D.I.C.E. 2013 – The Journey of ‘Journey’ With thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen

By Kevin Kelly

Since thatgamecompany started in 2006, they have amazed us with three games, “fl0w,” “Flower, “and “Journey.” Each one of them have been very different than the

We see video games as a form of interactive entertainment, but what kind of feeling do they communicate to you? They can hit a wide range on the emotional palette, but one thing they all communicate to you is a sense of accomplishment, which is something that watching a movie doesn’t do. But what about doing that, while also hitting appropriate and new emotional notes?

The reason we founded the company is to push the boundary for emotion in games. The idea for Journey came to Chen originally back in 2006, after a period where he had been playing “World of Warcraft” for three years. But the problem was that all of the players he met in the game only wanted to talk about how to bring down a certain boss, rather than sharing emotions or becoming friends, and as a result he felt very lonely in the game.

He illustrated a moment where a character was staring into a waterfall, and he thought there must be something there. So he stood nearby, staring into the same waterfall. It became a shared experience with potential: could they become friends? “Journey” was the eventual game that came out of trying to realize this potential. Games like “Minecraft” and “Draw Something” engage on the multiplayer lever, but he wanted to go deeper.

At thatgamecompany, the first thing they do is identify the emotion that is saturating the video game market, and then trying to find the emotions that are missing as a result. He kept hearing that online gamers were mean and tended to act like assholes. If you’ve ever gamed on Xbox Live, you know how cacophonous this can be. It’s a barrier of entry for many people who don’t want to get blasted by the anonymous masses while looking for a few hours of entertainment.

So, they wanted to create a game where you came together in collaboration, and without speech. He was influenced by an astronaut friend of his who had been to the moon who told him the strange thing about the moon was how silent it was: the only important thing in the sky was the Earth, and when it was gone, you tended to wonder “Who am I? What am I doing here?”

But further expanding on that sense of isolation, Chen wanted it to be a big deal when you encountered another player in the game. But he didn’t want it to be a jarring experience. Such as when you jump into a typical online game, and the first thing you are confronted with as a massive online gaming lobby, or put into a world where characters’ names float over their heads, often presenting you with aggressive or obscene names before you even step into the experience.

What is interesting about listening to Chen describe the game development process, is in realizing that he plays different than most gamers do. He strives to look for those emotional moments and to make connections, where many of us just don’t for anything. But after listening to him speak about emotional voids and experiencing lonely points in games, it’s easy to see that most games don’t hit on the emotional notes he’s referring to.

Did “Journey” succeed in bridging the emotional gap? He closed with a letter from a 15 year old gamer who had written him a letter, talking about playing the game with her father, who died recently. The game has won many awards, and is up for eleven awards at tonight’s 16th Annual D.I.C.E. Awards, including game of the year., and they will probably take home a couple of those. If you haven’t experienced “Journey” yet, do yourself a favor and jump in.