The elevator pitch for Skate Story is the kind of tantalising soundbite that instantly pricks up the ears: it’s a “vaporwave skateboarding game,” says 28-year-old developer Sam Eng.
Amazingly, the trailer released last month during game publisher Devolver Digital’s June showcase suggests the game, scheduled for release in 2023, could be even better than the pitch. A glimmering, glass figure pushes off on a board, the camera tracking them at a low angle just as it would in a skate film. The rumble of the wheels on the concrete is authentically loud, the accompanying beats delightfully chill, and towering purple buildings refract trippily in the background.
Despite the glitch-art aesthetic and hellish premise – it has you skating through nine layers of the underworld as a demon made of glass – Skate Story appears grounded in a way Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, with its superhero combos and outlandish air-time, never has. You’re more likely to do a simple kickflip rather than a 900. “I wanted to make something that feels real,” Eng says. “Something genuinely relatable for myself, and the kid who has just got to grips with a skateboard. Whenever I say ‘skateboarding game,’ a specific image pops into people’s heads. This skateboarding game isn’t just about tricks.”
Like so many kids of Eng’s generation, his interest in skateboarding was piqued by Tony Hawk’s franchise in the late 90s and early 2000s. Having played a demo of the first game as a six-year-old, he begged his mum to buy him a $5 board from a discount store. “I tried skateboarding for at least a couple of minutes before I fell and just gave up,” he laughs. He tried again a few years later, with scarcely better results. “I just got so frustrated with it,” he says. “The idea of skateboarding in my head was this crazy Tony Hawk-esque flying, half pipe thing.” It wasn’t until he lived alone in Manhattan in his early 20s that he picked up the board again, mainly as a way to travel around his neighbourhood.
If Skate Story is anything like how Eng describes his own experiences skateboarding then it will be a stripped-back, vibe-first game. “The thing I love about skateboarding is that it’s just me, the board, and the terrain,” he says. “No one can do that kickflip for me.”
Eng is a nerd when it comes to skateboarding media. He can’t help but enthuse about the “timbre” of old skate videos, the way “audio compression impacts the sound of the board”. That said, there’s often a melancholic quality to the portrayal of skateboarding in wider culture – the documentary Minding the Gap, for example. For the group of young friends who star in that film, skateboarding is a means of escape from the heaviness of everyday life. There are tantalising hints that Skate Story might explore comparable territory; Eng talks about the player becoming “friends with failure”.
Regardless of how far these heavier themes are pushed, Skate Story is a visually inventive take on skateboarding, one born from Eng’s genuine and long-term love of the sport. “Skateboarding just really speaks to me,” he says. “It demands things from me that improve me as a person.”