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  Develop 2009: Thatgamecompany's Chen On How Emotion Can Evolve Games
by Mathew Kumar
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July 15, 2009
Develop 2009: Thatgamecompany's Chen On How Emotion Can Evolve Games

Feelings make the game, says thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen. "If the feelings that you provide in your game are unique, then your game will be unique," said the Flower developer's creative director and co-founder at Develop in Brighton.

"Today’s games are more real, more engaging and more satisfying," said Chen, "but really, the underlying interaction dynamics aren’t more sophisticated than what we’ve been used to."

Games are still closer to toys than the films and literature it aspires to be compared to, Chen asserted. "With a toy like wood blocks, we learn about physics, colors, math by playing, and games tend to offer similar lessons," he said. "Yet people don’t continue to play with toys as adults."

Why? Chen suggested it relates to the emotional potential of toys compared with adult-oriented media. "Clearly what we need are more mature games, but that doesn’t mean more sex and violence," he said.

"The Three Little Pigs is a fairy tale, enjoyed by children. The Little Prince is a fairy tale, too -- but it’s enjoyed by adults [as well as children].”

"You see, what I realized during the development of Cloud was that entertainment is about feelings," he continued. "Entertainment isn’t just for the sake of itself. When we’re hungry, we look for food; when we’re thirsty, we drink. When we want to experience feelings? It’s entertainment that provides, because in society there are restrictions that mean we can’t do whatever we want."

On realizing the importance of feelings as a driver of entertainment, Chen investigated the response of critics to films and to games.

"The words people [use to] describe films are emotive; they describe films as ‘passionate’ or ‘magical.' But when people talk about games they’re technical, as if they were describing a car. 'The graphics are good. This car has four seats,'" he said. "They rarely consider how the game makes them feel."

The reason? Limitations on games' "emotional spectrum."

"Most games provide only primal feelings—and in general, power fantasies," said Chen. "I loved these feelings when I was younger, but as I get older, I start to wonder about the other feelings I can have."

The evolution of games experimenting in a larger emotional spectrum was something Chen hoped would be analogous to the early film industry. Originally fixated on thrilling the audience with footage of speeding trains, as the audience grew it became necessary to offer more involved and subtle productions.

"This is a time when user experience innovation has much more potential to develop video games than technical," explained Chen. "If the feelings that you provide in your game are unique, then your game will be unique."

As advice, Chen offered some lessons he had learned from the development of Flower, such as the discovery that in the attempt to make a “fun” game, the team had blunted the emotional impact.

"Sometimes hard fun is your enemy," said Chen, "but it’s too easy to try and make a hard, fun game, as it’s almost all we know."

Instead, developers are going to have to look at games as art if they want them to be treated as such, he said. Though Chen admitted that this was a topic about which many in the industry are "jaded," he concluded that it was important that designers think as deeply about "what they wish to share with the audience," as an artist would.

"Artists draw on their life and time, and reflect on that," he said. "As designers, we have to think about what we want to share with our audience, what we want to tell them, otherwise we’re only wasting their time."

brandon sheffield
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Of course, what he's actually saying is that you should have both fun and emotional impact together. That you don't mind sacrificing it because it's too hard to include with a fun game is the issue.

Joe Elliott
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Well then continue to design your next-gen wood blocks toys, there's a market for it. Perhaps you could add a mounted weapon on them? Would be "fun".

I coudn't agree more with Chen. Our media is able to deliver so much more than evolved toys. I don't think that we stop "playing" as we get older, we just need more mature interactions. When I was a kid, I could play with a frog and be fascinated. Then as a teenager I was more fascinated by the interactions with girls. And now interacting with my class of students is my current challenge. And I guess that my wood blocks and legos have been replaced by my interest in home renovations and engineering. It's still "playing" for me, and it's fun. But I don't think games can provide me this much satisfaction from "playing", unlesss of course if I replace my home renovation hobby by let's say a flight simulator hobby. But that's not the kind of games we're talking about aren't we? We can't all hope that people will make our game their hobby and expect to sell 10 millions of them.

Games as entertainment need to be consumed like other entertainment medias. They need to deliver passionate stories with complex feelings and emotions. Because yes I can be entertained for a few minutes by the toy type of games, but that's not enough for inciting me to buy a second Geometry War game, a second Forza game, etc. I realise that I consume a lot more of these emotinal stories from other medias. Movies, books, blogs, politics, sports controversies, TV soaps, etc. I am always interrested in new gossips and evolving stories. But I am not as much interrested in always discovering new toys, hobbies, sports.

