Small game developer thatgamecompany is known for beautiful and esoteric work: Flow, a game about the evolution of life, and Flower, a game about nature surviving the city. Creative Director Jenova Chen is now bringing gamers on a Journey: a new title, launching March 13, that follows the tale of a robed figure traveling through a ruin-strewn desert, making a pilgrimage to a mountain in the distance. We talked to Chen about the inspiration behind Journey, the work of Joseph Campbell, and the journey he made as a creator. Some spoilers are ahead.
Co.Create: How did Journey come together?
Jenova Chen: Thatgamecompany was founded with the philosophy that games are a form of entertainment, and entertainment is the food for emotion. When humans are hungry, they look for food. But they are also hungry for certain feelings. They go out to look for entertainment, from music to movies, to novels, to games, to satisfy their emotions. We realized that there is actually a whole spectrum of feeling that games are capable of creating, but not a lot of them are on the market. And we wanted to be a company to extend the depth and the width of the emotional spectrum that games can communicate. Right now there are a lot of action games, there are a lot of horror games, sports games. They have a lot of equivalents in movies as well. But where are the dramas? Where are the documentaries, the romance? All these feelings are missing in the game industry.
Journey is the third game we are working on, and the first online game. We wanted to bring in a new feeling between people online. Looking around at the consoles’ online games, the most common thing you play is killing each other or killing together. Most of the online console games are based upon existing single player mechanics, like shooting, like fighting, like role-playing games. And most of the single player games are about empowerment, because the majority of the users are younger males. That particular demographic has a very strong thirst for the feeling of freedom and empowerment. But today’s society is already very empowering—we are all empowered by technology. We can travel at lightning speed, we can talk to anybody anywhere at anytime, and we are super knowledgeable—anything we don’t know is on the Internet.
I started to realize there is an emotion missing in the modern society, and of course missing in the online console games. It is the feeling of not knowing, a sense of wonder, a sense of awe, at the fact that you don’t understand, at the fact that you are so small and you are not empowered. And so our focus for Journey was to make the player feel small and to feel wonder, so when they run into each other in an online environment, rather than thinking about how am I supposed to use my gun on the other player, we wanted them to feel a connection to another player.
Why did you decide to finally do a multi-player game?
We really wanted to have a real social experience. We talk about social games today, but most people think social games are just games on Facebook. But really, social means emotional exchange between people. For Journey to create a sense of smallness and a sense of awe will encourage the players to be together and exchange emotions. When you put the two players together online, and put them in a difficult environment, they will create a bond. But just being difficult is not a complete and entertaining experience. So what we did was borrowed the Hero’s Journey, Joseph’s Campbell’s work, and the three-act structure from filmmaking, the transformation of the character. So you get two players who will go through the transformation of life together.
Compared to your previous games, this seems to have more of a story, though very experiential. Why did you finally embrace that?
I would say Flower had a story. It is told through the environment. But it is different, because Flower is more like poetry, where the story comes from the symbolism and the narrative arc of things you see in the sequences. Journey is more like a story broken apart. There are two stories: There’s the ancient civilization’s story and the story of the player’s own journey. The civilization’s story is more broken apart and spread throughout the world for the player to discover. But what is more important is the arc of the player’s journey itself, which is based upon the Hero’s Journey, part of the monomyth.
I think all of my games are very experience based. I think when we were arranging the world, we were trying to create an arc that is mimicking the different stages of life. You are born into the world not knowing everything, everything is fresh and new. You can fall and roll down and it doesn’t hurt. Everything is very safe. And then a teenager is risk taking and adventurous and fun, exhilarating. In the middle of life you are a little bit lost, you don’t see the light from the mountain. You are rediscovering yourself, focusing yourself. Eventually you find your direction and you walk toward it, the responsibility and the trials of adulthood. You go through all the difficulties and in the end you get to transcend. That is the story we talked about.
What was the thinking behind the use of color in the game?
