The latest game release on Netflix manages to capture the thrill of flying — while somehow also turning it into something chill.
Laya’s Horizon is the newest game from Snowman, the studio best known for serene snowboarding games like Alto’s Odyssey. And in many ways, it’s an experience that builds on what the team has done in the past. Instead of boarding through procedurally generated 2D worlds, in Laya’s Horizon, players are soaring through a handcrafted 3D open-world island full of secrets to uncover. It’s one of the best games to hit Netflix’s fledgling gaming service to date.
In Laya’s Horizon, you don’t exactly fly but, rather, glide around using a wingsuit. You start out from a perch that oversees much of the idyllic island where the game takes place, and from there, you can jump off and go, well, pretty much wherever you want. Laya’s Horizon has a very open-ended structure. There are goals to complete, and the game points you in the direction of missions where you can enter races or meet up with characters. Eventually, you’ll unlock new capes, each with their own characteristics to better suit your playing style, and the ability to fast travel around the map.
These quests are nice and short, perfect for quick play sessions on your phone. But my favorite part of the experience has been mostly ignoring them so I can explore the island. It’s a beautiful place, full of tucked-away villages, strange quarries, and all kinds of other secrets that I won’t spoil. At the end of each flight, you get a nice little rundown of the ground you covered and the things you found.
The most important part of Laya’s Horizon is that it feels good to fly around. So even when I didn’t find anything new or complete any goals, I generally still enjoyed my time in the air. The game uses a unique control scheme where you place both thumbs on either side of the screen. Pull both down to get higher, push them both up to dive down, and tilt your thumbs to steer left or right. You can even pull them out to make a parachute and slow down. When you’re speeding down a waterfall or skimming along the ground, it’s a thrilling white knuckle experience. But when you’re high above it all, taking in the surroundings, Laya’s Horizon is downright peaceful.
“We didn’t necessarily know how long it would take and how big it would end up becoming”
Nailing those controls was one of the most challenging parts of making the game. According to designer Jason Medeiros, one of the goals was to create a control scheme that naturally connected to what your character is doing on-screen. “I was interested in exploring kinesthetic controls that feel embodied,” he explains, “where your brain gets tricked into ‘yeah, I’m doing the thing.’”
Laya’s Horizon has been in the works for some time, with development starting back in 2018. It was inspired in part by a fascination with extreme sports like wingsuit gliding but also the freedom offered by games like early 3D Grand Theft Auto titles, where some of the most fun players had was messing around in the world flying helicopters.
“The idea for wingsuit has been around for, I would say, over 10 years,” says Snowman co-founder Ryan Cash. “And in May of 2018 we decided to start actually working on it. And like a lot of our titles, we didn’t necessarily know how long it would take and how big it would end up becoming ... and probably wouldn’t have started on the game if we knew how long it was going to take.”
Part of what took so long is the scale: this was the studio’s first attempt at this kind of large open world. “We liked the idea of crafting this space where we could hide secrets and you would get to know it the more and more you came back and visited it,” explains Cash. “But [that] also provided a bunch of production challenges.”
“It’s probably our biggest project”
But even though Laya is very different from, and more ambitious than, the Alto series, a lot of the same design threads run through both. There’s more of an explicit story this time around thanks to all of the characters you can chat with, but Laya is also filled with less overt storytelling, as you learn more about the world simply by uncovering more of it and looking at the details. It’s the kind of narrative that you can really dig into if you’re interested or almost completely ignore if you want. Similarly, the game has a quest structure Alto fans will be familiar with and a similar aesthetic, right down to the soothing adaptive soundtrack.
“We’re excited and honestly a little bit nervous,” says Cash. “It’s probably our biggest project that we’ve built here in Toronto and it’s gone through five years of development and started off with a really small team, that grew to a fairly big one.”