So if some games can focus a bit more on delivering emotionnaly engaging stories, than I think there might be a even bigger market for them waiting to be developped.

Meredith Katz
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I'd agree with that, Brandon. It seems like the goal in designing should be to bring in both fun and, well, some sort of emotion. It's true that you can't predict what a player will feel (which is something I've seen often used as the argument against making the effort to produce games-as-art), but that doesn't mean that there aren't techniques that can cause some kind of reaction. And isn't that a step beyond the visceral, regardless of what they feel?

I have to admit that the games I'VE enjoyed most are the ones which both are really fun to play and really interesting to experience; that make me think about the characters, story, setting, and so on, as something to dig into instead of something to just set up the gameplay.

nathan vella
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i wrote a big response to that comment, but instead i'll just go back to laughing at it.

Michael Rivera
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"I really don't need to try and force art into the games I want to make so I can validate myself in front of my peers from other industries. That sounds pathetic."

Not everyone wants to create art for some kind of empty peer approval. Some of us want to do it because we have an idea burning in our mind and no other way to express it.

I don't know what Jenova Chen's motivations are, but based on the quality of his games I'd suspect he's at least somewhat serious about the art he creates.

Reid Kimball
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Brandon, maybe I'm misreading but isn't he saying the exact opposite?

An artist will have something they want to communicate and I think he's saying don't let the pressure to create a traditional "hard fun" game get in the way of artistic expression. If executed well, it is that artistic expression that will set the game apart from everything else.

Thomas OConnor
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You guys have some good comments, especially about how the ultimate experience would be balanced with providing an relevant emotional appeal with actually being fun. The industry is full of people making these toy games solely for the purpose of fun, so as to try and balance the industry Jenova is leaning very hard in the other direction. But a game made specifically to reach a slice of the feeling spectrum is bound to be boring - like art made for the sake of making art, with the creator having no real rhyme or reason behind it. Jenova is saying at the end that it's up to the designer to relate their own life experiences to create relevant experiences for players.

Soon, it will all come together, and the industry will be even better than it is now.

PS. My favorite emotional driven AND fun game has been the newest Prince of Persia, with Empathy being the feeling I experienced very enjoyably.

brandon sheffield
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Reid - it's not the exact opposite, but it's less straightforward than what I said - of course a game has to be fun, it's ultimately entertainment. He's mostly trying to tell people not to fall into traditional traps and as he says, "it’s too easy to try and make a hard, fun game, as it’s almost all we know." But of course he's not advocating the abolition of fun.

So yes, I agree that he's saying what you're saying, but I also don't think he's saying that artistic impression is more important than fun.

Russell Carroll
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I really appreciate Jenova Chen, and wish there were more people doing what he is talking about in the industry. I'd love to have a wider spectrum of games. Games like what Jenova is suggesting are very small in number. However, as I get older, they are more and more what I'm looking for in my personal gaming time (vs. the family gaming time, which tends to be about simply having fun together).

The lack of more meaningful adult content (not the so-called 'mature' content, there is more than enough of that!) is one of the key reasons I find myself increasingly dis-satisfied with gaming as a use of my 'free' time. As I get older, reading a classic novel, watching the West Wing, playing piano, or learning a foreign language are far more interesting and rewarding pursuits than what I'm getting out of most games.

Michael Rivera
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Rohit Nirmal: I understand what you mean then. I'm on the "make games artsier" side of things, but it bugs me too when people imply that fun games are immature.

Kouga Saejima
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Rohit Nirmal
"I don't mind emotional impact in my games, but neither do I mind sacrificing it for what I believe is ultimately important: Fun"

In my opinion it is "the experience" and not "the fun" that should define games.
Unless this mindset is changed games will never be considered as meaningfull art by people that aren't gamers or developers.

Davneet Minhas
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"Emotional impact" and "fun" are not mutually exclusive like some people seem to be implying. Having fun with a game is a direct result of emotional impact, and the more varying emotions a game is able to produce, the more fun it will be. Of course with those varying emotions other labels can be used to describe a game such as sad, inspiring, terrifying, etc, but none of those labels decrease the fun factor, they increase it. Without any emotional impact you're basically left feeling indifferent to a game, and that's definitely not fun.

In my experience the games of Fumito Ueda do exactly what Jenova Chen talks about, to a certain extent. Through atmosphere and the relationships between the player and non-playable characters, Ueda's games are able to evoke varying emotions that all serve to create a very fun and memorable experience.

