With all the chaos and uncertainty going on in the world at the moment, games that offer a moment of peace are more valuable than ever. I had spent the morning buzzing with stress, worrying about deadlines, my pets, and working with the public, but as soon as I loaded up Sono, I was given a brief respite from the constant anxiety of living in 2020. Created by ChillSwitch Games, Sono is a short but sweet exploration game where the player glides through a fantastical ocean landscape.
As an abstract art project, the storyline of Sono is largely up to interpretation. The player controls Sono, a one-eyed stingray creature searching a vast void for its hidden friends. The stingray’s companions are trapped within little orbs dotted across the ocean, each one requiring some stylish swimming to be freed. Once a creature is recovered, it joins Sono in gliding through the sea, adding bright stripes of colour to the screen and a new instrument into the atmospheric soundtrack.
Sono sports an unusual control scheme, with the stingray constantly moving forward by itself. The player controls left and right movement and the speed of the creature, not unlike a racing game. As a result, Sono moves with wide, sweeping movements, leaving a long arc of colourful tail in its wake. At times, the turning circle feels a bit too wide, particularly when trying to move Sono into a precise location, but in a game with no time limits and a calming atmosphere, taking a moment to loosely loop around has its own appeal. The game was originally made for an alt.ctrl exhibit, which showcases games that utilise unusual control schemes. The first iteration used a midi controller jog wheel to move the stingray, a large round dial that I imagine would give the game a pleasingly tactile feel.
First and foremost, Sono is a treat for the senses. The game is completely without a HUD, using the direction of Sono’s eye to guide the player towards trapped creatures. The space Sono explores becomes increasingly alien, shifting from honeycomb-like structures to crystalline coral reefs and a fluffy mass of bubbles. The background music ebbs and flows in step with the stingray’s movements, adding moments of drama to the otherwise calming experience. Right at the beginning of the game, I experienced some unfortunate stuttering, which does interfere with the ambiance Sono is going for. The issue clears up after a few minutes, but in a game with under a half hour run-time, every moment counts. Further work on optimising the game for PC, or alternatively giving access to a settings menu, might help in alleviating this issue.
Sono is a simple experience, which is what I sorely needed right now. The joy of gliding across the screen, seeing explosions of colour, and hearing the music slowly grow in complexity kept me completely absorbed. Underneath the simplicity is a strong understanding of game design, with a clever navigation system and a world built around the stingray’s unusual movement. That we will never get to see the game in its intended state is a shame, but with the fascinating midi controller jog wheel moving Sono around, the game is a perfectly lovely experience with a keyboard too.
Next week, we will be playing Space Bear, a typing game for those who love to mash the keyboard. The game can be downloaded from Steam here. Discussions are happening on the Discord Server, of you can email me here.