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A Personal Journey: Jenova Chen's Goals for Games
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  A Personal Journey: Jenova Chen's Goals for Games
by Ed Smith [Design, Interview, Indie]
27 comments Share on Twitter Share on Facebook RSS
May 18, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

I'm about half way through my interview with Jenova Chen when I get the impression that I've annoyed him. Talking about Thatgamecompany, and the limitations of working with only eight other people, I ask Chen if, given the resources, he'd like to develop a more mainstream game.

"Well," he replies, "what is mainstream?"

Immediately, I can sense his frustration: Journey, his latest game, has just become the fastest-selling PlayStation Network release ever. The many months of hype surrounding Journey, and the effusive reviews that followed it, have catapulted Chen and Thatgamecompany into the limelight as a pioneering force behind the new wave of video games.

Naturally, he's defensive of that success. "I think Journey is a triple-A game... If we were the Uncharted team, the Journey character would have arms and have hands. The climbing animation would look more forceful, the sand would look more real, but that only helps the game to be a triple-A game... With only nine people, Journey can still get a point across."

It's hard to disagree. Although Chen's team has always provided a popular alternative to chart games, Journey, with its gorgeous visuals and mass of press coverage, is Thatgamecompany's first real invasion of major league turf.

But Chen is not content with merely competing. Targeting what he perceives as the biggest problem in games today, Chen has set about reinventing online multiplayer. "We wanted to make an online game [that brought] an emotion that has never been done before in online games. If you look around at online games in the console market, it's pretty obvious that no other games give you this feeling of connection with each other, of understanding.

"The goal was to create a game where people felt they are connected with each other, to show the positive side of humanity in them. A lot of games today have a list of quests, places to go, items to collect and rewards to receive... We just ignore each other. So in order to make players care about each other, we have to remove their power, and remove their tasks."

Journey's multiplayer is as much a step back as it is a leap forward. There's no chat system, no power-ups; you can't even see your companion's user name. Paired off at random, it's up to you and your cohort to decide how to engage with one another.

By eschewing the window dressing normally associated with online multiplayer -- kill cams, leaderboards, customization -- Chen revives the fundamental essence of multiplayer games: collaboration. While Battlefield players are killing their way to the next weapon attachment, the travellers in Journey are gaming in sync; gradually, you fall into a perfect rhythm with your nameless partner, waiting for them to catch up and vice versa.

Stick together long enough, and a personal, unspoken bond will form: sitting my character down in the snow, I nipped out to fetch myself a drink, returning a couple of minutes later to find my buddy meditating beside me. Every online gamer has a story like this, but only in Journey does the multiplayer form organically.

"In Journey," explains Chen, "we want to offer the player the choice between individualism and group conformity... We wanted to create an environment where the cooperation is not forced; you're totally fine doing it yourself. If you choose to cooperate, then that is the real essence of connecting two players."

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Gern Blanston
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Great interview! I'm so glad to see these kinds of philosophies applied to gaming. He's right that there are certain functional things missing from gaming, especially pertaining to adults. I've been playing for more than 20 years, and every day I'm less and less interested in gaming as a whole. But developers like ThatGameCompany keep me playing, albeit for a little while.

Steven An
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I felt all those emotions in Little Big Planet as well. You could technically type and talk...but it was much more fun to use the hand/arm gestures. It was great. Also, Sack Boy's super cute.

Steven An
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"My biggest complaint for computer games so far is they are not good enough for adults. For adults to enjoy something, they need to have intellectual stimulation, something that's related to real life."

I'm glad Chen and TGC are trying to make more intellectual and real-life-ish games, but wow that statement is just wrong. I know it's probably just his personal taste, and he didn't mean for it to come across as some blanket judgment for everyone, so nothing personal. But yeah I think it's pretty obvious that adults play games for a lot of reasons. I love more thought-provoking games, but I also love shooting zombies in the head. It's all good, man.

jaime kuroiwa
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Wasn't this the philosophy behind Myst: Uru -- Not with the hand-removal thing, but the cooperative, non-violent, exploration thing?

Mike Murray
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I don't me, Jenova's comments just reek of arrogance. He says he didn't put arms on the player avatar because we'd want to pick up a weapon? Really? I have played games where no combat is involved, but the avatar still had his arms.