Fun is not an emotion, it is a result of emotions. Lasting and varying emotional impact serves to increase the fun factor of a game. I think a more appropriate argument would be the assertion that the lasting emotional impact (depression, inspiration, passion, etc.) Chen talks about can possibly divert from the more primal or adrenaline-based feelings we're used to receiving from videogames. That's an assertion that I would absolutely disagree with however.

Dave Endresak
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While I agree with Jenova Chen in general, I'd like to offer a few replies to some of what he asserts as well as some of the views others have expressed.

Note that some of us "adults" continue to enjoy "fairy tales" and that fairy tales and other mythology was originally intended to convey very "adult" concepts about life philosophy. It's best not to stereotype.

More importantly, games have offered excellent emotive content for decades. This is especially true for Japanese games, but even Western products such as various Western adventure games from Sierra Online (King's Quest, Space Quest, Leirsure Suit Larry, etc), The Longest Journey, and Septerra Core offer such content (just as a few examples since there are many others, of course). From Japan, games such as Phantasy Star I and Ys I & II have excellent emotional content, as does more recent franchises such as Xenosaga. Other products that were never brought to the English market such as Tokimeki Memorial, Giniro, Doukyuusei, Kakyuusei, and Kana Imouto helped define the industry. In fact, many Japanese gamers were only considered as such if they played Kanon when the game was released. The English market (and Western markets, in general) lag far behind on offering strong emotive content other than, as Chen says, "power fantasies."

Some people may notice that I included titles that contain explicit sexual content. Well, if you want to evoke emotion, sex is part of life just like many other elements. In fact, it is easy to argue that sex is one of the key elements of life. However, there's a HUGE difference between gratuitous sex (i.e. "pornography") and consumation of the emotion we call "love" with the act of "making love." Just as gratuitous sex (or gratuitous violence or other content that is offered without any supporting reason or development) might be something to avoid during an attempt to evoke deep emotional empathy with an audience, so too may it be necessary to depict lovemaking in order to maintain a deep empathic connection as the culmination of a loving, caring, developed relationship. The interesting point is that people have been "cybering" for many years now regardless of any attempts to prevent such content in any product, but that such activities are not "making love" so much as simply "gratuitous sex." For those who want the genuine emotion of love and physical consumation, there's virtually (pun intended ^_^) nothing available in the English market.

This observation applies to any content, though. For example, Deus Ex did a terrific job addressing issues(and uncannily prescient, in many ways) about the "near future" of government antiterrorism activities, the benefits and dangers of nanotechnology, and the conflicts created by socioeconomic dysfunctionality. Xenosaga touches on many of the same issues but in a much more obvious, far future setting in order to maintain a certain distance and create an atmosphere for methodical thought about the issues rather than having the settings be uncomfortably familiar as they are in Deus Ex. Star Ocean: The Last Hope goes further by arguing that the only correct choice of interaction is noninterference because any attempt at "good intentions" will always cause unforeseen and unfortunate consequences that will cause later regret after the fact. Giniro offers a look at the corruption that is caused by extreme sources of power no matter how innocuous they may seem, and how some humans have consistently abused and mistreated other members of their societies throughout our history due to perceived differences in physical capabilities or socioeconomic class.

In my view, what we need is more recognition of what has been created and expansions on such efforts in the future.

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Reminds me of a paper I read, look up
The Psychology of Massively Multi-User OnlineRole-Playing Games:
Motivations, Emotional Investment, Relationships and Problematic Usage
by Nicholas Yee

There is a section on emotional interest.

And I wholeheartedly agree... enaging = emotional response = fun.

Blake Nicholas
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The main problem is that too many people creating these games are close minded. Unless you have 10 years experience or more in the game industry, you can't design a game. As games get easier to make so that anyone can do it, which will happen, we'll see a lot more of these emotional games. Until then the industry is too closed, too private, and mainly filled with technical people, not artists. Like Nintendo tasked some artist, Miyamoto, with creating a game back in the day with no real experience, more of that needs to be done.

As for movie-like emotional games, they're easy to make. What is a movie? A story. What is a story? Characters, plot, and setting. What is a game? Interactivity. What is an emotional game? Interactivity and story. The majority of movies are emotional because of the characters. The games Jenova Chen seems to want to make reminds me of an old video I used to have called "the mind's eye", I never found that video emotional, but I've found other story and character driven movies emotional.

