It's hard to dispute the fact that thatgamecompany makes really beautiful games. With flOw, Flower, and Journey under their belts, this is one studio that sacrifices nothing for their art direction, and incorporates it in a truly unique manner. Matt Nava is the man behind all of that for thatgamecompany's two most recent releases, Flower and Journey, and can be credited with creating two gorgeous and distinct worlds that were praised by gamers and critics alike. In fact, Journey was such an amazing creation that the artwork for the game, along with a collection of fan pieces, have been pulled together and released as a 190 page hardcover artbook, The Art Of Journey. We recently had the chance to ask Mr. Nava some questions about the game and the book, and he provided us some insight behind both, as well as a thoughtful argument on the topic of video games as art.
MTV Multiplayer: Where do you begin working with a game like Journey?
Matt Nava: Journey began with a single idea: To make a multiplayer game environment in which players could form bonds of friendship. We had noticed that most online multiplayer games revolved around players killing each other, and we wanted to make an alternative. Beyond that, it was a completely blank canvas. All the imagery, music, and gameplay came from a desire to give form and shape to that idea.
MTV Multiplayer: Where did you pull inspiration from for the characters and setting of Journey?
Nava: Much of the visual style that I created for Journey was based on my own experience traveling and studying art. I have been fortunate enough to have traveled quite a lot - Europe, India, Japan, Mexico - and have seen many ancient ruins and architectural sites. I’m extremely interested in classical architecture and ancient art. The sense of mystery of fallen cultures is contained in their art and ruins. That was something I wanted to imbue the environments of Journey with, so I developed an “architectural canon,” a set of design elements and ratios that govern the look of the ruins that you see across the game.
MTV Multiplayer: The characters of Journey are abstract, yet distinct – how did you walk that fine line, while, at the same time, creating something that players emotionally connect with?
Nava: Creating the character took a long time - probably more than half of the three years it took to create the game. It was a process of subtraction - my first ideas were too intricate and detailed. I wanted the character to be iconic and universal, meaning that it would instantly resonate with people from many cultures. I found that to do this, I had to keep taking things away and simplifying. At some points, I actually took too much away and ended up with basically a floating piece of cloth. It turns out that we used that design as a starting point for the non player characters that you meet in the game.
We did a lot of testing of the game and asked players who they thought the character was. I think I knew that I had finally done something right when we started getting back a lot of different answers - some people thought it was male, some thought it was female, etc - but players were all happy with their own conclusions. It was communicating with people in a unique way.
MTV Multiplayer: How did working on Journey differ from working on Flower?
Nava: Journey is much bigger than Flower. It tackles a larger concept with much more complex imagery. It was technically more difficult, because we were using the same tools we had used to create Flower and had the same limitations, but we had to cram in a lot more content. The very first prototypes of Journey were basically Flower with the grass turned off. But after a lot of revision and iteration, the engine was completely transformed.
Artistically, Journey and Flower presented a similar problem to us in that they were both blank canvases. I joined the team midway through the production of Flower, but I was on Journey from day one. So I personally was much more involved in the creation of Journey’s overall concept, story and message than I was in Flower. It was a lot more to think about and a lot more responsibility, but ultimately I think a lot more fun. I was lucky in that I was able to do a lot of big picture stuff on Journey.
MTV Multiplayer: How does it feel to have your work for a video game collected into a book?
Nava: It's amazing. It is actually quite rare for a game to have such a high quality art book. Sony gave me free reign to write what I felt was meaningful about the process behind the art, and to present the images in a way that made sense to me. Usually, game art books are a compilation of the work of large teams of artists. However that is not the case regarding the Art of Journey. Thatgamecompany is a very small studio, and most of the team are brilliant programmers. For a long time on the project, I was actually the only artist, and because of that, the art that you see in the book is actually all my own. So it is a very special and wonderful thing for me.
MTV Multiplayer: Do you have a favorite piece that is featured in the book?
Nava: I think that my favorite part of the book is actually the fanart section. In my career as an artist, there has really been nothing like seeing the Journey art created by fans. It is a very convincing piece of evidence that the images that I designed are actually working - they resonate with the players and have actually inspired them to create. It’s a really amazing and humbling thought that I don’t think I will ever really be able believe.
MTV Multiplayer: How was the fan art chosen?
