Available on: iOS, Android, and Steam for PC, Mac, and Linux
We played on: iPad

Gathering Sky is a lovely game about leading a flock of birds through the sky. There are moments of quiet and moments of tension, and it all comes full circle in a meditative experience that only takes one finger to play.

It’s the first commercial release of A Stranger Gravity, a small studio of Cornell students. They said they set out to make a game without all the traditional artifices that surround modern video games: scores, trophies, etc. Instead, “We want you to sit down to wrap yourself in a short journey and return to your life feeling just a bit better.” You can buy it through the website here.In Gathering Sky, you start out leading a single bird through the sky by dragging your finger across the screen. You gather other birds into your flock by flying near them, and eventually you’ll have a decently large group. The birds respond readily to your finger, wheeling and regrouping in mid-air to make mysterious formations—much like the formations flocking starlings make in real life.

Gathering Sky Birds Mountain

The skyscape is filled with scattered land masses that you have to fly around. In some levels, these are spaced out and infrequent, and in others they’re mazelike and claustrophobic. Each of the six levels has a theme. You start out over a green, painterly landscape and progress through mountains, a seascape, a storm, and some other terrains that I won’t spoil here.

Gathering Sky Ocean Level

Each level has its own score, composed by Dren McDonald and recorded at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. You can listen to one of the tracks on SoundCloud here. The music is important, setting the tone of each level and interacting perfectly with the obstacles you might encounter. You can learn more about the process of composing the game’s music here.

The goal of the game is simply to experience each level, to whatever extent you want. You can meander through the terrain and explore. Or you can fly as directly as you can to the fog that indicates a transition between levels. There’s no tally for how many birds you get, nor any other mechanic for seeing how much you’ve explored.

I loved the emotional progression the game managed to pack into its hour-long or so playtime. Some of the levels were peaceful and playful, while others managed to whip up the tension by endangering your little flock with predatory birds or rogue gusts of wind. The wind is indicated by a series of sketchy lines, and you can use it to propel your birds faster through each level. Leaving the wind trails will allow you to explore at your own pace and fly leisurely through rocks and over pastoral landscapes.

Gathering Sky Field Level

When I did my preview of Gathering Sky at PAX East, I wrote about how I thought the game could be used as a tool to help people focus. After playing the full thing, I think that’s definitely true. The levels are short and attention grabbing, even though they’re mostly peaceful. There’s something about needing to keep your finger on the screen and interact directly with the birds that drew me in.

The final level of the game ties things up in a neat way. It left my chest a little tight and my eyes a little damp. Gathering Sky is a wonderful example of how something as simple as the right note or the right image can strike your heart.

This article was written by

Simone de Rochefort is a game journalist, writer, podcast host, and video producer who does a prolific amount of Stuff. You can find her on Twitter @doomquasar, and hear her weekly on tech podcast Rocket, as well as Pixelkin's Gaming With the Moms podcast. With Pixelkin she produces video content and devotes herself to Skylanders with terrifying abandon.