Look at comedy movies, they usually start off funny then as the story needs to be told they get boring. This is a pitfall that many comedy movies suffer because movies rely so heavily on telling a story. It is kind of the same pitfall that the game industry suffers because we rely so much on interactivity. How do you make a comedy movie? Put the story on the back-burner. How do you make an emotional game? Put the interactivity on the back-burner. You don't have to take interactivity out, but you have to have some kind of ratio where if you x amount of interactivity then you have to have y amount of story telling. I know people don't want to hear that, but the only way to make something emotional, truly emotional, not "heeyyy dude, I love you man, oh and by the way I'm on drugs" emotional (Jenova Chen's "emotional") is to have a well thought out story with well thought out characters.

Another thing to note is that for a game to be emotional that story has to have ties to the real world in some way, so people can relate. Even movies that have no ties to the real world aren't emotional. Monsters, zombies, etc, unless there is some theme there like evil, fallen from grace, revenge, they're not emotional overall. Final problem is that since story is characters, plot, and setting and often people can't relate to a computer generated character, all that is left is plot and setting. So at this point in games the story has to make the most of that plot first and foremost before anything. It needs to consider the theme that it is trying to convey as a top priority because until we can identify with a computer generated character that is the most emotional story telling device we have. Other alternatives are real footage in some way (Metal Gear Solid games). Or to make the game first person with limited "other" character contact (i.e. Portal). Or to make the game with archetypes or entities with human-like emotional states despite not being human (i.e. Last Guardian).

Jenova Chen's idea of emotional to me isn't what I view as emotional. His view is more like the movie I mentioned early, the mind's eye, it takes advantage of whatever thoughts you're already having to create the illusion of emotion, druggy, psychedelic emotion.

An Dang
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Emotion is important in all forms of entertainment--and pretty much anything entertaining evokes some sort of emotion. The question is what emotion and to what extent. The intent of the creator/artist tends not to matter when it comes to "art," anyway, so discussing the intent to evoke emotion and create art is a bit funny.

Charlie Silver
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I agree with Jenova's point about what is missing from games but disagree with how it has been implemented. A game without gameplay is interesting but sorely lacks a core facet needed to drive the experience. If emotional responses are derived from the story, then perhaps character development should be explored rather than trying to reinvent the wheel by putting gameplay on the back-burner. A strong part of an emotional experience in a story is exploring a character, investing into that character's motivations are, and showing how he tries to fulfill them. If that desire is plausible, it gives the character a lot more depth and adds emotional significance to the game. Give us a window into the soul of a real character and our emotions will be tied to him.

Michael Rivera
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BN: "The main problem is that too many people creating these games are close minded. Unless you have 10 years experience or more in the game industry, you can't design a game. As games get easier to make so that anyone can do it, which will happen, we'll see a lot more of these emotional games."

That's already happening. You no longer need 10 years in the industry to become a game designer. You just need some coding knowledge or a copy of game maker.

Very few creative industries will just dump a pile of money on some unknown talent's doorstep, and the video game industry is no different. If people really have ideas about how to make games more emotionally engaging then prove to us how good they are first by putting them into action.

Aaron Casillas
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["The words people [use to] describe films are emotive; they describe films as ‘passionate’ or ‘magical.' But when people talk about games they’re technical, as if they were describing a car. 'The graphics are good. This car has four seats,'" he said. "They rarely consider how the game makes them feel."

The reason? Limitations on games' "emotional spectrum."]

If anything I learned in art school, the same thing occurs in Fine art, anytime someone begins to talk about the where you purchased the paint or the hue of your color more than the content, then it can only mean a couple of things: a) your art is about the materials b) your content is being overwhelmed by the process c) the appropriate or respective lexicon has not developed or evolved to critique the form.

Personally, I'm more intrigued by the latter, as it falls in sync with a couple of example from Fine Art history, mainly the introduction of modern Photography, followed by Film years later. Photography in its early years was described in the context of painting, until at last an appropriate language developed to describe the phenomena. Same thing occured with Film, described in terms of theatre and photography.

Video games is not different. As in Fine art critical theory, there is more than one way to describe an experience and every single method is as equal as the rest. It can be merely technical, formal, psychological, romantic, deconstructive etc...the list goes on. Jenova's discourse hopes for a call to the Romantic development of the form as an experience; nothing wrong with that, however when developing a game, unless your doing it by yourself, you have to interface with different groups that have different expectations to create their portion of the game. You will definetly need to talk about mechanics, systems and heuristics to one group and color, shape, visual language etc to another. Unfortunately, telling any of these disciplines to make the game more "emotional" will not translate to anything quantatively production wise.

