Jenova Chen is on a crusade to mature videogames, but he is not cribbing from The Sopranos. The creative director of thatgamecompany - the indie game studio incubated within Sony Santa Monica - wants to expand the popular definition of videogame by infusing games with emotionally and intellectually charged content.
Last week thatgamecompany unleashed its first assault on our emotions with the PlayStation Network game Flower. In the aftermath of launch, Chen discusses why the games industry needs to expand its emotional range, the rise of independent developers, and why he doesn't want to create big budget blockbuster.
Q: Why don't you play games anymore?
Jenova Chen: I still occasionally play games, but I don't play a lot of new games because I feel that games have to be - for adults like me - more relevant to my life. When you go out to an art gallery or go to see a movie, you're expecting the film [or art] to either inform you on an intellectual level about certain aspects of life or entertain you on a deep emotional level.
I think a lot of games fail to educate you on an intellectual level, and the emotions they evoke are relatively primal. They are too shallow. Games are very good at making you feel excited, feel thrilled, and feel addicted, but these are the feelings that are very primal - that younger kids or teenagers will respond very well to. As adults we expect to feel something more complex and more sophisticated.
Q: Why has the industry been so hesitant to explore emotional range in videogames?
Jenova Chen: It is really just the vicious cycle of business. The people who embraced games early were kid, so companies focused on this secure market of teenagers and 20-year-olds.
But all these companies are designing these games particularly to these groups; they never really focus on the old. But as more companies make games for this audience, they are overlapping in terms of emotional content. They are really competing with each other on production values.
You have two space marine games. Which are you going to choose? Gears of War 2 or Resistance 2? The decision is based on who has the better-looking character, more levels, or a longer play time.
It is kind of sad because the similarly-themed films can evoke a very different feel. I think a lot of people in the industry have ignored that. They are focusing on who has the best tech rather than who has the more emotional or intellectual experience.
Q: Which emotional range are you most interested in exploring?
Jenova Chen: I'm not against the traditional type of feeling that gaming evokes. Empowerment is a great experience. Even Hollywood has the equivalent in those super hero movies. But what I feel [games] are lacking is the complexity of feeling and the other hues of feeling. If nobody tries to evoke these other types of feelings, then the game market will be very limited.
My goal is to make a game that is this complex flavour. It's like cooking. The best food is not just with one flavour, you have a lot of secret ingredients that, when mixed together, create something very unique that you cannot forget. For me, if you play Flower from beginning to end, it is not all just peaceful. It has peace, it has wonder, it has twists, it has despair, and it has a catharsis.
Q: Although flOw did phenomenally well on the PlayStation Network as the vanguard of these peaceful games, are you worried about the public acceptance of Flower that is the antithetical videogame?
Jenova Chen: Certainly I'm very concerned by the public response, but that is exactly why I want to make these kinds of games - so the public will know that the videogame is capable of evoking these feelings. If we can make an emotional game that evokes a different, unique feel, it will educate the players, the critics, and other game developers that games don't have to be violent, they don't have to be these simulations, and you can do a lot more with games.
Q: How far out do you think the industry is from creating the elusive "game that can make you cry?"
Jenova Chen: I'm very sick of this "will games make you cry" thing. First of all, I cried at a game when I was 13. I cried hard and I cried deep for a game that is totally crass by today's standards. I never doubted that videogames can make you cry; I'm trying to recapture that feeling.
We have already had a few fans mail us about Flower to tell us they had tears in their eyes, or they cried after they played the first level because it reminds them of their dead mother, or it reminds them of the town they used to live in forty years ago. So why are we even asking if [games] can make people cry? Games have already accomplished that.
But maybe ten or thirty years ago, games could only make kids cry because they had not yet experienced anything deep. In my case, in the 1990s, my parents felt a lot of fictional novels were very bad for kids so they never let me read books, and they wouldn't let me watch anything on TV that related to adults. So all I could watch were very stupid cartoons. It was videogames that my parents were not familiar with, so they never guarded against the content.
So I played these games with crappy plots that mimicked Shakespeare - these Romeo & Juliet plots - but I had never seen Romeo & Juliet before. I had never seen a love movie before. So that role-playing game where the female character died was my first experience of losing someone who I really liked.
That very first experience was so strong that it allowed me to reach catharsis. But most other adults would not be able to because they've read Romeo & Juliet and they have a much higher tolerance. So maybe what you're talking about is how to create a very, very strong emotional experience so even adults who have seen the greatest movies will still be touched. That's all about creating a unique and strong emotional experience. If it's unique then people wouldn't be able to expect it, and it would be possible to be touched.
Q: So is your current mission to fully explore gaming's emotional range? Or are you interested in tackling something that is intellectually engaging?
Jenova Chen: Totally. My goal is to make videogames as a media mature. We want to push the boundary of what games can communicate - either on an emotional level or an intellectual level. I think even Flower has some intellectual content in it, although it's not that deep. I think we just increased the maturity of what is in the game on all sides: Intellectual, emotional and social.
Q: So would your next project be more allegorical in nature or would you still want to be deeply seated in emotions?
Jenova Chen: I would try to have all of them, but eventually because of budget and the reality, we might settle on one. But it's too early to tell right now. Certainly if you can achieve both intellectual and emotional content, it would be awesome.
Q: Do you have any interest in creating big budget blockbuster games?
Jenova Chen: We don't. If you have a blockbuster, it means you have a lot of pressure on profits. If you're creating a new experience, that automatically equals risk. When you have USD 30 million or USD 100 million invested in your project, you can't afford any risk. If you make a mistake then hundreds of people will lose their jobs. The priority of that kind of production is to make sure the project is safe rather than to say we want to do everything differently.
As a company, we want to push the boundary of the medium. If we can reduce the business risk by making downloadable games then we can afford a lot more creativity. Maybe, in the future, once we've created this huge market and it's not risky anymore we can do a blockbuster. But I'm not seeing the industry needing another blockbuster. What they need is a lot of studios to go out and explore what games can be. That's what I want to see for the industry. Blockbusters are more about making money. What does that give you to improve the industry?
Q: Speaking of money: Is the games industry about to see the rise of the creative underclass?
Jenova Chen: It's the era for independence. It is the equivalent of the indie film movement. Movies used to be very expensive to make because cameras and film were very expensive. But when film and cameras became cheap enough, small groups could afford to make films. When the first generation film students come out of school - these are kids who grew up with film - were not satisfied with the market. With the technology to make independent films cheaply, they started to open the market, create new genres, and reach more of a mature audience.
It's almost like that time [in the games industry]. A lot of videogame students are just graduating from college or graduate school. And now games are cheap enough to be published on downloadable digital distribution platforms, and there all these very eager game creators that want to see something new, something different, and something better.
Jenova Chen is creative director at thatgamecompany. Interview by Mary Jane Irwin.