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Interview: Jenova Chen looks back at Journey

by Steve Watts, Aug 28, 2012 9:00am PDT

As the Journey Collector's Edition hits retail stores today, it marks a series of milestones for thatgamecompany. With three critical darlings under its belt and its first retail title now available, the company is preparing to strike out on its own again and develop for a wider range of platforms. Company co-founder Jenova Chen recently took a look back at Journey with Shacknews, sharing thoughts on artistic games, griefers, and touching feedback from fans.

Through its lifespan within the Sony exclusivity arrangement, thatgamecompany has seen critical attitudes slowly shift towards its quiet, meditative experiences. "It was interesting to see the evolution from Flow," Chen told Shacknews. "Most people would say, 'oh, this is not a game,' 'the game is so short it's not worth sixty bucks.' Flower had quite mixed reviews, both the positives are very high and the negatives are very low. But this time, I guess after six years, indie games have more of a presence in people's mind. So even though there are people who say Journey isn't a game, they appreciate that it is an experience for them."

But Chen says the most poignant feedback hasn't been from critics at all, but rather from players themselves. "We get a lot of e-mails from players worldwide telling us stories about their own life, because Journey is kind of a game about the sequence of life," he said. "Some people told us about this game reminds them of their life, their work, their struggle. Other people had close relatives pass away and tell us how the game helped them to deal with the sense of loss. We got a message where someone was seriously considering suicide, but playing the game has changed their view on life. We made one game trying to move people, but many of them wrote back to move us. That's the most rewarding thing for us who make entertainment, knowing that your work has reached somewhere in people's hearts."

Creating that experience had its share of obstacles to overcome, especially in learning to design a different kind of multiplayer experience. "It turns out it's not easy to make a game where people just automatically trust each other and like each other. There's a lot of conventional games that we played in the past that kind of work against our goal. Initially, we had a resource system in the game where players can go around and collect cloth as a resource. But when we had that system, people in the playtest would say, ‘oh, I don't want to go to the other player there, I think he's going to steal my cloths. Oh, that player is stealing my gameplay, he opened the gate for me, I don't get to play it myself.' When we introduced physics and collision, we wanted players to be able to touch each other, maybe push each other against the wind. We wanted two players to be able to collaborate with each other. But once you add the collision, players like to push each other into a pit, kill each other. It was pretty demoralizing.

"But eventually we learned a lesson," he explained. "We are human beings, so whenever we enter a virtual space, the morality that we grew up with in modern society does not transfer to the virtual space. And so when we enter a virtual space, you seek feedback like a baby who has just entered the world. There isn't any task or quest [in Journey] because we wanted to see a game where people actually wanted to socialize with each other. Imagine if you have an 2 o'clock appointment to go to, even if you see the most amazing people on the street you're not going to talk to them. You're in a very task-driven mood. So when we worked on Journey, we hoped that people would slow down and try to have a connection."

He said that once the game launched, the team found a "surprising" result. While Chen expected problems to arise from griefers ("griefers gonna grief," he joked), he instead found people seeking each other out. "Very quickly, on forums there were apologies from people who played with someone, but they had to leave the game and they felt bad. So they came to the forum hoping to find that player and see what they've written. That was the first time I've seen a confession on the forums."

Chen said the core purpose of the Journey Collector's Edition is to expand the audience and change attitudes, to those who don't buy games over the PlayStation Network. Plus, the newly included mini-games give thatgamecompany a chance to show its more playful side. "It's going to show the other side of the studio," he said. "We're not just a bunch of artsy-fartsy pretentious people here. We can make fun games too."

Of course, this also marks a new chapter in the life of the company. The developer has gone fully independent and plans to self-publish its next game. With an expanded audience, Chen thinks that more people can understand that games can be more than first-person shooters and sports simulations. He told the story of a 53-year-old woman whose son had her watch as he played through Journey. "She'd never been a gamer, but she felt something," he said. "Her interpretation of the game is slightly different than her son's, but she was very happy that the game made her start to think. She told me that her view on the game industry, her impression has started to improve."

In a day that many older audiences fail to understand games as a narrative medium, thanks in no small part to the glut of media attention on the big-budget blockbusters, Chen hopes that thatgamecompany can do its part to change attitudes about video games.

"That's just, to me, the most important thing about these games we make, to change people's impression on what games could be. We want to reach out to more people, so that when they play our games -- gamers, or people who used to play games, or a lot of people who may have never played games before -- I wish that they will have a chance to experience what we do."

We do too. The Journey Collector's Edition is available today. Check out our Journey review for more on this gem.





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