It seems like Jenova hasn't played many games if that's what he really thinks about the industry. You can experience a wide range of emotions while playing games. Has he even considered the emotions that people feel when playing a game together in the same room? I hate that Jenova and Jonathan both think they're the solution to a problem that doesn't exist. They have a narrow-minded view of gaming, and I hope more people realize that.

David Serrano
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If you're a 13 to 23 year old male hardcore player, there's no problem because the AAA industry has made your preferences the default template for all game design. But for 37 year old (or older) players who represent the majority of the core audience, there's a very real problem which has grown worse since the 360 and PS3 launched.

And it's a safe bet that Jenova has played as many, if not more games than you. The fact that he doesn't share your land of milk and honey view of AAA gaming doesn't make you right or him wrong. But the declining sales figures and loss of market share with older players would seem to support and validate his opinions.

C Elliott
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I actually think Mike is on to something. Sometimes when a group starts a new genre that eschews the "mainstream", they become so focused on their own set of rules that they almost create a miniature version of the "mainstream". Jenova is a very focused and creative guy, to be sure, but with all the press and pomp he's been getting, I can agree that he seems to be getting less and less the "quiet and devoted artist" and more the arrogant industry man.

You might say that's just because he's getting irritated with all the mainstream vs. indie reporters filling his inbox, but there's something else. After JOURNEY was finished, there was a kind of creative flight leaving his tiny team - including ThatGameCompany's co-founder Kelly Santiago. Something tells me that Jenova has become so focused on his own personal views of games and creativity that he's blocking a lot of creativity and input from other sources - a sure sign of the age old "this is the only way we do things" method that plagues the mainstream industry today.

And I agree with Mike's other point too - just because I'm a 27-year old female doesn't mean I won't play a run of Jakk and Daxter or the well-aged !Fishy!. Games can appeal to anybody, of any genre preference, regardless of your gender or age. Who's to say what I can and can't have fun with, just because I'm an "adult"? I kinda think that both the "mainstream" and the "indie" could tolerate a little cross-examination to see what's possible within their respective spheres.

Great comment Mike!

Joe McGinn
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Have to agree Mike, the tone in the interview is incredible arrogant and annoying. Have some great ideas, something cool? Great, show me! Don't tell me what everyone else is doing wrong (especially when you seem really bitter about the fact that what the mass market wants is not what you want to make).

Joshua Oreskovich
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I don't sense arrogance in his words.

I sense underlying corporate dogmatic marketing, which is arguably almost as bad.

However he is righteously correct in his assertions, aside from being the "only" possibility which is overboard.

Personally I would rather him be overboard passionately about delivering adult material if even only to show some darn respect to us who have put those big companies where they are like Sony who holds his reins.

ultimately he is partnered with a company that has consistently devalued service ~ albeit probably a cultural outlook problem.

However Journey's success may open some doors, doors that have long since needed opening.

I don't expect greta things however #1 reason being Sony isn't interested in the PC but the same thing the other large corps are interested in (an enslaved monthly service fee world). but nonetheless corporate share holders have to listen to a little smarter innovation around social gaming ~ now. If anything Journey has opened the door to that.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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I'm half with you here.
On one side I do agree that the games that "thatgamecompany" has created are unique and greatly unlike anything else out there. I must say that Journey has been one of the few games that has had a lasting and unexpected emotional impact on me in the last 10 years. And I rescue that, I feel that he is bringing interesting options into our medium.

However I don't think its EITHER WITH THEM OR AGAINST THEM, as he seems to imply. I find that there is lot of team learning from a multiplayer shooters or MOBAs, that there is genuine enjoyment in "simple" games like Jak and daxter or Mario, that we can find a lot of raw instinct in survival horror games, and develop friendly connections in MMOs. Just to name a few.

This is why I dislike the term "art games" because, as horrible as this might sound to some, I don't consider Journey, Dear Esther and Shadow of the Colossus, more art than Modern Warfare or Uncharted. In the same way as in movies I don't consider Memento to be more art than Transformers, or in literature Dan Brown would be no less of an artist than Dostoyevsky.

