Jenova Chen Explains Journey: Social Relevance and Artistic Inspirations

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Journey: Jenova Chen Interview

I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Jenova Chen, the creative director of thatgamecompany and designer of flOw and Flower. Chen’s latest project, the upcoming PSN exclusive Journey, may be his most enigmatic project yet. In talking with Chen, I was most interested in learning what drove his unique, minimalistic vision, as well as the challenges in creating a drop-in, drop-out online multiplayer game without the use of industry-standard matchmaking lobbies and voice chat.

Sid Shuman: Journey’s got a certain mystique. Who are you in Journey? Where are you?

Jenova Chen: I want the player to find it out, it’s part of the fun. This is a world where there are no plants, no animals, and not even a single water drop to be found. The only things that are moving are these things, these characters, made out of cloth.

Journey Journey

SS: Journey’s a multiplayer game, but there’s no matchmaking or online lobbies. Would you say it redefines multiplayer? Is it a co-op game?

JC: We’re not really redefining. We make games for PS3 owners, but we also make games for their relatives or children. I don’t think your grandma is going to know what a [multiplayer] “lobby” means. I don’t think most children will understand what [internet] “latency” means. So after we eliminated the lobby concept, we had very few choices — other players have to be able to connect at any time, not just the beginning of the game, and a player has to be able to finish the game by himself he can’t find someone. All these technical issues came in with that one decision to get rid of the online lobby.

A lot of games design co-op for co-op play only. The best game I’ve played this year was Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. It’s very well designed, like a designer’s jewelry box. But it wouldn’t work for Journey. What if the other player wasn’t there? So we have to come up with other ways to make co-op more meaningful. We wanted something very primal, which forced us to make innovations.

We didn’t try to redefine multiplayer, we just wanted to create a more intuitive experience. If your grandma asked, “what’s Journey?” I’d tell her “Journey is just like hiking. You go to hike a mountain, and there are other hikers you might meet and if you like them you can hike with them.” And that’s it.

Journey: Jenova Chen Interview

SS: What’s the core gameplay goal in Journey? What activities will I be engaging in?

JC: You will be…Journey-ing. Moving from point A to point B. [laughter] The problem is, moving is very boring. In World of Warcraft, you’re always moving…and waiting. So in Journey, we have things to spice up the moving. You can surf the sand dunes, collect cloth to fly over larger distances, cooperate with another player to get faster travel…sometimes you can ride things.

SS: It also looks like you’re collecting cloth patches, which seem to open up bridges or paths to other areas…

JC: Usually, players think about collecting as a “level up” experience. But we wanted to make the player feel small and weak. So initially, we did have a level up experience — if you collected 20 patches, you would jump higher or fly further. But that felt too empowering, which is the opposite of what we wanted. So instead of acquiring power, we made this metaphor for borrowing power. There are patches in the world, and when they hear your call, they come to help you out. Once you use them, they return to where they were. It’s not an ownership situation.

It also has to do with multiplayer. People would say, “I don’t want to play with you, I don’t want you to take my precious resources!” We tried various ways to eliminate that, but in the end, we decided to not give you [permanent] possession of them.

Journey: Jenova Chen Interview

SS: Surfing on waves of sand looks like an interesting way to get around this very dynamic, shifting environment. It’s such a simple pleasure — a bit like Flower, actually.

JC: We had problems with walking. It’s frustrating, but there’s no easy way to make walking fun. So we tried surfing, because as a gameplay mechanic it’s fun — you know, SSX. But you could surf on the slopes but not on the flat surfaces, and most of the game is flat. So we had to come up with a reason why you could surf, so we made the sand have waves.

SS: Does Journey use any buttons?

JC: There are two buttons right now. “Calling” lets you collect patches and communicate with another player, a very primal form of communication. And then there’s a “Fly” button.

SS: I noticed that the camera is controlled by the DualShock 3’s Sixaxis motion sensor, not the analog stick.

JC: I have seen various non-hardcore players try a first-person shooter, and they couldn’t even aim. The two-stick camera system, using them at the same time, is just very difficult. It takes time to train. And every time I see a player struggle with that, he just puts the game down. So I wanted to think about a more intuitive form of camera control. The other problem with a stick camera, particularly in a third-person game, is that people tend to adjust the camera very often and very rapidly. When I watch them play, I get dizzy. And I want people to be able to watch others play Journey.