Nava: This was one of the hardest things to do in creating the book. There is so much Journey fanart that I love, it was very difficult to decide. I collected a very large pool of my favorites, the ones that I think exemplified the wide range of styles and mediums and submitted it to the Sony offices. Ultimately, the ones that made it in were by artists who we managed to successfully get in contact with and get permission from to use their work. I really do wish that we could put them all in the book. If you want to see more, Journeystories.tumblr is one of the best sites.
MTV Multiplayer: What were your thoughts when you first saw the augmented reality construct your creations in 3D?
Nava: Honestly, the first time I saw the AR graphics, it was a bit like magic. You can move around the object with your phone's camera and really explore the 3D content in a tactile way. It just made perfect sense for this kind of book. I hope that more art books incorporate features like this in the future, especially ones that feature 3D content.
MTV Multiplayer: Since the visuals were so important to a game without any dialog, did you feel like that put a lot of pressure on you?
Nava: Oh definitely. the graphics had to not only be beautiful, they had to communicate. And it wasn't just gameplay indications. We wanted to convey a mysterious history through the atmospheres and the hieroglyphs in the world. For a long time, there was no thread that tied the experience together. It wasn't until late in the project that I finally figured out exactly what series of images, colors and moods could convey just the right message to the audience. In particular, the glyphs you see throughout the game went through many, many iterations before players got anything out of them at all!
MTV Multiplayer: If there was one thing you could change about Journey what would it be?
Nava: In terms of the visuals, I always see some little thing that I would change whenever I play, but as with any piece of art, there is a deadline and you have to know when to stop. I think that we were able to get to Journey’s art to a cohesive state, and I am proud of that. At this point, Journey is was it is, its working, and I wouldn’t change it.
MTV Multiplayer: What games did you play growing up, and how have they influenced you as an artist?
Nava: Oh man. I started on Game Boy. Link's Awakening, Mega Man 4, Solar Striker. I actually liked the orginal monochrome green versions of these games more than their saturated remakes and console versions, they had more atmosphere in my eyes. Speaking of atmosphere, Super Metroid on SNES, Prince of Persia on Macintosh II... then Mario 64 of course, that game was what inspired me to create 3D graphics. And Ocarina of Time, and Starfox 64. I love the N64. I think that the specific limitations of that system, in terms of texture size and polygon count, forced the visuals of its games to take on an iconic quality. Then there is Ico and Shadow of the Colossus of course. Beautiful games.
MTV Multiplayer: In your opinion what is the most artistic aspect of games?
Nava: The message that they convey and the atmosphere they create. It's surprising when I think about it how much a game's soundtrack plays into that as well.
MTV Multiplayer: What is the most visually interesting game you've ever played?
Nava: Super hard to say. Like I mentioned before, I’m actually a big fan of the iconic style created by the N64’s limitations. I love the mood created by the desaturated palettes of Fumito Ueda’s games. Vanillaware’s unique style of animation in Odin Sphere and Muramasa are very interesting. If I singled out one game, I would instantly regret it because I would remember another game that I also loved. There are a lot of games with great visuals.
MTV Multiplayer: Do you think there is a place for a mature conversation about video games as art? And do you think it will ever happen?
Nava: I think the question "are games art" has entered the public consciousness because the medium has only just recently matured to a point at which the graphics and stories in games can reach broader demographics. Its a big change and has sparked some somewhat silly debates between advocates of games and people who are not used to them. But I think these debates are missing a critical point. The "video game" is a medium, comparable to painting or sculpture or any other. These mediums cannot be judged to be art or not inherently, it is the individual examples of a medium that should be judged in this way. For me, the thing that transforms any common example of media into art is not just its visual complexity or its technical achievements, but the message or feeling it conveys. I also think that beauty plays a large part in what makes something art in my eyes. The extent to which it can move me, immerse me, or change me is a way I measure its merit as art. Of course, every viewer has their own list of qualities that distinguish a work of art from the rest. In the end, the video game is a medium in which an idea can be expressed, but doesn't have to be. Some games have different goals than being art pieces - but I think there has always been art in video games, if you know which ones to play.
MTV Multiplayer: If you had free reign to create your next project, what would it be?
Nava: The thing that I am interested in making is imagery, stories, and worlds that are beautiful, immersive, and ultimately meaningful. The mediums I am interested in are games and animation- I believe they have a unique power to achieve the things I am interested in making. Right now, I have a few ideas rolling around in my head. I’m still trying to figure out what form they will take, and the best way to make them a reality. If I had free reign to create my next project, it would most likely be a game or an animation in which I could build a unique world, convey a meaningful experience, and work closely with friends. I hope that all comes to be!