Last week at the 11th Annual Games for Change Festival in New York City, game creator Jenova Chen spoke in a panel called “Blank Canvas: Designing a New Era of Emotional Storytelling Through Games.” Chen’s studio Thatgamecompany is responsible for the award-winning game Journey, which staggered audiences with its enormous emotional capacity. In his talk, Chen outlined the three key factors he aims to include in his games and why they matter.
Chen has always been a lover of games. But as he grew older, he noticed that his friends were no longer gaming. He found this strange. His friends were, after all, still watching movies, reading books, and going to theme parks. But games were “for kids.” It was frustrating. He didn’t want to give up the media he loved. So he began to look for good games for adults.
Adult games today, unfortunately, are not so much written for adults as they are written for “a child in a man’s body,” as Chen describes it. Action games are fine, but not everything. Sometimes action games do fulfill an emotional need, Chen explained, “But there are other times when you want to feel differently, when you want to be touched, you want to learn something, you want to be enlightened.” There were no games like that out there. So how could he create a game that was mature—not sexual or violent, but emotionally mature? Or, phrased another way, “What is the [game] equivalent of an Oscar-worthy drama?”
Chen began to look at the history of film for answers. Right away, he noticed that movies are categorized by their emotions (comedy, drama, thriller), but games are defined by their technical specs (shooter, puzzler, platformer). Games were still considered more software than entertainment.
When movies were first invented, Chen observed, they were used for action entertainment, too. They were “primal,” direct. As it grew up, film began to expand in three important areas: 1. accessibility, 2. breadth, and 3. depth. “In order for a video game to be as respected as film, we need to address all of these issues,” he said.
Chen’s game Flow was designed to tackle the first area, accessibility. He wanted to create a game that anyone could pick up instantly and enjoy. It’s elegant, relaxing, and extremely simple. His next game, Flower, incorporated area number 2, breadth, by attempting to create a new emotion within a player. It ended up taking the design team over a year to figure out a kind of gameplay that was fun, but also relaxing. The designers wanted to keep the player engaged without ever making them feel frustrated or stressed by the possibility of losing. The reactions were extremely positive.
Journey was created with all three areas in mind. For this game, Chen wanted to create an experience where players could have a deep emotional connection with other players. And it was tricky.
For one, Chen wanted to put players into a setting that made them excited to see other people, instead of nervous. Most games encourage competitive behavior, and Chen wanted to achieve something else. He started out by clearing away the excessive noise, the labels, the action, the voices. The interface was kept simple. And then he put the players in the middle of a vast desert, where they would only occasionally run into other players. When you see someone in a city, it’s easy to ignore them. In a desert, with no one else around, your reaction changes. Plus, being so small in such a vast, open place created a sense of awe.
In an early version of the game, the cloaked figures of Journey had the ability to touch each other and even jump onto each other’s shoulders. The idea was that they could help each other jump onto high ledges. What ended up happening was all wrong. The players began knocking each other off cliffs.
It wasn’t until Chen spoke with a child psychologist about the problem that he was able to discover a solution. “You’re basically dealing with babies,” Chen explained. When gamers enter the virtual world, they are just looking for feedback. So Chen had to change the feedback into something that encouraged players to work together. He did it by having the avatars give each other energy when they were within proximity of one another. This energy gives them the power to fly. After that, players were even more excited to see each other.
This kind of repetitive testing became essential to the success of the game, and it would probably not have been tolerated from a large studio. Even now, there are gamers who play Journey hundreds of times over just to continue helping newcomers along the way.
Journey has won dozens of prestigious awards, but to the game team, the awards never mattered as much as the fan feedback. Thatgamecompany received thousands of letters detailing ways in which the game was able to help players deal with the death of a loved one or with traumatic injuries. Journey helped one gamer cope with his terminal cancer. Chen made it clear that he had never expected this kind of reaction. Journey was not designed to be therapy. And yet, he was able to unlock this amazing potential stored within the video game medium.
Games can be much more than action-adventure. To make a game sad, or touching, or relaxing, designers have to take some risks. For Jenova Chen and Thatgamecompany, the result was worth it. “All these people, in all ages, all genders, from all around the world, they play games and they need this content,” Chen said. Developers must put their heart into their games, and only then can they turn video games into a medium worthy of respect.
If you want to watch Jenova Chen’s presentation at Games for Change, you can check it out here. His talk is split across two videos: it begins at the 4:15 mark of the video labeled “part 1.”