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Introducing the picture-book delight of Castles in the Sky

Exploring the slight, evocative and moving debut of The Tall Trees.

"Picture-books are astonishing," says Jack de Quidt, one half of development partnership The Tall Trees, with no small measure of infectious enthusiasm. "Not enough adults read picture books - not enough writers read picture-books. They convey so effectively, in such sparse narrative choices, so many interesting emotions and plot points."

The art of the picture-book - a form that's so often lost to people's childhood, never to be returned to - is something that's dear to de Quidt, and it's something that underpins The Tall Trees' first game, the wonderfully slight yet incredibly moving Castles in the Sky. It's a picture-book of a game, told in tight verses riddled with gentle rhyme, and illustrated with soft, evocative pixel art.

You're a boy clutching a balloon, ascending into the heavens and through the clouds, past toy red planes and, as the sky darkens, through glowing crowds of fireflies. It's a journey and a tale that's done in ten minutes, but so rich are the details that, like any good picture-book, you'll want to see it retold again and again.

"We were fascinated with childhood, and with this idea of a sepia focused nostalgic fictional childhood that people had - where instead of sitting inside in the rain playing Pokemon Red they were outside building treehouses and scraping their knees outside."

de Quidt comes from a creative background - his mother is a pianist, his father a writer - and it shows in Castles. As well as writing the game, he also provides the tinkling soundtrack.

Details such as the jump animation. Your character brings his head down, looks to his shoes then bends his knees, storing up all his youthful energy - then it's a soaring release as he heads skywards through the clouds. As he glides down once more his face is a mix of wide-eyed nervousness and giddy excitement.

"About a year and a half ago, [Tall Trees partner] Dan and I realized we were fascinated with childhood, and with this idea of a sepia focused nostalgic fictional childhood that people had - where instead of sitting inside in the rain playing Pokemon Red they were outside building treehouses and scraping their knees outside," explains de Quidt. "It was about the most idyllic parts of every childhood brought into one super-childhood. I think we were excited by how close that feels to everybody, and how far away. That started to shape our project - this sense of nostalgia. We decided we'd put together a studio to explore specifically that."

The nostalgia for a childhood more imagined than real is something that tugs away at the heart of Castles in the Sky, as well as tugging hard at the player's own emotions. There's a cross-generational appeal, its simplicity and warmth making it the kind of thing you'd love to share with your children, the melancholy longing for something lost that maybe was never even yours lending it resonance for an older audience.

It's the kind of cross-generational appeal so well exercised by Studio Ghibli, whose work is unwittingly evoked in the title but gracefully acknowledged in the philosophy. "The Ghibli allusion was something that we only remembered when the title was baked enough into the bones of the story that we couldn't change it. The next game we make I'm going to have to think carefully about the title! It was just an interesting idiom - it's about things that aren't there, and it's about conjuring things.


"In terms of Ghibli influences, yeah - My Neighbour Totoro has a fantastic evocation of childhood. There are iconic scenes like Totoro at the bus stop - and there are moments - and this may be one of my favourite Ghibli moments ever - where Mei and her sister arrive at the house, and they're so excited to be there, they run across the lawn and they're swinging around poles and one of them turns an impromptu cartwheel on the grass. This sort of exuberance and excitement of being in a new and exciting place, it's something that storytelling often pushes under the rug. I think that's such a true representation of how these characters behave, and I like to think we reflect that in the main character's jump animation."

Before working on Castles, Dan and Jack worked on a very different concept - a cyberpunk adventure that was similar in execution to Christine Love's wordy games.

It's an exuberance that is, like de Quidt's own enthusiastic demeanour, infectious, and it makes the ten minutes it takes to see Castles in the Sky a refreshing lungful of crisp, modest invention - and one that feels more necessary than ever in the stifling season of blockbuster releases and limp next-gen launch titles. There isn't much to The Tall Trees' debut, but what's there is enough for it to earn a place alongside its picture-book inspirations - tales like The Tiger That Came To Tea, We're Going on a Bear Hunt and Quentin Blake's The Green Ship.

I'm not the first to fall under Castles in the Sky's spell, and I hope I'm not the last - you can pick it up from The Tall Tree's site, and I'd recommend it as a perfect little slice of Sunday detox. Over on RockPaperShotgun a couple of weeks back, Cara Ellison wrote beautifully about the game's appeal, and spoke of how developers like de Quidt and The Tall Trees are holding out their hands to cradle the player. It's a line that de Quidt - a relative newcomer to development who's looking to re-apply to University at the moment - has taken to heart.

"That was one of the most beautiful ways of describing the player developer relationship I've ever heard," he recalls as he talks of his and The Tall Trees' plans beyond Castles in the Sky. "If I can make more games that can reach out and cradle the player in their hands, then I'll be happy."