SS: Why does jumping not require a button press?

JC: We used to have a jump button, but we wanted to simplify the game. When you can jump, during the boring walk [laughs] people would keep jumping. And that’s not what we wanted to see! After we removed the jump button, people said “we want to jump!” So we added an automatic jump, and it’s working pretty well. I do miss pressing the X button sometimes when I’m walking, though!

SS: Are there enemies in Journey?

JC: There is something like an enemy, there is. [laughter] Nature is your enemy. If there is an enemy, you can’t do anything about it. You’re small and weak. You can’t slay the Shadow of the Colossus!

Journey: Jenova Chen Interview

SS: Did any particular artist inspire the visual style of Journey?

JC: Do you know Chirico? If you see the original Japanese cover art of Ico, it’s an homage to Chirico. At an early stage, that was an inspiration.

SS: Journey is a very different kind of multiplayer game. Is it important for developers to challenge preconceived notions about what makes a multiplayer game?

JC: It’s important because your brain can be stimulated intellectually, emotionally, and socially. When people design online games, they often do lazy work. They bring an existing single-player game — an RPG, an RTS, a fighting game, a shooter — and duct tape on some online technology. They say, “okay, there’s multiple players, now do something cool. Here, play a kid’s game like Capture the Flag.” That’s the level of design. “Why don’t you kill each other until the last guy is left standing.”

If you really wanted to stimulate a social activity, you need to re-think it from the ground up. What is the skill they’re supposed to acquire? Accuracy? Or is it the ability to convince others? If the skill is social, it’ll be very relevant and useful. People still play poker. Why? Because the skill of deception is useful for real life. Look at online games. How many skills are based on social elements? Most games are based on grinding, accuracy, physical dexterity. They are not social games. They’re just old games with online features.

SS: Now, you’re saying this as a Call of Duty player, aren’t you? You like shooters.

JC: Yeah. I like fighting games too.They’re fun. But as I get older, what’s the point in pulling off another infinite combo? What does that do for your life? It’s not useful. People still play chess because strategic thinking is useful. Brain training games, fitness games…these have relevance. People don’t have much time to waste, so they want relevance. Whether it’s emotional relevance, like experiencing joy or sadness, or intellectual relevance, or social relevance.

SS: What other developers do you think are challenging gaming, perhaps in other areas?

JC: Quantic Dream. Team Ico — everything they make is very rich and deep emotionally. I think LittleBigPlanet is also very interesting. It’s not so much emotional as it is a different frontier. I also really appreciate whoever makes the best first-person shooter. Blizzard is always great, they have a lot of craft. We need those things too, because the game industry has to cover all sides. It’s not that I’m against fighting games or shooters — they need to be there, and they need to be good.

SS: Are you looking forward to BioShock Infinite?

JC: I liked BioShock but I didn’t finish it. I think I didn’t appreciate it as much as the fans, but I totally get the philosophies. I will try [Ken Levine’s] new game…it’s relevant. It’s not just about being strong and killing enemies. I appreciate that.

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12 Author Replies

  • Awesome I cant wait

  • I dont know a thing about Journey, but I want it. Flow and Flower are nice unconventional games.

  • I like these developer interviews. Keep them coming.

  • Yeah! The only thing that ruined BioShock 2 was the tacked-on multiplayer. Good to see people in the gaming industry with some sense left in them.

  • WHERE CAN I GET YOUR SONY SHIRT?!?!?! EMAIL ME please my name is whatever u see AT i want the shirt.. u wanna donate it to me? lol hahaha.. oh ya i cant wait for journey lol.

  • And Flower is awesome, it was very relaxing, hah XD

  • oh ya vcotsonpsn at gmail lol!

  • Don’t Stop Believin’!

    Sorry, can’t wait for this game. Hope to hear some snippets of the soundtrack soon.

  • What a great interview! I feel like I really understand the game better now – I loved the way he boiled it down for a grandmother to understand “like a hiking game, where if you meet other people you can hike with them or not, up to you.”

    It was really interesting to read his perspective on social interaction in gaming, and the way many online modes are a result of laziness. It’s true that I’m sick of seeing Capture the Flag in every online multiplayer game… Make up a new game.. something more relevant!!