I had a very brief conversation with Jenova years ago during his intern on Medal of Honor, he supposed that we weren't making the game "emotional" enough. That really down played the hard work everyone was doing to elicit a very cinematic experience within the game and time frame of the production. I asked him to describe his design in terms that we could turn into spaces, scenarios, mechanics or systems, a language that we could move forward with into production. Simply stating a critique without giving it a critical language ends up becoming as self referencial as an abstract painting. For example, is it pacing, character arc, story arc, a beautiful vista, a wafty tune of music, a subversive emotional mechanic yet to be discovered that can be used off the xbox controller?

I've discoursed Fine Artists of mine whether Fine Art is entertainment, they definetly say NO, I always respond "but it was fun to experience." That really gets them going!

In closing, the fact is our audience is growing, at best even in movies or art, the easiest tool descriptor is using Structure and Form first. A shipped game is probably more about when, where and what your doing and a shy second to why your doing them. Ironically, this is sometimes quite the opposite when your first coming up with the IP!

Aaron Casillas
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lol p.s. I apologize for my horrible use of grammar in my previous post, I was getting emotional.

Dan VanBogelen
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Art is too subjective, and there is always the chance that the observer will get something entirely different from the "art" aspect then you were hoping for. I sold a painting purely by accident once. From my point of view I thought I had failed in my attempt to create what I wanted, I got frustrated and just went to town on the canvas without any regard to "proper" technique. Later when I went to throw out my painting, my art instructor offered to purchase it. I was reluctant at first because I didn't believe my work was of any value, what I later learned was the subjective nature and the old adage of the beholder.

I had set out to create some art with a initial goal in mind, thought I failed, but someone saw something more in the work. Maybe when I threw out the technique and got emotional with the work, something came out of that creative process that I was not aware of.

Michael Rivera
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Aaron Casillas: Great point, especially about us lacking a set of vocabulary specific to video games. A couple terms have been popping up as of late, but it's clear we still have a long way to go.

Olivier Besson
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All this reminds me the old debates(?) about "game as art", or "storytelling in games", etc..
Is the next-gen version "emotion in games"?
The strange thing is that when you play a game with obvious artistic mastery, or compelling story (interactive or not), or emotion, you can only agree that such "ingredients" are welcome.
My question would be:
why is "stating the obvious" so problematic ?

Possible answers:
- designers have their own design preferences and struggle hard to spread them in the game design field. They look for visibility and have provocative (?) strategies to express their views.
- the game design field can't help being influenced by previous forms of expression (theater, movie, modern art) and wants to acquire the same marks of public recognition not only in terms of results (prizes, fame,..) but also in the mode of production of works: they want to "express" things (feelings, idea, etc..) for example.
- the game design field is very heterogeous and subject to internal contradictions (specially the tension between game as a "product" and game as a "work" (of art)).
- the game designers struggles to emancipate from economics (market, price, sales, all the "if-the-game-sells-well,no-complain" soo pragmatic "thinking"). One way is promoting "new" values.
- Recently a lot of emphasis has been put on "FUN", but actually it's quite hard to make fun games ;) "So.. maybe find something I'm good at.."

My personal opinion is that game design shares a lot of similarities with other art forms (including "toys"), but I tend to be more interested in what makes game design different from them.
The problem of emphasizing "emotion" is that though it may look provocative, it can also be regarded as quite conservative.

Christian Philippe Guay
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I think Jenova Chen is right. Game Developers are often considering the visuals and the mechanics, but rarely go further with the type of emotions they want to trigger. These days I mostly play shooter games, a lot, because none of them gives me the same feeling. Sometimes it's about the feel of the weapon, the squad-based oriented actions, the visuals, etc. Hopefully a dev will one day successfully add all these feelings into one game, because the way it is right now divides everyone.

Frank Forrestall
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I totally agree with Chen here. Especially where he mentions the disasterous effect that the word "fun" can have on the creative process.

I understand that this is the game industry that we're talking about. But suggesting that all games should be 'fun' is like suggesting that all songs should be happy, all food should be sweet or all movies should be 'funny.'

Drama can effect people in a very not-fun way and yet still be a rich and rewarding experience. I'm not knocking Mario or any of his 'fun' buddies but there's more to life than distraction and entertainment and publishers would be foolish to ignore it forever.


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