Even though Castles in the Sky was only about 10 minutes long, it felt like my heart ran an emotional marathon by the time it was over. It's the kind of sprint you’re not ready for, the result of a spur-of-the-moment decision. You aren’t fully prepared for what’s about to happen, but, hey, it’s too late now, right?
When we talk about nostalgia in games, it’s usually because a game is purposely invoking our warm, fuzzy memories. It’s why so many new games have retro aesthetics and chiptune soundtracks. In the past, these elements were a result of technical limitations. Today, it’s because we like to dance with deja vu. But nostalgia isn’t entirely about the good in life.
Our memories are a mixture of the ups and downs, the best and the worst. The most powerful emotional punches can be the ones where you project yourself into them, rather than coming away with something very specific, a reaction the writer, designer, or composer was hoping you’d walk away with. Sometimes, it’s as simple as crafting a space for your mind to walk in, the blanks filled by your emotions.
Castles in the Sky did that for me, and it was rather out of nowhere.
Castles in the Sky does not present itself as a powerful work of emotional fiction. It’s a simple 2D game with light platforming elements and objects to collect along the way. (The objects have no point to them.) You leap from cloud to cloud, moving higher and higher, as a short story about climbing into sky is told through text. Accompanying your playful movements is an appropriately calming piano soundtrack, one that grows appropriately while you move closer to...well, whatever's up there and whatever you want to be up there.
It’s weird to write about the way Castle in the Sky made me feel because it feels so specific, personal, and possibly misplaced. I cannot guarantee you’ll feel the same when when you play it, and I strongly suspect it will leave most people with a smile on their face. It's an incredibly pleasant, lighthearted game. I mean, Borderlands 2 writer Anthony Burch called Castles in the Sky a “hug in videogame form.” (It’s two words, man!)
Maybe I was in the mood to be manipulated because, earlier in the day, I’d read this heartbreaking story about a man photographing his wife’s battle with cancer? Maybe because I’d been thinking about how it’s Halloween, and I’d usually spend my days rapping with Ryan about crappy movies? Maybe because it takes very little, if anything, to get me to think about my dad?
That’s possible, but I don’t think that explains it. I’m inclined to think it’s because Castles in the Sky is so wonderfully, purposely vague. At most, it reminds us of the innocence, hope, and joy in stories for children, stories that we know, as adults, don’t always have happy endings. Life is grayer, more complex, and harder to explain. Castles in the Sky doesn’t have much to say, and lets your mind wander. In that 10 minutes, I didn’t spend much time thinking about what was happening on the screen. I’d pay attention to my jumps, but there is no death. The glittering rings prompted me to head in their direction, but only for their lovingly pleasant noise.
It reminds me of a good instrumental album, the kind you can lose yourself in. It’s what happens when I listen to “The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place” by Explosions in the Sky, “( )” by Sigor Ros, or “Saturdays = Youth” by M83. When I put on those albums, it puts my mind in a very specific place, one where my mind flattens and relaxes. Like the brilliant idea that comes in the shower, these albums are a cathartic release, one that help me to work out my thoughts in ways that would seem forced any other way. It happens silently, and in waves.
Castles in the Sky reminds me of that, but like anything personal, it might not feel that way to someone else, and there’s no guarantee it would work that way for me a second time around. Yoi can’t always tell what’s going to hit you, why, and if it'll come back again. Sometimes, it’s just about that one moment in time. It can’t be captured again. You’ll chase it. You’re glad it happened. You know, like nostalgia.
If you'd like to play Castles in the Sky, it's available at the developer's website for $1.50.