Delivering an Emotion

June 7, 2010

In any field, there are those people who follow the norm and those who break it. In the world of video games, that person is Jenova Chen, co-founder and creative director of thatgamecompany. With his award-winning games Could, flOw and Flower, he is redefining the game industry. Designer Andrew Clark interviews Jenova about his artistic vision, his background and his goals.


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Flower, 2009. © Jenova Chen.

AC: When we sat around wondering what amused us, at some point everyone said, “Video games.” What does amusement mean to you as an interactive entertainment designer?

JC: I think amusement is not entertainment; it is one particular portion of entertainment. I am more interested in defining the term. Entertainment is what food is to a hungry man. It is emotional food. From my point of view, entertainment is a bigger range. If we compare amusement to one type in the entire spectrum of the food industry, it is probably the sweets: candy and sugar. But there is real food, too, that is also very good, but that is not amusement. Entertainment can be about tragedy, putting you on a roller coaster and swirling you around. It could be bungee jumping. It is entertaining because it satisfies a particular feeling, an emotion. That business, the entertainment business, is about satisfying these brain needs. It has existed since the very dawn of civilization. You can see people sitting around the fire, dancing as entertainment. In our age, just like the food industry, we want something to eat, not just to be happy. At tribal times, humans wanted to feel safe and warm in a very crude environment where any animal could kill you. What you wanted was safety. Humans dancing around fire makes us feel safe and warm. You are with other people and you feel a connection. Those are basic human emotions and, over the last thousands of years, like the food industry has evolved, so has the entertainment industry. We want more variety, more subtly. When entertainment was first available, people used to say, “Hey, I want to be amused, I want to laugh, I want to be excited or surprised or scared”. But over time, perhaps horror movies are not what we need. I want to have a drama, a romantic movie, a documentary reflecting the real society’s emotions—a complex feeling that is a mixture of other things, like a flavor you evolve over time. Amusement is probably a big portion of entertainment, but certainly doesn’t cover every emotion we need.

AC: Going a little further back, what was the first video game you ever played? What was the feeling?

JC: I remember it was some kind of platform like Pinball. It was for computer, so it had a monochrome screen and very low resolution. I don’t even know the name of it, I just remember playing it.

AC: Since those simpler times, video games and entertainment have progressed. What attracted you to this work of designing games? What are your influences as a designer?

JC: The reason I picked video games was because of the year I was born. I went to film school and I learned a lot about the history of film as a medium. If you see how it evolved, it is very similar to video games, time is just offset a little bit. Every medium usually starts with the technology. At the time, people wanted to push the technology. When they first invented the camera, early films basically documented real world events: a ballet concert, a boxing match, a train station. That was not very exciting, because people didn’t know how to use the new technology to express themselves, but they were very good at capturing those primal experiences. A train coming at the camera? People were scared—but they could run out of the theatre and tell other people about it. The industry didn’t start to provide more artistic content until a group of kids grew up with this particular media. They eventually became educated with this type of medium. Film has existed for 100 years now, and the school I graduated from, the University of Southern California (USC), is 75 years old. Film didn’t really become an industry until there was an education in film, until there were kids growing up with film, studying it. And the first wave of students studying film included people like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Zemeckis. When they first started working in the industry, they said, “What, there is a major called Film?” I think these first people were able to make film part of their life, and for me, it is the same thing. I grew up playing video games and, for a long time, I thought games were just a distraction. Everybody who was older than I at the time told me it was something useless. They told me, “Do something more meaningful, why are you wasting your time?” They were treating it as if it were pornography or drugs. But then, once you go to a university where there is a program for film, people will tell you, “This is for the future, you have to go, become an expert in the field, change the future of this.” So, it is not that I was born for video games. There is a particular attachment between video games and me. When I was a kid, my parents would say, “don’t watch TV, it is for adults only, you are only supposed to watch this particular content.” They were scared of me reading novels and becoming addicted to it, so they didn’t give me a lot of novels to read either, and the same thing happened with film and going to the theater. So the very first deep emotional experience was actually through video games. I cried at video games more than I cried at films, because I wasn’t allowed to see films. I was probably 13 or 14 when I played my first video game, which by today’s standards would be very cheesy. It was my very first experience. I remember how the image touched me and changed the way I see the world and myself as a person. If you read an interview about Peter Jackson, he says that when he saw the film “King Kong” (the original version), he decided to become a filmmaker. He saw the movie when he was 9, and he thought that the emotional attachment to King Kong was so strong that he wanted to touch people the same way. And I felt the same way, to touch people the same way. If I had been born earlier, I would probably be a filmmaker now!