It is a matter of what is the effect they expect to achieve and how effectively they achieve it. Games to me are the most effective way to achieve inmersive experience design today, and thats how they should be judged. Not by the functional accidents of the experience itself.

I do find that his thesis of generating an interface that doesn't require violent behaviour as a way to demonstrate how susceptible we are to the context that game worlds define for us. In this sense, hats off to him, because this philosophy permeates in his games thoroughly, and he finds less obvious and more interesting ways to engage the player.

All that said, he does seem a bit too defensive, which makes me think that success could be clouding his vision.

wes bogdan
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Between nintendo,ms and sony i think ms dedicates themselves to the "safe bets" while nintendo makes fantastic games most of them are series started on the nes which leaves sony who since ps3 arrived have been generating new series and are still going at it.

Stuff we'd never seen before like user content on console or journey are all on playstation does that mean sony can keep it up with ps4-no but right now playstation has more original games than xbox though xbla does have good original games their packeged games are all mainstream while nintendo continues to rely on metroid mario and zelda they also lack originality because the last new expierence was pikmin....what about wii sports that was a new "party " game but was more proof of consept than big new expierence like pikmin.

If things keep going the way they are ms will have sports n shooters,nintendo will use great series though decades old and sony will be the most original box with expierences like uncharted 1,patta-pon,locco roko,lbp 1 but new for ps4 of course old favorites like uncharted 4,kz,lbp,resistance and all the other sony series will return but ever since ps2 with games like rouge galaxy,ratchet,sly and jack there were series ms had little to no intrust in that sony released to much success.

Even psp/vita have original series or fresh takes on katamari so if history repeats itself playstation will continue to have the most original content and also AAA games though i couldn't imagine not having 720,wii u and ps4 if things continue as they are and i could only have 1 box sign me up for ps4.

wes bogdan
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BTW even journey lacks SOUTHPAW so without my gilmount thrustmaster 3-1 dual trigger custom-out-of-the-box playstation gamepad i simply could NOT PLAY this incredible expierence. While most games support southpaw some are begining to overlook it making them a default only club and unplayable...remember that because if i can't continue using my 3-1 pad next gen it's game over unless within my profile on psn / xbl is a Master Control Profile or M.C.P which if used would override ALL IN GAME LAYOUTS allowing me to create my absolutely needed control scheme,save to profile and subsiquentlly file n forget as all games would be SLAVE to my M.C.P! This is also needed for vita and 3ds pro support.

Takura Buysse
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Wow, I'm sorry gamasutra, but it kind of frustrated me that I had to fill in that entire form just to be able to post this comment :\

Anyways, I'd like to know more about Jenova's ideas and his deeper thoughts. This is all stuff I already knew. Btw. I can see where Mike Murray is coming from, but I do think we need more of these kind of games and these multiplayer experiences.

Christopher Casey
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It is great that Jenova is doing something new, and his approach certainly has a lot of appeal. That said, it seems a little bit presumptuous to come at it from the perspective of solving an overarching problem with all of multiplayer gaming. Jenova's ideas definitely work towards a branch of multiplayer that deserves more exploration, but I don't think the success of a new paradigm is an argument for competitive multiplayer being fundamentally broken. But hey, in the end, if a little bit of hyperbole helps him make something awesome, there's no harm in it.

Jack Nilssen
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Violent shooters teach us way more about overcoming adversity and (in the case of team-based ones) teamwork and strategy.

In today's ever more competitive world I'd find that far more relevant to human survival than running around an empty desert whistling at strangers.

Axel Cholewa
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I doubt that Chen meant "relevant to human survival". And the world wasn't any less competitive in the past, only in different ways.

Joshua Oreskovich
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@Christopher Nilssen

Pfft. Shooters do nothing more than teach children how to be lab rats. Addiction based consumers, hardened to society, with a multitude of psychological problems. Just because human being adapt vs adversity doesn't create argumentation for something that is at it's core a malignant agitator toward social disease.

Blackjack Goren
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Indeed, Mike Murray is correct.

It's all well and good that Jenova Chen wants to explore the development of games that he feels aren't being made. After all, if one is passionate about something, the only choice for him is to pursue said passion. It is a different issue to state that current AAA games are immature, or that they NEED to be intellectual, as if somehow this will make videogames grow in value (assuming shooting or attacking things is immature, as he alludes to... but let's forget this erroneous notion for another time, and assume it is true for the sake of argument).

