Game Criticism

The Boy and His Balloon: A Personal Look at Castles in the Sky

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The boy stands in the grass. A powerful wind ruffles his hair—rushes through blades of green, propelling plump clouds like fluffy sailboats made of white. His balloon treads air above his head, waiting. Knees bend. Hair ripples and swirls and dances. He shoots straight up, arms back rocketing, eyes closed in bringing life to dreams. Hands out, smile wide, he soars back down to the comfort and cushion of clouds. Another bend of the knees, and away he flies, grabbing hold of that balloon “to look for castles in the sky.”

While reading the above description did you think to yourself, “he used a complete sentence here” or “that’s a fragment” or some other question of grammatical rule? Hopefully, you mostly read and imagined. Ideally, you experienced the narrative with only a wandering thought to structure and form or rule. Castles In the Sky, the “Goodnight Moon” for the 21st century, hopes the same from the player. The Tall Tree’s tiny storybook of a game with its performed experience of a child at play accompanied by the rhythmic rhymes of passing poetry and trotting lull of uplifting yet subtextually solemn piano strokes hit a personal chord at a vulnerable moment in a way that melted together two subjective experiences, producing an intoxicating nostalgia that moved me forward, not held me back.

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But do hold on. I would like to preface the following thoughts on the game with a warning that you will NOT have the same experience that I did with this game. It will probably warm you with joy, but may do absolutely nothing for you. I’m wary of saying any of the grandiose thoughts I have on this game for the simple fact that you, most likely, will resist like when a friend says you won’t be able to help being scared during some horror film. That said, Castles is all about experience and resisting mediation through minimalism. Let go and Castles in the Sky will let fly floating memories, lived hopes, and dead dreams left to pass by like so many cumulus clouds. Subjectivity and being—swept away are okay, if not encouraged. My experience, which will undoubtedly be light-years different from yours, follows.

It’s September 23rd 2012. I wake to my head screaming in pain from a night of partying. I slog to life and prepare to leave for my last year of college. I’m surprised my parents had not yelled at me to get up yet. I shower and pack and drag myself to the kitchen. I grab some water from the refrigerator and guzzle it down. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my dad slouched asleep in the couch across the room. I laugh to myself, thinking maybe he had a few too many martinis the night before. All I hear is the empty hum of silence. The blue shine from the TV, meaning that only the cable box had been turned off, and a few rays of sun beaming between the blinds light the dim room. I move to wake him up. His pale look grabs hold of my throat, heart, and stomach and shoves them to the floor. My body already knew. I grasp his shoulders and shake him, in denial. A rigid absence of heat fills my hands. He doesn’t wake up. I howl and yell and cry and punch and pound. I think and feel many things at once. I think of my younger brother, my mother, sister—graduation. I do this every day in lessening intensity for two weeks and let out one final storm of shuddering weeps as the casket gets lowered. This was the first and only death of relevance I’ve experienced to this day.

“Isn’t this supposed to be about Castles in the Sky, not some sad story that doesn’t mean anything to me?” you say. You’re right to think that, but oddly enough the above sad story is about Castles in the Sky. No, the game is not about dead dads. The game could not even really be considered depressing in any obvious sense, overflowing with joy if anything. So why did Castles have tears running down my face on my first two playthroughs? Well, location, location, location. Where I was mentally, emotionally, New Year’s Eve (holidays as you can imagine or know are a bit forever tarnished), all factored into being swept up and thrown overboard off the S.S. Repressed Feels. After a few minutes of performing childhood wonder and letting the slow roll and sweep of the Saudade soundtrack mix with my melancholy, a single phrase penned across the blue sky triggered tears:

I miss the things

we used to do

It was unexpected. I felt silly. I came in hoping to relive the joys of childhood and ended up reliving memories better suited for some moody drama. Castles is a game about a boy and his balloon rising through the sky, not the Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Of course, I have my fair share of triggers, but that it came from such a wonderful experience was surprising. So what happened? “What are you five?” you ask. Well, in the game yes, yes, I am. And in reflection that fact is at the core of what I felt. Taking on the role of this boy, playing as him and as myself led me to think on my father’s death, but also brought me to the realization that the moment was an “event,” one that the nostalgia forced into my face. I didn’t tear up only for my dad, but for the new awareness that had come with it, of death’s omnipresence and how that knowing cannot be unseen, a blissful ignorance that’s as lost to me as much as my father is. I teared up for the dreams the boy believes, and the imagined hopes most of us hold onto like that balloon only to let them go, left for the adult world to blow away. Dreams that I haven’t and realistically will never achieve. Desires left unsatisfied.

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I once read that nostalgia is “longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed” and even more poignant “the unrealized dreams of the past” (xiii, xiv). Castles may be proof of this. This essay isn’t meant to be an argument of pity or a “dear diary” entry, but a testimonial to how Tall Tree’s interactive poem highlights the way games so effectively leverage nostalgia. Maybe it’s partially due to how many of us were exposed to games at a young age, but that explanation seems reflexive. I will add to my pretentious claims and suggest that games evoke nostalgia better than any other medium. Games allow us to go back in time and re-experience in a somewhat immediate fashion, play, sight, sound, touch, thought, and performativity from our past in such a thoroughly involving manner that memory is given weight. In evoking the storybook through the lens of the “interactive” medium, Castles seems a premonition that games are destined to become our greatest time machines.

So what did I find when I went back in time? Obviously, there was the longing for all I lost in that moment of finding my dad. I also found an unexpected instance that allowed me to digest another piece of an unsubsiding trauma. The limited and unobtrusive controls that minimize the mediation highlight the bias we carry as gamers (“Where are the skill trees and inventory?!”). In this way, Castles in the Sky resists reductionism and embraces unAdulterated experience, reminding us of play’s inherent value, and in asking us to remember asks us to forget game systems. As gamers, we’ve been raised on large helpings of mechanics, risk/rewards structures, leveling up, and feedback loops. The value seems to have left the play itself, landing on the orbiting mechanisms as the reason for playing. Play has become a means. The game from the start asks for an intercourse. Give yourself up and it will give something in return: “Use headphones for the best experience.” Castles reveals our gaming conditioning as it has us collecting “collectibles” (for some external reward) before realize they’re simply sonic toys to be played with or forgotten. These little circles let out vibrant bell rings and mean nothing in the video game lexicon. Not even score is kept. Acknowledging their presence is optional, and the only reason and prize for doing so is a pleasure akin to that of dodging cracks on the sidewalk. Describing Castles through its barebones gameplay, through what you do, is like explaining  a kiss as just putting your lips against another’s. To simply discuss this game in light of its PapiJump or DoodleJump heritage is to miss out, to forget how to play. 

Maybe my experience was just a day of chemical imbalance, but that would be the type of reductionism the game’s very mechanics resist. I have since played it many times and although its effective power has diminishing returns, it still makes me feel something, remember. Would the game have touched me in the same way if it weren’t for my past? Of course not, and the game is designed that way. It resists being read without past experience, the bias of even the day you’re having. Castles in the Sky reminds us that these games are just as much about us and who we are as players and developers as they are about themselves. I got to see castles, my loss and failures, but I also saw the hopes and realized dreams of a young art form as one of its artists holds on tight to that balloon.

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One thought on “The Boy and His Balloon: A Personal Look at Castles in the Sky

  1. Pingback: The 10 “Best” Games of 2013 | Dialog Wheel

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