GDC 2012: Jenova Chen Unravels the Secrets Behind Journey

March 13, 2012

I was thoroughly impressed with thatgamecompany’s Journey. In a muddled heap on my living room floor, I swore to the heavens that I would see to it personally that everyone got a taste of this beautifully crafted, artistic piece of gaming brilliance. While at GDC 2012 in San Francisco last week, I had the honor of (quite literally) stumbling into Journey designer Jenova Chen, who agreed to chat with me about his company’s latest release.

For those of you ready for some spoilers, Jenova Chen unravels some of the deeper mysteries and secrets behind the world of sand and cloth below.

My big question was the use of cloth as a driving force in Journey’s deserted world. As an inanimate, man-made material, giving bolts of cloth sentience and arranging them into power-granting structures places it in a sort of character role. “Cloth has a lot of symbolistic meanings,” said Chen.  “We are a small team — we only wanted to spend this this time making something really nice. I don’t know if you noticed but our character doesn’t have any feet. You may think it’s just because we liked it that way, but [rendering] a character that knows how to place his feet on different surfaces requires its own [designer] to work on. At the very beginning, we had good engineers but not a lot of them, so we had to pick one thing to do and do it very well.

“We picked the cloth because it’s technology that has only been used as the icing on the cake in most games. So we chose to focus on two things — the cloth and the sand — and knew we could make a game out of it.

“I’m a person who enjoys elegance and beauty, just the way things look and move, and cloth has always been a very romantic material,” Chen added. “It’s also man-made, but feels organic. When we started the project, oil prices were very high and that inspired us to show use of natural resources. So the symbolic metaphor for the cloth, you could say, is life. Every civilization falls for a reason — so I thought it would make sense for this civilization to fall because they ran out of life, out of natural energy. We made cloth the energy form. Anything that is made of cloth wants to breathe and wants to be living, so you get cloth that is flying around and you are one of the cloth forms that have come to life.

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“You should be feeling the message from the game, but [our message] is that all life is connected. We are all one. That’s why when cloth touches you they give you courage and strength. And when you are touching the other player you gain strength, the spark of life and connecting. I want players to see something else that is living and want to help it.”

Chen created Journey with a goal in mind: to create an experience in which players connected emotionally. “I wanted people to connect on an emotional level, not just a numeric level, nothing like ‘Oh you gave me ten points, I gave you ten points.’ I’m trying to use everything to hint to the player that working with the cloth is the right thing to do.”

The fallen civilization of Journey is depicted in murals that players unlock throughout the game. These murals are typically ensconced in smaller, secret areas flanked by fields of upright stone blocks that look conspicuously like headstones. Again Chen woke his answer in a way that hinted thatgamecompany’s production team is just as mystified and innocently uncertain of Journey’s world themselves. “We do think they are graves,” Chen said with a laugh, “but we never talk about them in terms of graves. They could be graves… It’s kind of like, if you really want to look at a scientific rationale, why are they on top of the sand? They represent the dead.”

So is Journey about a fallen civilization? What about the larger white figures? Upon asking Chen gently tossed the question back at me. Startled for a moment, I answered: the white figures could be beings of the past. They guide your hooded figure and show you, through murals and visions, what they have gone through in the past. A deep sense of guidance from the past resonates throughout the story, and as I gave my mystic, starry-eyed answer Chen nodded ever so slightly, every so knowingly.

“We used to call them spirits,” he said, “but now we call them ‘ancestors.’ There used to be tons of them waiting for you during a certain part of the game. But that was too obvious of an answer, and answered the story for you. The people in the drawings are the ancient beings that harvested the cloth to build civilization. Some people take the story as a redemption — because they think the white characters are somewhat sorry, sorry for what happened. Other people think it’s  your ancestor waiting for you to join them.

“We didn’t make it explicit because internally we were fighting about story details,” Chen chimed in, drawing a good-natured laugh from us both. “So we actually said, ‘If we keep it vague, everyone can read it the way they want!”

Something that truly rattled me was the sudden appearance and stalking prowl of the mechanical serpent figures floating through the latter parts of the game. These terrifying serpents from Chen’s imagination are machines made from the past, not quite war-machines but deadly nonetheless. “They are lifeless machines just doing what they are supposed to do: gather cloth. But if you notice, trapped inside them are cloths. They hold the cloth.”

There are many segments of the game that are prolonged, with the player’s little hooded figure trudging through deep snow and uphill through violent winds. These “walking sequences,” as Chen described them, aren’t dragged out per say, but these elongated moments are a slow, steady built rather than a climatic build-up. “We really wanted the player to feel that they had gone through a rebirth, so they really need to feel dead. In the entire game you can’t die, so we have to make you feel emotionally ready and accepting that you… that you are gone.

“The level before the final walk is much longer than the other levels. We want to make you feel, in that final field, as you are walking, that you know you are going to die. If we just give it to you right away you wouldn’t feel it. We had to take the time to teach you that freezing it bad, and that if you freeze you will die. So we take away your scarf and let you know there is no way back, and keep showing you the mountain… A lot of people start to look around at this point and get lost, and then nothing happens. But you have to keep moving forward. You have to know what will happen to you.

Chen noted, “The timing is very hard, and [the final uphill sequence] was originally three times longer than that. The reason I made it that long was because you need to feel that there is progress. Once you decide to keep walking forward, you enter a kind of meditative mode — that’s what I like. But when we tested it they all said it was too long and gave up. So we shortened it until we felt it was a good amount of time for everyone to become accepting.

“We wanted people to realize this: ‘That’s right, I’m freezing, I’m dying, and if I fall I know I’m dead.”

Trying to communicate the sense of a meaningful death was a challenge for Chen and his team. “In many games it’s too easy to die, and you don’t feel anything right away because there is nothing emotionally preparing you to die. I’m kind of proud of that,” he said with a smile.

“When someone dies all the good moments of his memory flashes through his mind and then he’s gone. It’s a joyful moment. It’s a relief. It’s a let-go. And so the final level is all about the let-go, the most beautiful, the most fun part of the game. You have experience with other life and then you fly to the top. That moment should feel like a relief because your body is left behind, your spirit has walked into a life. We wanted the player to wonder what comes next.”

But far and away the most beautiful and poignant mechanic employed in Journey is the “shout,” the single, toneless, non-articulate chime that signals the hooded figure’s communication with its environment. “When we were working with the prototype, we knew we wanted a simple way to communicate that still had nuances. We originally used a real human voice… but it felt really raw because this character does not look like someone who would make that sound. We kept talking about the right sound to make, and our composer Austin Wintory thought of making a progression through tones. Over time the shout changes and becomes deeper and has more humanity — and in the final level the shout has a singer’s voice in it. It’s very subtle,” Chen explained.

“The game is about you, and the other player,” Chen concluded. “As you find more paintings you learn about the player’s relationship with the environment, the relationship between the sand and the cloth… We put alot into it, and left the player on their own to discover it.”

Thatgamecompany’s — and your own — Journey is available on the PlayStation network today.

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Alexa Ray Corriea

A High Summoner from the Woods of the North (read: New England), Alexa and her ragtag band of comrades have saved the world from cataclysmic destruction countless times -- you just didn't notice. When she isn't writing or gaming, she enjoys baking, long walks at dusk, and cosplay.

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