LAS VEGAS — Travel for the creator of “Journey” is, not unironically, a trial. And it’s not just travel, it’s anything that doesn’t involve work these days.
Jenova Chen seems slightly distracted, almost lost in thought when I come upon him in a Vegas meeting room at the DICE summit this week.
I catch a glimpse of a colorful, painted piece of artwork on the screen of his laptop before he presses the lid closed and greets me. I don’t know if it’s art from his next game, but I do know that the next thing from Chen and thatgamecompany is never far from his mind, or his fingertips. It lurks in his conversations, seemingly always on his mind.
He’s only at the DICE summit for one day, he tells me, because he hates to be away from this next thing.
“I’m doing development every day,” he said. “I’m writing code. I’m only here for a day. I’m trying to keep myself from distractions.”
In Chen’s view making this next game is the most important thing he can be doing, and anything that doesn’t involve its creation is ultimately, to put it bluntly, a waste of time.
“Does talking to you make the game better?” he asks me when I press him on this idea.
We talk in a nondescript meeting room down one of many similar hallways in the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. In about an hour he’ll be taking the stage to do a talk on the creation of Journey. He hasn’t quite finished it yet, he tells me, but he doesn’t seem concerned.
Later, after the talk, which goes quite well, Chen and the other members of thatgamecompany will take the stage and retake the stage and retake the stage to receive eight awards, including game of the year, at the DICE awards show. Still later, I’ll spot Chen wandering through the chattering crowds of drinking and smoking developers, in a sort of daze. Alone. Lost in thought.
“Journey” was a financial disaster, Chen tells me. Pushed back twice, the game bankrupted thatgamecompany. Eventually, it did make its money back plus some, but not Minecraft money, Chen says. While it was well received, it wasn’t well received by a big enough audience for Chen.
“I wouldn’t say that the development of Journey was a successful example of game development,” he said. “We bankrupted the company.”
“I think to have a financial success, that is going to change everyone, it has to be much bigger than a game on the PlayStation platform.”
Chen is quick to point out how much he appreciates the support of Sony and its willingness to delay the game not one year, but two, at the insistence of the developers. Had Sony pushed thatgamecompany to hit its initial deadline it’s likely Journey wouldn’t have been realized.
But Chen feels that limiting the game to a single platform prevented it from achieving a broader, bigger success.
And it’s not really the money that’s motivating him, it’s the obligation he feels to prove something to the game industry and publishers.
“Journey” is thatgamecompany’s fourth title. All but one of those games aimed to provide players with a cathartic experience. “Cloud,” which thatgamecompany produced as students, before they were thatgamecompany, tried to achieve that moment through the pursuit of serenity. “Flower” used “positive energy” to deliver the experience. And “Journey” relied on connections and a retelling of the hero’s journey.
Each of these games also brought with them evidence that video games don’t need to be about violence, or action, or much of anything concrete. They showed devotees of the developer that games could be art.
Chen tells me that over the years as he’s traveled around the world to do talks, lots of young people approach him to ask if they can work at thatgamecompany.
When he tells them no, pointing out that the team, which grew to 12 for “Journey,” remains small, they ask him where he can go to make similar games.
“We want to make more artistic games,” Jenova tells me they say, “High quality, emotional games.”
“I run into a lot of lost and frustrated students who study games to work on great art, but then find there is no place for them,” he said. “I feel responsible for them because I showed them that is possible, but there is no place for them.”
So now, Chen says, he has to make a more commercially successful game, a massive hit that can prove the viability of this approach to gaming. He has to do that so there are other places for those “lost and frustrated” students to go.
“My resolution is to create a big financial success,” he said.
For Chen, that means creating a game that can be played on any platform. That’s why he sought out venture capital funding, and received it, and that’s why the game the team is working on now won’t be exclusive to any one system.
Chen wants to tell me about his next game, the one he’s spending so much time coding right now, but he keeps stopping himself.
He does tell me that at this early stage, at many of a thatgamecompany’s development stages, he remains perhaps overly involved.
“I have a very high standard,” he said. “Language doesn’t help. English isn’t my first language and a lot of times I can’t tell exactly what I want for someone to do, so I need to write it myself. Camera controls, level designs, lighting effects, I need to touch it myself. I’m a control freak.”
Chen says that this new game explores one of the main ideas found in “Journey” but pushes it much further.
In “Journey,” players travel through evolving landscapes free of visual clutter. They control an anonymous robed figure wearing a scarf. As they collect bits of cloth and runes, the scarf grows longer and the character’s ability to jump extends. The entire game has players traveling to a beckoning point in a distant mountain range. The game is meant to represent a person’s journey through life. Perhaps easily overlooked is the game’s clever take on multiplayer. Chen built the entire game around the idea of allowing people to cooperate without forcing that or allowing competition. That cooperation is meant to speed along the sense of community and, ultimately, achieve the emotional catharsis that is the trademark of his games.
The ability to form a connection between players is something that still fascinates Chen, and is guiding the creation of his next game.
“‘Journey’ was focused on connection,” he said. “I think we are trying to do one level above that with this game.”
Then he stops himself from explaining. Worrying that by talking about what he hopes to achieve he’ll set up unreasonable expectations.
“It’s very likely that’s impossible,” he says of his own idea.
Flower, for instance, he says, was initially meant to be metaphorically about spreading love, but he and the team could never quite nail that down, so instead it became a game about spreading positive energy.
But then he returns to his idea for making a game more purely about player connections.
“This will be one level above that connection,” he said.
Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding news editor of Polygon.