    • Glad you liked it! Yeah, I liked his grandmother example, and his multiplayer observations were fascinating as well — he’s got a good point about kid’s games being recreated in online shooters.

  • thanks for this,great info

  • @yazter So glad I’m not the only one who thinks thats :)

  • Jenova Chen and ThatGameCompany are one of the most innovative Western developers out there. Great interview, although I feel that I still don’t know what to expect from Journey…which is exactly how I want it, the first time I pick up the SixAxis.

  • Very interesting interview, thanks! REALLY looking forward to this. thatgamecompany is awesome!

  • Long time not been here, but just want to say that Jenova is really an inspirational guy, never bores me to read what he’s got to say. Really looking forward to Journey.

    Keep up the good work ^v^.


  • Love the balanced digital recorder on the shoe Sid. I have often done the same during interview. Keeping it classy.

  • Can’t wait for this game! i have a couple questions though:
    1)Is it going to be native 1080p or 720p?
    2)Will it be sixaxis controls only or will it allow move and/or analog-stick support?
    3)Will there be trophies in the game?
    Thanks, EXTREMELY looking forward to playing this game, and i hope you continue to make great unique games after Journey!

  • Looking forward to this one.

  • Day one here I’m sure.

  • Thank you Jenova Chen for truly being an innovative thinking in the gaming industry and for continually pushing gaming deeper and deeper into the artistic world. Whenever certain nay-sayers claim that video games are not and can never be art the work of thatgamecompany should be help up as a leading example of games as art.


  • I appreciate Jenova Chen’s take on multi-player. He really put a lot of FPS developers & online gaming on the spot to do better.

    More people in the industry should be more outspoken about the never ending sub par FPS/Online game play that’s out there. Too bad there are far too many gamers who buy into the same gameplay, repackaged.

    Journey should be fun and cool to experience.

    • Yeah, he’s got very good points. At the same time, he also clarified that the game industry needs to serve a lot of people with a lot of different kinds of content. So it’s not that X or Y is bad, but that making diverse games is important.

  • Ahhh! The return of the hairy arms! :P

    Reading this got me so excited for the game. I really love their simple yet almost redefining way of doing things in video games. Flower was simply amazing and Journey seems to build on what made it successful and expand the options so much. Can’t wait to try this one out :)

  • Nice interview.

    Thanks Sid

  • Thanks for the interview Sid, and Jenova! I’m really looking forward to this game. Now that multiplayer has been limited to 2 players at a time, can we have offline splitscreen multiplayer so two local players can play together? I know it goes a little against the idea of not talking to the other player, but we could just shut up as we play in splitscreen! : )

    • LOL. I didn’t specifically ask about splitscreen, but it’s pretty safe to assume it’s online MP given the unique drop-in, drop-out implementation. The whole game can be finished by one person as well.

  • I honestly just want to see a segment of game play. Then, I’d be able to understand what this game is about more.

  • Great interview, lots of information and insight. Only thing missing is the release date. :)

    And “Blizzard is always great, they have a lot of craft”…LOL!

  • Great interview. flow and flower were both great, I have no doubt Journey will also be a fantastic game. I can’t wait to play it. :)

  • Dead Nation is awesome! Everyone should get Dead Nation from the PSN Store for $15! The Dead Nation leaderboards also prove that the USA is on the forefront of fighting a zombie epidemic!

    1st in kills: USA 405 000 000 <—- Total pwnage!
    2nd in kills: UK 97 000 000

  • Thanks for the interview. I like ‘fl0w’, and I absolutely loved ‘Flower’, but ‘Journey’ is the most intriguing of the three. I my view thatgamecompany are one of the most creative, visionary developers going today. If I recally this is the last game of a three game exclusive deal they have with Sony. I certainly hope that they extend that.

  • My lord, I want this game so bad. In response to Sid, I’d love to see interviews with Capybara and Pixeljunk Games.

  • Looks like a fantastic game, glad to see the mold being broken. Also in response to Sid, I think Todd Howard, director at Bethesda, would make for a great interview!

  • The title of their new game reminds me of the song “Don’t stop believing” by Journey. haha anyone else get that?

  • What you guys need to do really soon is ask what thatgamecompany plans to do after Journey is released, since that will conclude their 3-game contract with SCEA.

    We really want more of these games. From my perspective, it would be ideal for thatgamecompany to become a member of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios. SCE has shown they respect artistic visions and I the kind of resources that would be available to Jenova’s team already gets me excited.