When you direct a film or game, visuals are one of the elements that are very useful to help communicate an arc of emotion. You want to make sure all the sounds and visuals and gameplay and music all work together. Journey started relatively peaceful and calm. So when we choose the color we like to keep it low contrast, overcast lighting and everything is very yellow. When it gets slightly exciting in the first act, when the players are surfing through the sand, we want the sand to be more contrasting, using the color to make it feel exciting. Then when the player is lost in the underground, we want the color to feel cold, cyan and blue and green, to give you this lost and underwater feeling. And during the mountain level we wanted the player to feel lifeless, their energy and use is gone, so the white color works great there. And then in the end, the climax, we wanted a color that brings a sense of freedom, a sense of liberation, and so the blue sky and the mountain streams are the right fit.
The game has a very Chinese and also Arabic influence—the desert, the line art on the ruins, the use of red cloth.
At the beginning of the design, when our art director Matt Nava was picking the art style and architecture style, I worked with him. We didn’t want something that was extremely Western, like Greek or Roman ruins. But we also don’t want it to be extremely Eastern, like Chinese or Japanese. So trying to find somewhere in between became the Middle East. The game is about a pilgrim. And for me, growing up in China, when I think about pilgrimage I always think about the monks in Tibet. I think that is a big influence on why the player’s character is red.
Did your own religion or spirituality influence the game? A sense of faith pervades the game.
I grew up in Communist China. We were raised with Communism and atheism. I am an atheist basically. But coming to the states, I started to study Joseph Campbell’s work, The Power of Myth and The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He is a comparative mythologist and a lot of his work is the study of all the folktales and the religious stories all around the world, from the Japanese Shinto to the Native American religions to Buddhism. After I go through those, I realize there is spiritualism missing in my early life. I am actually quite a spiritual person, but because of my experience in the past, my religious belief can’t really fall into any particular one. Now that I have studied all of them, I feel they are all connected, they are all very similar. I would say I am a faithful person.
And what was the decision behind creating a unique game structure, the continuous journeys?
I graduated from the film school USC. I did a lot of screenwriting in classes. In Hollywood, the most classic story structure is the Three Act Structure. It is an emotional rollercoaster with highs and lows: There’s a beginning, a twist in the middle, and a climax in the end. And that is how I did Flower. During Journey, I wanted to do the same thing, but at the time I was studying Joseph Campbell. So I was trying to see if there is any match between the Three Act Structure and the Hero’s Journey, so I can align them to make the perfect structure. And what I realized is that the Hero’s Journey is already a Three Act Structure. Then I was thinking whether it is possible to match a character’s birth to death into the Hero’s Journey. I studied some writing from Confucius. He describes the different stages of life: By age 30 you can stand alone and be independent; at age 40 you are ready to get rid of your confusion and align in the direction for the future, etc. I put those three structures together and realized they were all perfectly aligned. In the game, you want to see the life, the beginning and the end. But the end of life doesn’t mean the end of the world. It’s a cycle. Why does the game start a new cycle when you finish? Because that’s what I think life is about. I also want the player to feel they are part of something bigger than just themselves.
What was your own journey while creating this game?
The beauty of the Hero’s Journey is that applies to your whole life, but it also applies to a transformation of any individual or any thing. When I look at the creation of Journey, it surprisingly matches. Initially when we started the game it was all open water; the sky is the limit, let’s just figure out what we want to try. We played with various prototypes and various attempts at wild and crazy ideas—that’s kind of our youth. Then, we entered adulthood, “We have to ship this game in two years!” We couldn’t really agree with each other—there was a lot of confusion and a lot of struggle. Eventually we convinced ourselves this is not going to be a two-year game; it’s going to be a three-year game. It’s kind of like we aligned our direction. After that, it is pretty much the trial, a trial of perseverance and whether you can execute the direction you believe in, polishing and finishing the game. It is very difficult, very slow. It’s frustrating sometimes because when it is slow, you don’t feel there is any progress. And then near the end, as the game is coming together, as the game really starts to touch people, we start to realize we have learned more about ourselves. The future of Thatgamecompany will be very different from the beginning of Journey. I think everybody has reached some kind of learning and transformation at the end of the project.