“What is Game Design?” with Jenova Chen

The following are excerpts from a conversation with Jenova Chen, Co-Founder and Creative Director at thatgamecompany. Jenova’s meteoric rise began at USC after a viral success with Cloud led to a fortuitous meeting with Sony. Jenova’s hit games include the PSN exclusives Flow, Flower and Journey.

EL: Can you start by introducing yourself, talking a little bit about what your background is and the games you’ve worked on?

JC: I grew up in China, went through college there, and came to USC in Los Angeles, studied in the film school’s Interactive Media program. During my study there, I realized there’s a calling for me in my life that I wanted to do something to improve the game industry.

Particularly because we made a couple of student projects: one of them is called Cloud, the other one is called Flow. And these games helped me to realize that the game industry today has very limited emotional courage. Like, in all the traditional media, no matter how old are, what gender you are, what mood you are in, there’s always a music for you to consume. There’s always a film for you to watch, even if you are very sad.

But, for game as entertainment, it provides certain emotions better than the others. It does action and competition and adrenaline rush very well, but it doesn’t really quite cover other emotions, which is crucial for games to be enjoyed by all ages.

So we set up this company, called thatgamecompany, trying to be the spearhead of a game developer who pushed the boundary of what kind of emotion games can provide. Not only on the width, like in terms of the type of the emotion, but also the depth. From the simple joy to ecstasy, from the simple disappointment to sadness. Entertainment is basically a food industry of emotion. We wanted to see games being embraced by people of all ages worldwide, as the next great art form.

EL: So, the question we’re here to discuss is, what is game design?

JC: So, first of all, I really don’t like game design. I like game creation or game direction. Because in my opinion, in most of the industry, game designer is the game director. But I think they are actually two different jobs.

A lot of the traditional production houses, the game director is called executive producer, which I also don’t like, because I come from the film background. Producer and director are focusing on two very different things. I think that the lack of game director as a role in most companies is the problem, why most of the games today, it doesn’t feel like there’s a voice in there.

From my perspective, there’s game design and then there’s game direction. To me, game design is interaction design. It’s about using the interactive design, the input and output to generate emotional response in the user or the audience.

From a director’s perspective, game is multimedia just like film. Film has performance, art design, literature, cinematography, costume design, all kinds of stuff.

And what the director does is he focuses a message of feeling, a story. A story is essentially a more complex and nuanced emotional experience. And he wants to work with all the talent from different disciplines, so they can work together, the sound and music and the cinematography and it flows. They all work together to create the highest possible high in the story and the lowest possible low in the story.

And for games I’m kind of doing both jobs. I’m doing the designer job and doing the director job. And what happens is when you reach the highest possible high in the emotional arc, I can tell an artist, I say, “Hey, give me an environment light design that makes the player feel sublime.” And they can do that in a couple of hours, give me the concept art.

I talked to my composer, “I want to have a very climatic, very sublime music.” He gave me something very quickly. But, if I talk to a game designer who is working out the interactive input and output of mechanics, you know, the dynamics in that particular level, I said, “Can you give me something that’s not fun, but actually sublime?”

Then they were like,”I don’t know. I’ve never played a game that felt sublime.”

EL: [laughs]

JC: And then we do a lot of research, we do a lot of play test, trial and error. For artists, musicians, sound designers, story writers, there’s years of experience. It’s an established craft and it has tons reference you can draw on with various emotions.

But, when it comes to interactive design, this is a new territory and there’s very little reference you can draw outside videogame itself.

Most of the games are made to entertain the teenage boys and the young adults, particular male. And those crowds, they have a craving for the feeling of freedom, the feeling of empowerment. Because when you’re in school, you’re controlled by the school and parents. You don’t have the power to do anything you want.

And so most of the games are about becoming the space marine, becoming the superhero, becoming the secret agent. It’s because they’re designed for this demographic. I would say right now, game design has a lot of reference on empowerment, on excitement, a lot of reference on thrill.

But there’s no reference of sadness. There’s no reference of sorrow, no reference of sublime. And so, right now, in the game industry, I’m trying to push for new emotions and inevitably, I have to work with other people to figure out that design that actually generates the feeling of sadness, the feeling of sublime.

The game designer is right now the new frontier of design, but at the end, if you want a game to really touch someone, you still need to have direction. You need to create an arc of experience, need to create a coherent experience and create a voice that can speak to the player.

EL: When you are starting on a new project, how do you decide what is the core emotion that you want to express in the game? Do you have a process or is it based on inspiration? How do you decide what new emotional experience you want to tackle?

JC: It’s pretty much like other commercial artist. We are the mirror for society. We believe in creating an emotional experience that is valuable for the society. Then you will create the maximum commercial success.

