A Personal Journey: Jenova Chen's Goals for Games
May 18, 2012 Page 1 of 3
I'm about half way through my interview with Jenova Chen when I get the impression that I've annoyed him. Talking about Thatgamecompany, and the limitations of working with only eight other people, I ask Chen if, given the resources, he'd like to develop a more mainstream game.
"Well," he replies, "what is mainstream?"
Immediately, I can sense his frustration: Journey, his latest game, has just become the fastest-selling PlayStation Network release ever. The many months of hype surrounding Journey, and the effusive reviews that followed it, have catapulted Chen and Thatgamecompany into the limelight as a pioneering force behind the new wave of video games.
Naturally, he's defensive of that success. "I think Journey is a triple-A game... If we were the Uncharted team, the Journey character would have arms and have hands. The climbing animation would look more forceful, the sand would look more real, but that only helps the game to be a triple-A game... With only nine people, Journey can still get a point across."
It's hard to disagree. Although Chen's team has always provided a popular alternative to chart games, Journey, with its gorgeous visuals and mass of press coverage, is Thatgamecompany's first real invasion of major league turf.
But Chen is not content with merely competing. Targeting what he perceives as the biggest problem in games today, Chen has set about reinventing online multiplayer. "We wanted to make an online game [that brought] an emotion that has never been done before in online games. If you look around at online games in the console market, it's pretty obvious that no other games give you this feeling of connection with each other, of understanding.
"The goal was to create a game where people felt they are connected with each other, to show the positive side of humanity in them. A lot of games today have a list of quests, places to go, items to collect and rewards to receive... We just ignore each other. So in order to make players care about each other, we have to remove their power, and remove their tasks."
Journey's multiplayer is as much a step back as it is a leap forward. There's no chat system, no power-ups; you can't even see your companion's user name. Paired off at random, it's up to you and your cohort to decide how to engage with one another.
By eschewing the window dressing normally associated with online multiplayer -- kill cams, leaderboards, customization -- Chen revives the fundamental essence of multiplayer games: collaboration. While Battlefield players are killing their way to the next weapon attachment, the travellers in Journey are gaming in sync; gradually, you fall into a perfect rhythm with your nameless partner, waiting for them to catch up and vice versa.
Stick together long enough, and a personal, unspoken bond will form: sitting my character down in the snow, I nipped out to fetch myself a drink, returning a couple of minutes later to find my buddy meditating beside me. Every online gamer has a story like this, but only in Journey does the multiplayer form organically.
"In Journey," explains Chen, "we want to offer the player the choice between individualism and group conformity... We wanted to create an environment where the cooperation is not forced; you're totally fine doing it yourself. If you choose to cooperate, then that is the real essence of connecting two players."
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