Let's take David Serrano's comment, for example. He states that, because he's 37, his needs aren't being meant as a player by videogames (and he also says others of his age, in fact, the entire market he falls into also feel this way), and he's therefore uninterested in most of the current crop of AAA games. This line of thinking worries me greatly, because, if we dare to consider videogames as these valuable things that bring something to the world that no other experience or "thing" can, then it's alarming that someone would seek more "intellectual" games in a world overcrowded with intellectual challenges left and right, challenges which, when overcome, would cause TANGIBLE CHANGE. In others words, there are plenty of intellectual endeavors and activities to partake in on a daily basis all around us for those seeking such stimulus. Videogames don't NEED to provide this, for IT IS ALREADY THERE IN THE WORLD AROUND US. It is worrisome that with all the problems in this world demanding intellectual participation, that people would choose to seek them in videogames instead. For, as I'm sure others could agree from experience (likely not many who read this site, but busy people out there), if you regularly face issues in real life that demand intelligence, you would laugh at the thought of simulating these in a videogame ("Do you think I'm trying to solve the enigmatic problem that chemical imbalances cause to my patients, resulting in depression, and some even to the point of suicide, just so I can get home and be "intellectual stimulated" by a fucking videogame?").

My simple point is that, after spending a majority of the time dealing with meaningful, life-altering intellectual problems (or demanding challenges of any kind), a videogame that is simply about shooting or killing virtual things in a satisfying manner has more value in one of the single vertices it renders than any "intellectual" indie game could EVER muster.

Joshua Oreskovich
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Current games are immature, name the last time you played a game and learned something?
Or gained something or experienced something worthwhile that had mature meaning?

I can pick up comic books that have more artistic meaning than the average AAA game title. We spend billions on these things called games a year, where's the basic intellectual growth at?

I understand your point, and it is the real elephant in the room, not corporate stupidity. But you can't expect game players to simply go "You're right, I'm forgeting to save the world!" Must be my fault because of global warming, and political dissent because I care passionately about art in games.

And honestly I think your argument turns in on itself, because what you are aiming at is "meditation". But meditation is found in intellectually stimulating games with divergent thinking, no definite right answer. It's also found in well design social games. It is also found in "flow" oriented games, although just like shooters it's the most abrasive form of that. It is also found in moments of the ultimate win scenario.

But where it is not found is in stress inducing and boring games, which AAA publishers continue to pump out each year.

k s
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@Joshua I can't say for sure that I learned something from Halo Reach but I can say it touched me on a very emotional level.

While I'm on the subject of Halo the first game introduced me to two words I wouldn't have likely learned the meaning of without playing the game; those words are affront, and covenant. I haven't read any fiction since I was a teenager (it doesn't do anything for me anymore, same with movies for the most part) so I wouldn't have been exposed to those words without AAA video games.

I wouldn't say all AAA games have substance in their narratives or gameplay, etc but neither would I say none of them do. Though I do fine the most popular AAA games to be very lacking in substance of any kind (likewise their movie equivalents).

Joshua Oreskovich
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I never played Halo Reach and if you found meaning from Halo Reach then awesome. I also have found "some" AAA titles that have had meaning in the last 5 years like Mass Effect, Deus Ex:HR, DA:O. But they're pretty rare.

I recently went to see The Avengers, awesome flick btw. But it made very clear that you didn't need Shakespeare in the park or the Godfather to make a really good movie. In fact it was so good and I enjoyed myself so much I've raved about it to everyone I've met. You just "know good". and I honestly can't remember a time .. in frankly decades tht I've actually enjoyed myself watching a movie that much.

Heck maybe back as far as watching "Ghostbusters" on the big screen in 84. I mean seriously. But you "just know" when something works, and you don't have to "try to like it".
It just works, it's a good time.

I have had this same level of enjoyment in games (AD&D; as a youth) . And faded experiences of it in recent history with other games.

Some things "move you" emotionally .. like the comedy in Portal1/2 or the music at the end of those games. And that is wonderful.

sometimes you connect on a deeper level like I did with BG2.

