Thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen Talks Journey

This afternoon I had the chance to participate in a conference call with Jenova Chen, co-founder of Thatgamecompany and creative director for Journey, set to release next week on the PlayStation Network for PS3. Journey has already garnered heaps of positive praise for its stunning design and unique artistic approach to playing a video game.

Going into Journey  from previous titles flOw and Flower has been a challenge for Chen and his team. “We wanted to push the boundaries of what video games could communicate,” said Chen. “We wanted to bring something new [to games], an emotional experience.”

Journey has a lot of new challenges, particularly things related to multiplayer. We wanted to have a feeling that is very new between players over the internet rather than the single player.”

On Journey’s design, Chen commented that what can make or break a game is its accessibility. “My own design philosophy is that a good design should be done for everyone, not just for one group with a particular set of knowledge. In order to make them accessible to everybody you need to make the controls more intuitive.”

Chen’s inspiration for Journey began with the intense desire for a deep emotional connection between players. “Usually multiplayer is two people killing each other or killing something together. Maybe there’s a sports game. But all the mechanics are based on a single-player game. These mechanics are based on empowerment, giving the player a sense of freedom and empowerment. Usually when people see each other [in multiplayer] they are thinking how to use their power on each other. We wanted to focus on the experience of ‘Hey, there is another human being! I haven’t seen one in a while!’ So in order to make two people really stand out we picked various environment backgrounds — maybe a forest or a mountain trail or maybe a city. But the backgrounds were so complex it’s hard to see the players. But if you put two players in the desert, they pop out, you can see them right away. Visually it gives you a much strong sense of the relationship between the two characters. ”

To get the best experience out of Journey, Chen suggested that players go with multiplayer because the game is based on life. “We are all headed to a similar place, we are all on our way to die. We meet various people on our journey to die. We meet various people at difference stages in our lives. Maybe we grow apart from each other, and later we will cross each other again. It’s very much trying to be as true to our life as possible. So if you play Journey from beginning to end and you don’t meet anyone, you’re living the life of a loner. It’s a self-reflection, how you play. And if you meet anyone, it will be very, very engaging, almost changing the game into a completely different experience.”

So why can’t players communicate during multiplayer? Why can’t they talk to each other? “Removing that is a trust-building exercise. If two people struggle through a difficult time, a bond is created between the two. I would rather see two people go through a rollercoaster of emotional rise and fall together, a whole transformation together with another player.”

“Most multiplayers are competitive. And because of this they are very naughty,” he added. “There is too much information not related to the game itself [in things like gamer tags]. There is no voice in Journey, they are not supposed to speak human language. The text from the human language takes you away from the exotic place we have created. So we know right away the player ID should not be in a game. These are all distractions from what the game is about. All you need to know is that the other person is a human.”

Composer Austin Wintory played a key role in Journey’s development. “Music is the most effective and efficient medium that can evoke emotion,” said Chen. “When I worked with Austin, three years ago we had a dinner and I described the whole gaming experience to him and asked for a pitch track… Austin was the one who really went full out. It was really, really passionate. This is probably the longest music project has has ever worked on. We would go to Austin for a track for inspiration. The music evolves based on the player’s discovery. All of [his music] has Journey in it. It’s really outstanding.”

Some people may complain that Journey is too short. On length and quality of games, Chen said: “We have come to games with a very different perspective.  My perspective is that we are making games for everyone, we are not just making games for kids. When you buy a game for a kid, it makes sense, sure you spent a lot of money and want the kids to be entertained. We want to inspire emotion, we want the player to be touched and moved, to reflect on the whole experience and learn something. If our goal is to communicate a strong feeling or message, our goal is to do it in the most efficient way possible. If we give then filler, that is disrespect. It’s like, we come from a very artistic perspective and want to get a message across. If we start letting people level up or do the same puzzle three or four times, we’re just extending hours of the game. We don’t want to do that.”

“As you start to work, you don’t have much time to play longer games,” he added, mentioning Skyrim and World of Warcraft as hard games to juggle with a full work schedule. “If you keep something too long, they might be afraid they won’t have time to enjoy it. In film school I learned screenwriting and how to create emotion in narrative. In order to create a strong emotion, you need time to build up.” Journey can be played in one sitting — but still packs a powerful punch for what it is.

Journey is an online game and every time you play you have the potential meet different people and the experience is different. You can replay it many, many times,” he added.

Journey‘s design, like Thatgamecompany’s work, is inspired by film history. Film and video game milestones overlap, both being multimedia forms based on constantly evolving technology. One thing that games don’t particularly touch on, though, is romance. Chen said, “It’s easier to make shooting games for boys because it makes money. It’s this vicious cycle, somehow we lost females. Males like the visceral experience [of shooting games]. It’s like manga in Japan — they make it very clear. The manga for the boys is about empowerment and a sense of freedom, because teenagers are trapped in school, told what to do, and forced to conform. They all have the strong desire that they are free and to do whatever they want. They’re all about inheriting superpowers and changing the world. But for the girls, they want to feel they are surrounded by love and are connected, so girl manga is about relationships and drama. It’s a natural desire.” Romance is games has sort have slid to the side; Journey works to connect players in a more deep and meaningful way.

Chen added, “What is the skill of a head shot going to help you in real life? Once you’re an adult, how much of that skill is really going to help you? I know lots of adults that play golf because it’s social and helps their business. I know lots of people who play poker because the skill is useful in real life. I though, what kinds of games are worthwhile for adults in real life to play? We have to move them in a way to justify spending hours on this thing, so, while as a kid it’s okay if you waste 12-18 hours on a game, when you’re an adult it needs to offer something valuable.”

Journey offers players an absolute minimal level of guidance, leaving them to rely on intuition to play. “When we were working on Journey, the emotion is very much about the sense of wonder. A sense of wonder, for me, means something you don’t know, something you don’t understand but want to understand. Saying things like, ‘Go here, pick up three things and come back to finish a quest,’ it takes away the sense of wonder, the sense of discovery. We wanted to avoid ruining the sense of wonder.”

“We are in a society today where information is exploding. I don’t know everything. There’s so much out there it’s starting to make me feel like I actually know everything. I have access to [Google and Wikipedia] and it makes me less in awe of the world,” he added.

Chen drew inspiration for Journey from The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell. “I wanted to create the journey is life.  I had The Hero’s Journey structure, narrative three-act structure, and Confucius’s stages of life out on the table, and I thought… I have to let people experience this.”

“The special part of a game is what the player is bringing to the game,” said Chen.

Journey will be available on the PlayStation Network next Tuesday, March 13.


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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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