By Sim Cheng Kai . March 20, 2012 . 2:30pm
Thatgamecompany recently released their multiplayer Ico box art-inspired title, Journey, on the PlayStation Network. In Journey, you play as a robed figure making his way through the desert toward a mountain in the distance. As you do so, you encounter other similar avatars—controlled by other players—one at a time, and can pursue your journey together with them.
The catch is that you have no way to communicate with the other person. Journey is supposed to be about two strangers meeting and cooperating without the use of words. After the game caught our eye, we caught up with its director, Jenova Chen, to ask her a few quick questions about its development.
What do you think is the difference between Thatgamecompany’s games development process and the process used by a bigger company?
Jenova Chen, Journey director: When we work on games, we focus on communicating an emotion. We do it so diligently that it is very easy to feel. When a big company makes a game, communicating a message isn’t necessarily the priority. It could be financially-driven reasons, or because they’re paid to crank out another sequel. For this reason, the message the game conveys becomes weak and vague.
The key concept behind Journey is that of two strangers meeting and cooperating without the use of proper communication. But how is it different from, say, two guys in a multiplayer shooter lobby with no keyboard/headset to communicate? Or in real life, a man in a foreign land seeking help from a local who doesn’t speak his language?
The reason they can’t communicate with one another is to create an emotional connection with another player. An emotional connection requires a lot of focus. The problem with showing the player’s name, since many console games are very competitive, player’s names are often not friendly or nice. Also, names can give information about a player’s gender or age or something.
These become distractions taking the player out of the world and making the player think ‘Who is this guy I’m playing with?’ We don’t want that to interrupt the experience; all players were born in this world and should meet each other as human beings, rather than some guy who’s lived twenty years, lived in Michigan and really likes ninjas.
If you chat, again, you’ll expose these problems. The character isn’t designed for such communication so we can keep the players immersed in the game, rather than half in the real world.
Were there any interesting “episodes” during development? Perhaps an unexpected discovery when testers first went hands-on with an earlier build of Journey? Or just something really funny that happened?
Something funny–we were doing play tests, where we invited players to come in and play the game. However, instead of cooperating and building a relationship each other, the players just kept attacking each other and pushing each other into the pit. At the time, I was very disappointed in mankind; we designed all the settings so they will help each other, but they still just kill each other, as if they don’t have any morality at all.
I was really sad and when I ran into a child psychologist and told her–she said, “When these guys enter the game, it’s a virtual space–reality does continue into it. When that happens, they become kids, and don’t know what they’re doing is bad. In that situation, the best way to handle that isn’t to shout or hit them, but to offer feedback.” So when I went back to the prototype, we removed the physics so they couldn’t push each other into the pit.
What sort of entertainment do members of the development team or ThatGameCompany in general look to for inspiration? Are there any literary ones? Like perhaps fairy tales or children’s books, etc?
The main inspiration is the ‘Hero’s Journey’ called ‘The Hero with a thousand faces’, written by Joseph Campbell, ‘The power of myth’, written by Joseph Campbell; the three act structure from Hollywood script writing; and different stages of life from Confucius: “At fifteen, I set my heart on learning. At thirty, I found my balance through the rites. At forty, I was free from doubts about myself. At fifty, I understood what heaven intended me to do. At sixty, I was attuned to what I heard. At seventy, I followed with my heart what my heart desired without overstepping the line.”