It’s been three years in the making, but Journey is finally here (if you’re a PlayStation+ subscriber).
A few journalists had the chance to hear from thatgamecompany’s co-founder and Creative Director Jenova Chen earlier this week, as he opened up about Journey’s long road, his perspective on the interplay between gender and gaming and a design philosophy that sets him apart from his peers.
I want to push boundaries, bring something new and offer an emotional experience.
It was with that sweeping statement that Chen set the tone for what would become a heady conversation about much more than his latest title. Interwoven throughout the responses to questions pointedly about his current and past projects, Chen gave us insight into how his approach to design resulted in games unlike anything else on the market. fl0w, Flower and, now, Journey, are different because they aren’t meant to be played like other titles.
Unlike their past work, thatgamecompany designed Journey from the ground up as a multiplayer title. From the start, though, the ideas that pervade the industry; those images that are conjured when someone says the word “multiplayer” were hastily brushed off the table.
We knew we wanted multiplayer, but not like games where you are trying to kill each other. In those games, you are like a god, and why should gods be working with each other?
Instead, Chen and his team decided to make a game that is “more social than ‘social games.'” The focus wouldn’t be on imposing your will on other players. Instead, the purpose would be to simply find and interact with other human beings. This drove a number of artistic decisions, including the setting of the game. At first, thatgamecompany experimented with forests, then mountain trails and, finally, cities before reaching a conclusion. The characters needed to stand out. Trees, crags, cliffs and towering buildings made it exceedingly difficult to spot another player in the distance. The desert environment, though, allows you to see someone else from much farther away. The sparsely populated world makes finding another human an event.
This drives at the heart of Journey’s intent.
In life, we’re headed to a similar place. We are all going to die, but along the way we meet people. Sometimes, they are our friends, sometimes our parents. Our paths may cross again.
According to Chen, the purpose behind Journey mirrors the way we live our lives. We experience our highs and our lows with other people… or we don’t. We can choose to go it alone, living solitary existences, or engage in social encounters. Unlike life (and other multiplayer games), though, thatgamecompany has done a great deal to equalize interactions. “Chat is a distraction,” Chen shared, “age and sex are distractions.” This game is about emotions and connections. All you need to know is that the other person is a human being. It’s because of that, Chen believes that those that normally prefer a single-player experience are drawn to Journey’s unique multiplayer experience.
The music in the game was as delicately and carefully selected as the visual aspects. When the project began three years ago, a number of composers submitted “pitch tracks.” Out of the pack, only Austin Wintory took the time to compile a commentary and liner notes for his composition. For Wintory, though, this was unlike any engagement he had taken on before. His background, much like Chen’s own, is in film, where project commitments exist as a period of months, not years. However, that foundational understanding of the motion picture medium made the pairing work. It also brought consensus to the team about how best to present the game.
We are responsible to deliver an experience in the most efficient way possible. Filler is disrespectful to the player.
You may have already heard that Journey can be completed in a single two- to three-hour sitting. This is by design, so that in the time it takes to watch a movie, attend a concert or play a round of golf, a player can have a complete and satisfying interactive experience. There is no redundancy, backtracking or rehashing to be found. In an age where the value proposition (both in terms of cash and time) is afforded such significance, this is a bold approach. However, much like any other multiplayer experience that draws players back time and again, Journey is meant to be experienced multiple times. Each play through will yield a different set of encounters, triumphs and failures.
Chen then posed a question to the audience, “Why isn’t there more drama in video games?”
It was this topic that vaulted the discourse to a new level. No longer were we talking about one title, but instead, we were conversing about the broader landscape of entertainment.
It is his opinion that most games are made for a male audience. Most protagonists in games are male with a dearth of female leads. Despite that, Chen’s assertion is that the gaming population is split evenly between men and women. However, he believes that 3D gaming will play a detrimental role in shifting that balance toward a male-dominated player base. “Men want a more visceral experience,” he stated. While this may be true, I’m not sure his solution is the best answer.
He proposed that the gaming industry take a look at how Japanese manga is structured. It’s clearly delineated with titles for boys, girls, adults and, yeah, “perverts.” In his experience, manga, for boys, is about empowerment, and that for girls, it focuses on the need for attention, being loved, drama and relationships. While this may be true from a marketing perspective, I know gamers of both genders that would take issue with such clearly delineated lines, just as I know both men and women that think the Dr. Pepper 10 commercials are about the stupidest advertising on the airwaves today. If there is anything our sub-culture is good at, it is defying gender roles. That’s not to say we aren’t foolish enough to conform to them all too often, but we do tend to push the boundaries just a little bit more.
Samus Aran, Sheik and Dr. Catherine Halsey are just a few examples of female game characters that defy gender roles, but still manage to have a following by both sexes. Naughty Dog was lauded for the character of Elena Fisher in the Uncharted series. She is one of the most “real” women in gaming, doesn’t get pushed around by men and can hold her own in a fight. I think we can all agree that there aren’t enough women like this in our games. Just as men want to dive to into a world where they are stronger, smarter, faster and bolder than they are in real life, so do women. Gamers across the spectrum want to feel empowered. That’s not just a male thing.
On the flip side, there are men who crave characters that are authentic. I didn’t jump out of my chair in excitement when I finished Mass Effect 2 because I blew something up. No, I managed to save every single member of my crew. These were characters I had formed relationships with, grew to care about and wanted to see survive. That elation was purely driven by the drama of the narrative and the interpersonal nature of the story. I didn’t feel a sense of relief at the end of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves because I shot someone in the face. No, a crucial member of the cast had been severely wounded and, despite the odds, managed to survive.
I appreciate so much of what Jenova Chen had to say during this forum, but have to wonder how the lofty goal of stripping away the distractions of gender and age interweaves with what seems like a view of male/female dynamics that is traditional to a fault.
Certainly, if we are to grow as an industry and continue to garner the respect we frequently (though, not always) deserve, we need to be more inclusive. There needs to be a place for the hardcore Call of Duty gamer and the retro-loving JRPG fan. We need to demand multidimensional characters (both male and female) as well as embrace the cardboard cutout heroes that simply exist to perforate paper thin antagonists. We, as a community, play games for different reasons, but individual gamers also crave that varied and dynamic landscape.
If we didn’t, would there be a place for games like Journey?