls is tucked into bed.
All of that description is overly gamey, and any way of explaining what you do in Castles In The Sky will always reduce the play experience to a series of actions taken in sequence. I’m not spitting brand new thoughts here; that’s a basic part of games and how they operate in the world. What Castles In The Sky brings to this time-worn koan is a particular understanding that the actions you are performing are somehow more special than anything else. The “specialness” of other games often happens in retrospect; a killing streak in Call of Duty is beautiful when recorded and played back, but at the time you are riding the high of accomplishment without understanding the full weight of the wonder of the play experience.
Castles In The Sky puts that front and center. It is not a game that you play and then reflect on later. It is the coffee, the cello, the cornbread of videogame experiences. It is meant to be taken in the moment as a wholly unique and beautiful experience that is wholly available to you in its entirety at the moment you experience it. Other games based on the beauty of experience, like Gone Home or Dear Esther, work because they resonate with you. The player is meant to be marked and marred by the pieces of those games. Idle moments in daily life become instances of piecing together and parsing the narratives and what those games can mean. Castles In The Sky doesn’t want you to do that work at a later date. It needs you to take the moment of play and embrace it, enjoy it, and leave not with fragments but with feelings that drift into the back of your mind and sleep there, sated.
If you’re on the fence about Castles In The Sky, buy it anyway. It is roughly half the cost of a cup of coffee, and even if you hate the game and like one track off of the beautiful soundtrack, you’re still coming out ahead monetarily. Developers The Tall Trees are pushing the medium in interesting and wonderful new ways, and you can do much worse than spending a few minutes with this treasure.
Castles in the Sky was developed and published by The Tall Trees. It is available for both Apple and Windows PCs.
Cameron Kunzelman blogs at thiscageisworms.com and tweets at @ckunzelman.