Somehow Dark Souls was the inspiration for player messages in the kindest MMO around

Sky: Children of the Light - two players stand together uner an umbrella at a little lake party in a forest
(Image credit: Thatgamecompany)

The prevailing reputation of Journey's multiplayer system is one of anonymous kindness and emotional connection, which is about as opposite as you can get from the experience of multiplayer in Dark Souls games (unless you're visited by the fashion police or Let Me Solo Her, that is). I wouldn't have thought there was anything in a Souls game for Thatgamecompany to draw inspiration from in its extremely kind MMO Sky: Children of the Light, and yet that's exactly what its message system is based on.

This was part of the talk that creative director Jenova Chen delivered at this year's Game Developers Conference: "Designing to Reduce Toxicity in Online Games," prior to which he gave me plenty of details on designing a non-toxic MMO. Sky has been a free-to-play MMO on other platforms for nearly five years now—heavily inspired by the flying and collaborative exploration of the studio's prior hit Journey—and is launching into early access on PC next week.

(Image credit: thatgamecompany)

"In each game we make, because we don't understand the nuance initially, our take is very black and white: all text chat is bad," Chen said. Journey didn't have any text communication at all, leaving players to communicate only by melodic chirps at one another. But players kept telling TGC that they wanted a way to communicate by text. "So when we moved from Journey to Sky we were like, okay, let's inch in a little bit. Let's see if we can just make this text thing work."

Sky does now have direct chat between friends, but the other system TGC wound up with was little folded paper message boats that Sky players can place down in the world for others to find and read, which Chen confirms was definitely inspired by Dark Souls' system of soapstone messages on the ground. But in Dark Souls, players are restricted to a word bank to construct messages, which is where common gags like "amazing chest ahead" written near statues instead of treasure chests come from. In Sky, players can actually freely type in messages.

That total freedom became another challenge in Chen's quest to cultivate a multiplayer space that incentivised good behavior. "Immediately after we allowed people to leave a message in the world they'd start to be internet memes," he said. That's not inherently negative, but we've all seen how doin' it for the memes can devolve into trolling and bullying online. In order to make sure the messaging system stayed on a positive track, Chen says the studio announced it would start showing your friends which messages had been written by you.

(Image credit: Thatgamecompany)

"As soon as we announced that, we saw the community getting on and quickly deleting the shameful messages they'd made," Chen said. "They were actively deleting their messages. That was really, really satisfying to see. We didn't know that was so effective. They really cared what their friends think about them."

Thatgamecompany expanded on that sense of positive social pressure by changing the visibility of messages based on what your in-game friends thought were good or bad. If a few of your friends think a message is great then it's likely safe to share it around to others but if any think it's bad, it may get hidden. 

So what are Sky players writing these days? "People seem to always love 'happy birthdays,'" Chen says. "And there are philosophical anecdotes, like the 'Chicken Soup for the Soul' thing. People seem to really like that. They're sometimes open confessions—they couldn't say it in person so they just leave a confession."

Even if it isn't the euphemism-packed Mad Libbing of Souls game messages, Sky players definitely have their own popular jokes about the game. Messages range from serious to silly, whether they're proverbs or simply fishing for a 'like.' Given how much time Chen has put into thinking about Sky's community and culture, I'm interested to see how it holds up to its PC launch on April 10.

Lauren Morton
Associate Editor

Lauren started writing for PC Gamer as a freelancer in 2017 while chasing the Dark Souls fashion police and accepted her role as Associate Editor in 2021, now serving as the self-appointed chief cozy games enjoyer. She originally started her career in game development and is still fascinated by how games tick in the modding and speedrunning scenes. She likes long books, longer RPGs, has strong feelings about farmlife sims, and can't stop playing co-op crafting games.