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flOw, 2007. © Jenova Chen.

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flOw, 2007. © Jenova Chen.

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flOw, 2007. © Jenova Chen.

AC: In 2008, the magazine Technology Review, published by MIT, wrote, “He’s desperate to see something new: right now, most games focus on stimulating players by inciting aggression. I want to expand what a video game can be.” In your thesis, you explore the concept of flOw, its relevance on video games, and you define the word fun as flOw: a balance of the relationship between challenge and ability. Can you briefly describe your basic approach in creating fun/flOw?

JC: Video games, in some peoples’ minds, is the ninth greatest art. In my opinion, the video game is this ongoing, evolving medium that human civilization finally achieved. Cinema is definitely one of the greatest mediums in the world, because it combines all others together. You have literature, performance, painting, cinematography, music, composing…everything a human can do all combined and contained in a cinematic experience. I think a video game is taking everything a cinematic experience has and adding interaction. It is the greatest art, because it could just do what films do, but the industry won’t admit that. So, if you dissect interactive media into its components, when you are designing music, you are a composer. As a composer, you have a set of rules. The music has a particular rhythm that it needs to have to sound good. The same combination with different rules could make people very disturbed. The same thing can be applied to an artist and composition. There are many rules that are involved. So when it comes to interaction, which is a very new dimension of mixing media, it also has rules. It involves human interactivity and flOw, which is a positive psychology: how to design an interaction so that the user, the player, or the athlete can become more focused, more immersed in that activity. As a game designer, I am mainly in charge of creating the very good interactions in the experience. The key is to be aware of how the player, or if you are a coach, because they are game designers, is engaged in his training. Is he distracted? Or is it too hard for him? Or too easy? Is he bored? You have to keep him entertained and focused on the activity he is doing. FlOw gives out about 8 different conditions that keep the player or athlete in the Zone, so he focuses on what he is doing. This is a very new field. A game designer is like an architect. They are dealing with the end user, human beings, learning how people react to certain conditions: lighting, physics, everything. A lot of architects become video game designers. This is an interesting field because it involves a lot of science. As a game designer, you have to be aware of psychology, sociology, all different sciences that aren’t taught to designers today, but you have to learn it. As a game designer, making the games fun is fundamental. The overall experience is beyond just fun. In the past, people were just focusing on fun, it is like painters focusing on realism. But then at some point, someone said just being realistic is not enough, you have to express something. That is when the art starts to happen, when you start to combine elements in a particular order to express a particular sense or meaning.

AC: In 2006, you and Kellee Santiago started thatgamecompany and since then, you have been recognized as an innovator, a pioneer, the #99th most creative person in business for your work in interactive entertainment. How did that collaboration begin and what was the vision for the studio?

