Interview – Journey

Thatgamecompany talks about crafting a memorable, emotional gaming experience.

Erik Norrisby Erik Norris


Today, I had the pleasure of jumping on a press call with Sony and the creative director of thatgamecompany, Jenova Chen, to talk about the upcoming PlayStation Network title, Journey. (Read our full review of Journey now) Thatgamecompany specializes in off-beat gaming experiences (Fl0w, Fower) that are less about giving you the keys to a kingdom to rule and instead about making you feel something while playing. That's what most of today's conversation centered around, with Chen elaborating on how thatgamecompany strives to pull you into the experience and make you come away feeling some sense of emotion, be it happiness, sadness, anger or something in between. 

Chen began the conversation stating that his company's philosophy when tackling any new project is to push the boundaries of the emotional spectrum. As Chen puts it, "We want to bring new feelings to the audience and hopefully a new market… Each time we work on a game the challenge is always how we want to bring something new in an emotional experience. It's also an exploratory, prototype and trial and error type of experience." 

The conversation then steered towards Journey and the challenges thatgamecompany faced when developing the title, particularly the inclusion of multiplayer. Ironically, multiplayer was the main inspiration for developing the game. Apparently, thatgamecompany wanted to try their hand at multiplayer and Journey is their answer to that formula.

For anyone that doesn't know, the multiplayer component of Journey is unlike most multiplayer experiences you'll find out there. It's not about killing countless foot soldiers alongside your friends and shouting racial epitaphs while dry humping a corpse. Instead, in Journey you're paired up with a random stranger over the internet without the ability to verbally communicate to each other and told to go. It's a simple formula that Chen believes reinforces the title's immersion factor. To Chen, everything else is just static that distracts from the experience at hand. You don't need to know where the person you're playing with is from or what they sound like; you only need to know that you must cooperate in order to survive, and because of that an emotional bond will be formed. 

"We knew right away that the other player would not be [directly connected] in the game," revealed Chen. "And once you take that out, the question comes up about whether we should support text chat or voice chat, and they're all honestly distractions from what the game is truly about — the game is about the interaction and the connection at an emotional level between two human beings and all you need to know is the other person playing with you is a human."

What's also enlightening about Journey, according to Chen, is that the experience can be construed as a reflection of your own life. If you choose to play solo, that's because you're the lone wolf type in the real world. If you choose the multiplayer route, it's because your friends, family, relatives and acquaintances play a large role in your life. Whichever route you choose is completely acceptable, but Journey is built to cater to both avenues of personal expression.

As we noted in our review, Journey is a relatively short game. It lasts only roughly three hours. However, Chen addressed those concerns head on on the call, stating that he views the 2-3 hour mark the sweet spot for hooking an audience into an emotional arc, pointing to films and concerts even as quintessential blueprints. 

"We come into games from a very different perspective. Honestly, I don't care that people say our game is short," frankly stated Chen. "My perspective is that we're making games for everyone, not just kids. When you buy a game for a kid it makes sense — you spend a lot of money and you want that kid to be entertained as long as possible. But our goal is to communicate emotion. We want to entertain people and bring a strong emotional connect to the player; we want that player to be touched and moved."

Chen added, "When it comes to devs, we have a lot of choices as game designers. We know all the traditional tricks like grinding and leveling up, but if our goal is to communicate a strong feeling and message, I feel we're responsible to do it in the most efficient way possible. We don't want to add any filler into our experience because people are paying money to experience that. Filler is a disrespect."

When it comes right down to it, Chen wholeheartedly believes gamers have matured past the point where power fantasies are enough to suck us into video games. Gamers who used to hit up arcades to feel like gods when they were teenagers now have the power to control their own destinies as adults (mostly). Those same gamers now seek fulfillment elsewhere. That's where Journey comes into the picture, offering up an emotional roller coaster experience for gamers that just want to be entertained, and possibly shed a tear while holding a controller and participating in their favorite interactive medium.  

If Journey sounds like your type of game, be sure to read our full review of the game. Journey hits the PlayStation Network on March 13th for $14.99.