    I simply don’t think there is another publisher out there (of SCE’s magnitude) that knows how to properly handle projects like thatgamecompany’s.

    Please tell me you guys are busy talking with them about this already. The prospect of it gets me burning with happiness for the future of video games. Minds like these should not be limited to a downloadable budget.

  • I’d like to see interviews with anyone from Tell Tale, PixelJunk or Creat Studios.

  • Sid i’d love to see you guys interview , Twisted Metal Creative Director , Resistance 3 Creative Director , inFAMOUS 2 Creative Director , White Knight Chronicles 2 Creative Director , The Last Guardian Creative Director , Killzone 3 Creative Director , Socom 4 Creative Director , Sorcery Creative Director and others

  • and i would love to see all 3 Resistance and Motorstorm series creative directors together and discussing how their respective franchises have evolved over time on the ps3 and what are their expectation on future projects

  • I still think it should have been called The Flowest…

    You know… Flow, Flower, the Flo… never mind

  • Hope to see another post soon with Jenova announcing a long term exclusive PS3/PSP partnership.

  • Jenova is a freaking kewl kick ass name! gonna name my son that. his middle name will be thatgamescompany

  • I wonder what Chen thinks about AC:Brotherhood’s multiplayer.

    Personally I would love to see an interview with the guys at EA’s Bright Light studios (folks who made Create and the upcoming Spare Parts downloadable game).

    • Keep your eyes peeled this week for a post that will delve deeper into Spare Parts. But I like your idea too, though it may be tough to get them since they’re in the UK…maybe our intrepid PlayStation EU correspondents could arrange something.

  • Ditto. I as well hope thatgamecompany will join the SCEA family. They’ve found their audience, being PS3 users.

  • Just because of this interview, I might pick up this game!

  • When people design online games, they often do lazy work. They bring an existing single-player game — an RPG, an RTS, a fighting game, a shooter — and duct tape on some online technology. They say, “okay, there’s multiple players, now do something cool. Here, play a kid’s game like Capture the Flag.” That’s the level of design. “Why don’t you kill each other until the last guy is left standing.”

    ^ Best part of the article. I hate it when designers just slap in terrible online gameplay.

  • I’d like, in a perfect world, interviews with smaller game companies that are releasing games in 2011. I wasn’t interested in this title until I read the interview with his inspiration and what he was trying to accomplish.

    That being said ever consider a behind the scenes interview/documentary? Like day in the life of…

    • Good to know, thanks. Based on my experience, behind-the-scenes is tricky to pull off (it can actually be quite boring to watch), but I’ll keep it in mind.

  • You know I cannot help but see some similarities in the online of Journey and the online from Demon’s Souls. I was quite shocked that he didn’t bring it up either. If you get the chance, would you perhaps use that as a future question with them? I am curious to see how he reacted to that game, if he has tried it yet :)

    • Good point — I’d be curious what Jenova thinks about Demon’s Souls as well. Though it is awfully hard…

  • I think I’ve got a “Man/Brain-Crush” on this guy. He really and truly gets it. While I do think the class-based gameplay that shooters have come up with has added to the strategic value involved, the “duct tape” is still showing, no matter how much they use to smooth it out. Even those ‘multiplayer missions’ don’t take account of whether or not you think you’re doing the right thing– kill the enemy, kill the enemy, give no ground, lest ye restart the whole thing. This man struck the two magic words: “social” and “intellectual” and then showed that he truly understood what they meant. Time for others to listen up. (All of that said, I do think he was remiss in not paying dues to Demon’s Souls.)

  • Great interview, I’m very much looking forward to Journey.

    As far as other people I might like to see interviewed, I’d say someone from team Ico when Last Guardian is near-release.

  • Who is the artist and name of the song on the Journey trailer? Really interested in that info and an option to purchase a soundtrack for Journey as I’m sure it’ll be extremely well done.

    Fantastic interview btw, well done sir

  • Sid, I am thoroughly impressed. Never would have expected to find an article like this on a blog that’s connected directly to a franchise. Usually I’m expecting blatant advertising under the pretext of journalism. But this stuff actually feels like it takes its readers seriously, and it also comes with more info and interesting statements than what magazines have covered so far. Keep up the good work.

  • @46 check

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