JC: I went to school because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I felt that I should have more education and decided I should go to film school. During our first year, we were required to shoot five short films and learn screenwriting and all the basics that have to deal with video games. I asked myself why I was there. I wanted to be an interactive designer. But those films ended up being the inspiration later as I compared the video game industry to the film industry, and were the foundations for me to form my discipline and philosophy. At film school, the biggest thing was a student design project called Cloud. At the time, we were just thinking it was a grant from the school, a video game innovation grant, and we pictured something that was very different from what was in the market. I just saw all this violence in the market. I saw Senators condemning all this violence, and video games such as Grand Theft Auto San Andreas were just coming out that year. I thought I could make a video game that was the opposite of San Andreas: no violence, no competition, no numbers, no points, no goals. Just focusing on a particular experience—clouds floating in the sky. Who doesn’t like the beautiful clouds in the sky, and who hadn’t dreamt they could fly among them? So we made the experience Cloud, which is about a boy who is sick in the hospital and he is daydreaming he is flying in the sky. He can make the clouds into different shapes, like animals, and he can use the clouds to create a rain to wash the land. A very simple experience. It took us forever to make it and once we put it out in the market, when we finally had it done, we just wanted to submit it to a festival. That was the goal. Two days after we submitted the game, it was highlighted on TV on G4, and the host really loved playing the game. Immediately, our school server was brought down because of the traffic. Since then, it has crashed four times and every time we have moved it to a bigger server to keep it from crashing. I think currently one million people have downloaded this game. I have heard from so many emails of people who have downloaded it from the internet and say, “This game is so different, you should show this game to the rest of the world, show them that video games can be about this.” Other people said the game made them cry, which to me was surprising because after making the game I didn’t feel anything for a year. The awards and the response … people were discussing if video games can be art based on the experience playing this game. Newspapers in Sydney, Australia, were debating on whether video games can be art because of our game. This was an accident. We didn’t think this game would be that great and we tried to look back and identify that thing which makes it unique, that makes it a success. It is obviously different from the rest of the games. I finally realized, just like any other medium, that it is entertainment. Entertainment is about fulfilling the desire for feelings. If you look at novels and movies, they are all based on feelings. In the video game industry, as it evolved over time, we had the equivalent of a horror film, a summer blockbuster action film, a thriller, but we don’t have one for drama, romantic movie, documentary, anything that is deep and involves interaction with life and the world around us, and strong emotions that make us cry. So I thought no wonder not everyone is a gamer, there is an emotion that they can’t connect to. Everyone listens to some kind of music, reads some kind of book. I designed Cloud as a video game for certain types of emotions. Certainly those emotions are present, but they haven’t been designed for a “gamer”. They never thought about it as a possibility. When they see it, they love it and they convince other people to play it. We leapt from Cloud to opening thatgamecompany with a goal to expand the emotional range of the video game and to make the general public aware of it. It was important for us to be a successful company, so that other game makers could make these types of games as well.

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Cloud, 2006. © Jenova Chen.

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Cloud, 2006. © Jenova Chen.

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Cloud, 2006. © Jenova Chen.

AC: In your games there is an emphasis on natural environments and organic objects such as clouds, flowers and fluid creatures, and this is one way I see the game being able to connect to these deeper emotions. How do you design and connect to the user’s emotions in your games?

JC: It is instinct. There are no textbooks to tell you how to make it work. It is a combination. Flower is an experience where you felt like you are spreading positive energy—life and light—to the world. There is also this sadness that we created with the dark side—the city. As you play, if that sadness resonates with you as you heal the city, you are healing yourself on an emotion level. It will touch you in that way. But that is an instinct based on a decision I had. There are also techniques such as the three-act structure for a cathartic experience. When you want to have an overwhelming emotion experience for the player, you need to have a strong emotional touch. In order to reach that in a three-act structure, you need to have a little twist and then a lower drip before reaching the climax. The more drastic the lifting experience from the low point to the climax is, the more intense and connective the unexpected emotion will feel. It’s much stronger than a steady rise. By controlling the emotions through a curve, putting the audience through a roller coaster of emotions, not a rising line, you can manage to have them reach catharsis. But, is this catharsis about a positive feeling or extreme sadness? And as a director, you have to make sure everything is working along this curve. The climax has to sync between the visual, the performance, the script, the music, the sounds, and the interaction. I believe I can be a good film director because I have a certain discipline and training. But right now, I am working in the video game industry and I have one more consideration: game play. I can control game play, making this level or area challenging to achieve that curve.

