IFComp 2019: Skies Above

Skies Above is a minimalist parser-based game set in a whimsical world, but what it really is, is a collection of mini-games. Set in a sort of archipelago in the sky, it challenges you to repeatedly upgrade your airship to reach higher and higher islands, ultimately confronting a villain at the very top who’s (at least notionally) raining destruction on the islands below. Each island has approximately one thing you can do there, and it’s usually some repetitive activity by means of which you can either earn money and/or find “floatrons”, the tiny white blobs that keep your airship aloft.

It reminds me a lot of clicker games, but the better sort of clicker game, like Candy Box or A Dark Room, that have an exploration element, and gameplay that keeps evolving. No two islands play quite the same. The first mini-games you find are very simple — there’s a pumping station, for example, where you just move the pump up and down by repeatedly hitting the U and D keys. (For simple one-key actions like this, you don’t even have to hit Enter between commands.) But it gets more complicated as you go, exposing tasks where you can optimize your earnings by figuring out the unwritten rules of systems. One island, for example, has a collection of geysers that emit floatrons, and your take will be much greater if you can predict which geyser will erupt next. Another, near the end, is a simple combat-based RPG. It’s all something of a study in possibilities. Also, there’s a fair amount of interplay between islands, ways to upgrade your performance at specific tasks either temporarily or permanently, giving the game a strategic element beyond mastering islands individually.

I do think it all goes on a bit long, though. Getting to the endgame takes a whole lot of grinding — unless there are tricks I missed, of course. The game tells me I took an unusually long time to beat it, but it’s probably comparing my performance to that of someone on their second or third play-though, someone who knows what they’re doing. And then, once you’ve completed the final confrontation with the petulant adversary (who’s really just waiting for an apology over a small mistake), the game invites you to do more grinding, motivating you with optional goals and Achievements. You could play this game for a very long time, if you wanted to. I’m enough of an obsessive completist to be tempted. I crave the checking off of every list item, the completion of every optional task. But what it asks of the player seems almost abusive.

But I do like its style, and its quirky sense of humor. Something about the minimalism made me go a long time without examining any of the NPCs, and I was tickled to discover, when I was fairly advanced, that they’re all described as geometric shapes, like “an elderly brown cube with white hair” or “a green cylinder with an impressive mustache”.

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