Published on March 26th, 2012 | by Ishak Ferdjani0
Raw Emotion: Talking Design With thatgamecompany
Most video games begin their life as a tiny spark of an idea. A developer has a gameplay mechanic in mind, a financial goal or simply an interesting story to tell. These are all noble goals in their own ways, but they only scratch the surface of the medium. What makes us truly resonate with any creative work is emotion. The feelings and connections provided by our experiences.
Which is why I wasn’t surprised when Jenova Chen, co-founder and creative director of thatgamecompany, told me that emotion was at the core of all their games.
“In music, novels, TV, movies, there is so much variety in terms of the feelings that the different genres provide. The emotions […] are somewhat limited. That’s why some people stop playing games when they grow up.
“Our goal,” says Chen, “is to push the boundary of the emotional potential of games. Every game we make we want to create a new type of feeling for the player, opposite of the norm.”
The developers have arguably succeeded in that endeavour. flOw, Flower and recently released Journey embody pure sensation. They strive to make the player feel something, and at the same time challenge what a videogame can be. flOw, for example, was born out of trying to make an arcade game, which are generally fast-paced and loud, a relaxing experience. Subverting the player’s expectations of a stressful environment with a calm one and try to make him feel something was at the center of the idea.
As someone whose tastes have recently been shifting towards games with a lower body count, what he said next resonated with me.
“For Flower, people were complaining about how games were violent and about destruction. I thought, if people complain about that, what about making a game where all you do is positive things: helping the world, making it a better place, where after playing the game you would wanna do that to the people around you and the world around you.”
Whether or not he achieved his goal is something that only the players can answer. In Flower, you play as what could best be described as the wind, accumulating flower petals and restoring life wherever you go in the world. The experience is very musical, since each petal produces a different sound, and very visual as you rush through a valley or down a canyon. The game’s motion control unfortunately put off a lot of gamers, as the Sixaxis doesn’t have the friendliest interface. Still, many of those who played the game felt something, myself included.
Journey, the studio’s most recent title, originated from a similar place. “We first look around in the gaming industry to see what is the norm, and we bring a feeling that is very much the opposite.”
What makes Journey stand out from the crowd is its innovative and fresh approach to online multiplayer. As you, a creature wrapped in a red cloth, cross the desert trying to reach a mountain in the distance, the only actions you can do are jump and produce a sound almost like singing. You can meet other players along the way, but the only way to communicate is through these sounds and your actions. No username, no voice chat. Whatever you could have imagined about online interactions goes out the window.
“If you look at online console games, most of them start as single player mechanics, and they add multiplayer layers on top of it. That’s why most of them are power fantasies: everybody’s a space marine, everybody’s a secret agent, everybody’s a golf player. They are about killing each other, or killing something together, or competing about something.”
The fact that so many players together, with elaborate ways of talking to each other, only results in a dehumanizing experience is a paradox that is not lost on Chen. “Even though the technology allows 32 or 64 people to be connected, there’s really no social activity. There is no exchange of social emotional communication. We wanted to make an online game where you could feel an emotional bond with the other player, like ‘Oh my god there’s another player, that’s a human being.’”
Journey achieves just that. Stripping away every traditional form of interaction between two people makes for the most human encounter you might ever live through in a videogame. You help each other, you feel for the other when they get hurt, you jump in excitement when the music starts ramping up because you know your partner is feeling what you are feeling right now: you connect through emotions, become more human. The alien world and abstract visuals, interestingly, make for a more real connection.
“The goal at the start is emotion. We don’t know what the mechanics will be, we don’t know what the characters are, what the world is. We figure everything out [later].”
The secret to elevating the medium may be to start from a place that is pure, and work your way up to the player. The studio did walk a fine line between what is considered a video game today and what is not. The gameplay portions, while technically flawless, aren’t especially ground breaking, reduced mostly to platforming sections. The game lasts about two hours on a full playthrough, but if playing for a second time you can actually enter an area at the beginning that fast forwards you a few levels later. The short length could be considered a drawback, but the incredible pacing more than makes up for it.
According to Chen, however, there is no doubt in his mind it’s a video game. I asked him if he thought longer and more gameplay-heavy games could have the same impact on people. “Honestly I don’t really like longer games. As you get older you have jobs, and a family. In order to make a medium consumable for adults you have to cut it down. I don’t think games that stretch out to be forty hours long there isn’t a single moment that is not wasteful, because they’re just repeating the mechanics. I just don’t think adults have the time to grind.
“If we present a game, we want to respect their time. If we want to deliver an emotional feeling and bring them to tears, we want to do it in the most efficient way rather than having to grind for forty hours until I get to that point.”
He has a polarizing opinion on the matter to say the least. He thinks about the more adult player who has a hundred things to do and not a lot of time on his hands but who still wants to play video games. A time limit, he told me, is a good thing. I asked him if he thought he could price a game like that at the normal retail price. He replied saying he thought 60 dollars was too much for a video game. A movie ticket costs around 12 dollars he said, and expecting to have five times the amount of entertainment and still feel something the entire way through is a daring feat.
I could sense that movies were a big influence of his philosophy and outlook on games, for better or worse. When I asked whether smaller prices would entail smaller budgets, he again drew a comparison with the movie industry. “If you look at films, blockbusters have high budgets,” adding he didn’t have a problem with big budget games as long they were profitable, but that, “More and more people use digital downloads, and that’s a different business model.” When asked about how much Journey cost, he said he could not discuss that but mentioned around 9 people usually worked on the game, 12 people at its peak.
There are quite a few who do not think that what thatgamecompany creates are games, and I could understand pointing to these comments as an argument in their favor, but I think that would be missing the point. I could sense during the interview that Chen wanted a world where games were as widely accepted as books or movies, where they emulate the same wide spectrum of emotions that the others do. It is hard for him to imagine 100 hour games in his vision, because the experience would be too diluted and not carry the same impact. His comparison to films comes from a positive place: the total acceptance of the medium as works of art, as attempts to make you feel something, and explore the human condition. Less about playing on the repetition of a mechanic and more trying to accentuate the sensibilities that differentiate us from the other species: our humanity.
Whatever the future holds for the company now that their deal with Sony is over, one thing can be sure: their philosophy won’t change. Pushing the boundaries of the medium will remain a priority, and for whatever that is worth, chances are their next game will surprise you once again.