Interview: Designer Jenova Chen talks about Journey

Jenova Chen, co-founder of Thatgamecompany, is the creative director of Journey

Game designer Jenova Chen grabbed my attention in a crowded teleconference when I heard him characterize the game Journey as a metaphor for life; you begin without knowing anything, you may or may not meet people to help you along your way, and then we all eventually die.

Journey, the third game from developer Thatgamecompany, has players wake up in a desert as a cloth garbed humanoid. As you wander through the dune speckled desert, sand cascading around your feet, you discover ancient ruins, puzzles, and occasionally other human-controlled wanderers who are playing while connected online. You and the other player can go your separate ways or play the game together. There is a catch, however; you and the other player are unable to communicate using anything other than a simple one-tone chime and are both left unnamed.

“Showing players’ names is too much information,” said Chen. Giving an example, he said “JenovaChen1981 is too much information that is not related to the game itself,” saying that it shows other players that he is an Asian man in his twenties, rather than just a human being. Chen said that player names and any form of communication take you, the player, away from the game experience and the intended emotional impact of Journey. “These are all distractions from what the game is truly about,” he said, adding that the multiplayer aspect of Journey is about the emotional connection between human beings.

I asked Chen why, throughout Journey and previous games he’s worked on like Flower, is there always such a value placed on mystery and absence of information. “There is so much information in our lives that it makes us feel that we know everything,” he said. “When we know everything it makes us feel less in awe.” Chen said that the emotion in an adventure game like Journey should be discovery. “We would rather let you play and discover, yourself.”

Chen responded to potential doubts among players hesitant to play through Journey’s approximately three to four hour long story. “People who say our game is too short – honestly, I don’t care,” he said. Grinding experience, returning quests, and repeating puzzles are game design tricks that Chen says are used to increase the length of games. “If our goal is to communicate a strong feeling…I feel we are responsible to communicate that as effectively as possible. If we start to let people level up, do the same puzzle three or four times – the only reason we’d do that is to extend the experience and I just can’t do that.”

“The problem with a game that’s longer than three hours is that there’s a bathroom break,” Chen continued. A film school alumni, he said that the reason films conform to the duration of a few hours is that it creates a better environment for an uninterrupted experience.

"Just putting people through challenges is not enough"

I remember listening to a podcast back when Journey was announced and hearing the hosts talk about the game and jokingly ask “so where’s the rocket launcher?” Journey developer Thatgamecompany’s catalog of games up until this writing have all involved experiences devoid of shooting. “When is the skill of a headshot going to help you in real life?” Chen said, evoking a chuckle from the moderator of the teleconference. Chen talked about how some adults gravitate towards the social aspects of golf and poker, which he says are skills that are useful in daily life.  He said, “what kind of games are worthwhile for an adult to play? It has to introduce some kind of new perspective. It has to move them in some way.”

“Just putting people [players] through challenges is not enough,” said Chen. “I’d rather see someone go through an emotional roller coaster ride. That way, the connection [to the experience] would be even stronger.”

Jenova Chen’s words about Journey’s depicted metaphor of life resonated with me. I’ve personally felt that life involves a bunch of kids playing at grown ups as they age – each of them trying to find out what it is they want out of life before they run out of time. When Journey launches on the Playstation Network in North America on March 13, I suppose I’ll get to see if Journey is as much a reflection on life as Chen feels it is.

Be sure to check out the full review for Journey, as well as our exclusive on what it’s like to be a co-op buddy in the game.

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Author: Kyle Baron View all posts by
It all started with a 30+ page FAQ on Mechassault back on his high-school lunch breaks. Since then, Kyle has graduated from the award winning journalism program at Humber College and has written for and managed several game editorial/news publications.