There were these extremes, and I think that was the case everywhere. I carried with me this constant underlying anxiety, “Am I going to be questioned? What will be the consequences of that questioning?” What in fact it did was, it compelled me to be very clear about the commitments I was making to take pictures. In any case, when you work with an 8×10 camera, you don’t spontaneously take a photograph. It’s not like a digital camera where it’s an effortless gesture. I was doing more editing and really looking very hard at times about how I could take the pictures without getting into some endless round of interrogation that was going to make my day useless. There was an intensity about it that got carried forward into the pictures themselves. I also had limited time on a site, so there was a kind of pressure in the whole process. It’s like anywhere, there are people who are not fearful, but open and curious, and there are people who don’t like things to come about that are out of the normal. But we are going to be in a more interesting society if we are not all the same, if everything does not have to conform into some notion of normal, whatever that is.

One thing that is interesting that’s valuable to this discussion is that in a way, I made all this work quite unencumbered by the politics. I had all that in the back of my head, but it wasn’t what was driving the pictures. I didn’t have a kind of manifesto that I wanted to communicate. When this whole thing came together in a book, that’s when it became most clear in terms of what it was doing as an entire project.

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Flower, 2009. © Jenova Chen.

AC: Has there been an evolution of your game design thinking between the three games: Cloud–a first person soarer, flOw–an aquatic experience through a surreal biosphere, and Flower-a pastoral, wind swept exploration of the petals voyage? Are there elements you are refining and continuing to develop?

JC: There is no evolution, only learning. The video game industry is so new that there is no textbook for things. In Flower, we wanted to create a peaceful experience. Anything we know about fun is challenged, and if you fail at challenge you feel frustration, not fun. If you think about Flower as game play, there are a bunch of dots and you try to touch as many dots as you can. It is a really boring game. We went against tradition and made a video game that made you feel peaceful and calm, and it turns to be working! FlOw was one thing, Cloud was another, and every time we tried to make something new, we were fighting against the traditions. Is it going to work? Nobody has done it before. I feel like we haven’t done a lot. Our work is a risk, and there is always the risk it won’t work in the end. It is a stressful environment to work on these games. For our new game, we are trying something that no one has done before and testing it to see if it will work. We hope it will be out soon, possibly this year.

AC: In your games, the “instruction manuals,” or how-to, is simple and organic, yet delivers complexity and variety, similar to the output of a cellular automata. How do you accomplish this?

JC: The reason the game is simple is because we wanted to deliver an emotion. At some point Flower was a puzzle game in which you had to collect a certain number of petals to unlock and open doors. When people played it, they didn’t have the time to be attached emotionally to the game, all they focused on was remembering where the petals were and how many petals they needed. The emotional brain can’t be engaged when we have to solve rational puzzles. Then, there is the other spectrum, puzzle design, such as Sudoku, Scrabble, which is more traditional and engages the brain in an intellectual challenge to solve problems. Solving a problem doesn’t give you emotions, so we steer away from that direction. We simplified the game to make the emotion the main focus.

AC: How do you get your games in front of kids, teenagers, adults, and non-gamers? What are the distribution channels in the 21st Century for a gaming company?

JC: Actually, I don’t think we have done a good job spreading it. It has only been on PlayStation 3, and we have had very good sales on that platform. But compared to flOw and Cloud, the free flash games online, it is just a small portion. FlOw had over 6 million people playing it on the website. We are certainly not satisfied with the number of people who are playing Flower right now. We want to show everyone that these games are available, and we need to do more.

AC: You said in an article, “If we keep making these games, more and more gamers will want to see stuff like this. It’s not about killing each other, and that could change the world’s perception that video games are just about teenage boys and violence.” Where would you like to see video game designers’ head? What territories should they be moving towards?

JC: The term video game design is actually the wrong term. In the industry, we are called video game directors. In the film industry, almost all directors are writers, but because interactive is so new, I think they should think about themselves as directors. They should think about what they want to tell or express in the video game. The medium is there and it has tremendous power for an audience. Are you just going to make another game that makes people feel excited? Or do you want to deliver something more unique, something more personal, that you feel will be beneficial to be experienced by others? And if you had something you felt proud of, and was worthwhile for millions of people to play it, I bet you that game will be unique and good. If your work is only to change one thing from a game that already exists, that is not an expression, it is the work of a fan. We need more creators than fans.