Or sometimes you just know when something is going the right direction like with Kotor. And sometimes you know it's going the wrong direction like with Swtor.

sometimes though there is a crosswalk meeting in the middle ... where an artist is doing something so well and forgets to continue stepping in time. Like with DA:O.

where the guitar work is brilliant, and yet hollow.
Or the grass is perfectly cut and green, but no kids playing ball.

And that is what most AAA art seems to me today, an unrealized vision. A loss of significant meaning.

nonetheless I will check out Halo Reach on good recommendation. =)

Lukas Arvidsson
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I see what you are trying to say, but I think you may be have a too narrow focus on the meaning of intellectual. Sure there are a million problems that require serious devotion and hard thinking to solve. Intellectual challenges that I believe gaming should not try to imitate.

The issue gaming is facing is that the majority of the console market are not producing experiences for a large demographic. This is a problem since it hinders the industry from growing and developing. A majority of the mainstream AAA scene is rehashing old concepts and experiences for the same "category" of people. Hence many grow to "old" for gaming and quit while new young people start. This is something that is quite unique to gaming in relation to all other forms of entertainment with the possible exception of toys. I can not really see why it has to be this way.

The video game that you are talking about "that is simply about shooting or killing virtual things in a satisfying manner" seems to have a very limited appeal to a large number of people. Otherwise these people would to a larger extent be playing them.

The intellectual focus that should be encouraged in gaming is not trying to make them more intellectually "challenging" per se, but to try to find new experiences that might explore new things in relation to the what humans find fun and entertaining. Right now we are pretty good at producing entertainment that are "just fun", the action movie / Slapstick / college movie equivalent. Hitchcock are not intellectually challenging but great entertainment, where is the game with the same ambition?

Joshua Oreskovich
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There are some, Like Deus Ex Machina: Human Revolution .. but they are so few and far between in a sea of kiddie corn cereal it's like sifting a manure field.

Dan Felder
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Chen's got a vision, it's proven powerful and successful, and he's got an opinion about what he'd like to see changed about the industry. Varying ideas and opinions are healthy, they breed innovation and a chance to do things differently - or even better.

Frankly, these comments calling Chen arrogant sound a lot like people wanting to defend their fondness for current big titles. Just how it sounds to me.

Jenova Chen
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Wow. I didn't notice how much damage this article has done to me in the video game industry till I saw the comments today. I had the last bit of intention to make myself sound arrogant. It would be really stupid to make generalization on what people should or should not do.

I'm always very enthusiastic whenever people ask me about the game design philosophy. Because I believe game industry can use more unique games that will surprise lifelong gamers like myself. I often spend at least 30 minutes to an hour to talk to the interviewers making sure they really get everything I've learned. However the article always come out to be slightly different than what I thought I've communicated. English as my second language doesn't help on this kind of interview either.

In the recent few interviews, it got very bad. This article is one of them. For people who have read this article and really got offended, I'll apologize for my laziness to not ask the editor to take it down. Now I've learned the lesson to not accept any interviews if they won't let me check it before it is published.

Below is my twitter exchange with the writer about this article when it is first published on May 19th

I told the interviewer adult gamers need intellectual, emotional and social stimulation. Somehow two out of three are missed in the end.

@JenovaChen That's editing. Personally, I think I had some great help with this and I'm dead proud of it as my first article.

@mostsincerelyed Good writing. My focus is on emotional impact, now everyone's asking me how is Journey intellectually relevant to real life

@JenovaChen I dunno. It seemed like a really fresh thing that I hadnt seen any game maker say before, so I wanted more people to hear it.

@mostsincerelyed I think you are right about that. I just don't like to be seen as a douche bag when my view is not presented thoroughly:(

@JenovaChen I never thought anyone would interpret anything said there as douchey. Comment sections are notoriously aggressive.

Kelly Klimaszewski
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I've been catching up on the site and I wonder if anyone else noticed your comment.

Indeed, your snippets have been sounding more critical lately. Based on a chat I had with you a while back, this article gives you a harsher tone than I imagine you normally have.

Jie Long
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hehe, you guys think waaaaaaaaaaay too much :)

Just sit back and enjoy the beauty it brings out in ya


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