In the search for the most value we can create, we keep an eye on pretty much everything pop: what’s going on in the news, what’s the most popular music, movie, novels, manga, anime. Anything that is starting to have a trend is a mirror reflecting a huge audience who is searching for a certain emotion.

And you analyze that and you figure out what is the emotion that most of the people are experiencing these days? And then, figure out what is the emotion they need the most. It’s not what they want the most, because people who play lots of Star Wars games will tell you they want more Star Wars games. They won’t tell you they need something different.

And you actually have to analyze what kind of emotion they feel lack of and then you pick that emotion and you make that happen. And then when they experience, they’re like “Oh, you know, I’ve been needing this for a long time. I just couldn’t vocalize.”

EL: So back to your food metaphor, it’s like you need to figure out what vitamins someone is deficient in.

JC: Yes, we try to figure out what those people need, because human psyche needs a full range of emotion to be fulfilled. Like the fact that a lot of people watch tragedy, because, you know, they’re too happy, because they are seeking for something else. It’s definitely like a supplement thing.

EL: What is the biggest challenge you face as a game designer and game director?

JC: As a game designer, the lack of reference. The fact you have to keep trying in the fog and keep trying until you find it. It’s a searching process. It’s frustrating.

As a game director, it’s just wrangling with everybody because everybody thinks they are a designer. Everybody wants the game done differently and trying to make the game still have a coherent voice, after wrangling with everybody is the most difficult thing.

EL: Staying true to that initial vision and making sure your game actually communicates what you set out to. And what do you find excites you most about design?

JC: Actually, it’s just to see the game speak to people. From game design perspective, if the design actually succeeded in communicating the feeling we want, then it’s exciting, right?

From the director’s perspective, if the message gets across, that’s exciting.

EL: Do you have an instance of a time you actually watched somebody interact with the game and you can tell that they understood the message, whether it was in the user test or in a demo or in a tradeshow and kind of how that played out and how that made you feel?

JC: In the user testing, in the last 25 play testers, three people cried. So that’s a good sign for us.

But, even in user testing because you are kind of behind a mirror room and you know you are being watched. The true emotion doesn’t come out. So the best way to hear your message get across is when the player will play the game and they talk about it online, or they send you an email, telling you what they feel.

And that’s the most honest response.

EL: Could you share an important lesson you’ve learned during the course of the games you’ve been working on at thatgamecompany?

JC: I would say each game I do is actually an experiment to verify a theory. From Flow, it’s the Csikszentmihalyi psychologist theory of Flow, trying to prove that, by designing a game in a certain manner, player can customize the difficulty themselves. So it’s easier for a huge variety of players engaged in the same game but at different pace.

And, when we move to Flower, it’s trying to use what I learned from the film school about the three-act structure, writing techniques. In order to create a climax, you have to create a kind of low moment before the rise. So, when you rise, the distance you climb is much, much stronger.

So basically a three-act movie, three-act structure movie will have a twist in the middle, where everything is going wrong, and then until the climax, everything is going right. So we are applying that theory, the process of Flower, trying to create an emotional catharsis near the end. And it seems to have working for, having proven to work for some people.

And the plan is the same we have structured for Journey, apply the flow for Journey as well, but beyond flow, there’s a new, another concept called a co-op collaboration, which is about the true cooperation between the person and the group.

In the psychology field, basically, they say, when two people are working together, if one person is too individual, is too much about himself, then it’s not really a collaboration. It actually makes the group kind of isolate with the individual. They’re not really working together.

And the opposite end is, when it’s too much about group conformity, and the whole time you’re just doing what the group tells you what to do, and you lose your individual freedom.

And, when the concept of co-op collaboration comes, it’s about giving the person a choice to engage in a collaboration. They can stay alone as themselves. They can also help the others. You’re giving the player the opportunity to balance between collaboration and individualism. So when they do collaborate, they are fully engaged in the collaboration and that’s more likely to create a bond.

And Journey also is trying the other concept called the Hero’s Journey, which is written by Joseph Campbell, he’s a comparative mythologist who researches mythical stories and religious stories and figured out a common structure between all of the stories that has been passed over thousands of years old. And he found out this arc, this very unique structure, which is adopted by Star Wars and Matrix, pretty much all the Hollywood people. And it works really well to communicate some things sublime and spiritual.

So Journey as a lesson is that this hero’s journey structure works, even in the interactive medium.

EL: So it sounds like having these hypotheses, having these theories, combining that with having an emotion you want to create, these two things kind of create all of the focus you need in order to direct your experience.

JC: Yeah, you don’t want to direct the experience from a vacuum, you’d say, oh, I think this is going to work. I always seek for theories and knowledge from the established medium. And try to stand on the shoulder of giants, just putting into a game and see whether that works or not.

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