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GDC 2013: Designing Journey with Jenova Chen

JAlbor March 29, 2013 User blog:JAlbor
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After sweeping the Game Choice Awards last night, thatgamecompany's Jenov Chen discusses the design of the endlessly lauded Journey at the 2013 Game Developers Conference. Check out the highlights and insight below!

Games are like emotional nourishment. While film is mature and diverse, early video games have a smaller emotional pallette. A lot of games are about empowerment, particularly those targeting a young demographic. "In a way, a feeling about freedom really appeals to this age group." But now, with more freedom as Chen grows older, those stories of empowerment are less appealing than emotional experiences.

Back in 2006, Chen already had an idea for Journey. Three years into playing World of Warcraft, he felt connected to other players online. But most of the time, they don't care about actually interacting with players. "They just remind me that I'm a lonely person," Jenova says, "I really wanted to see a game where there's no difference in gender or age."

Prototyping

Early concepts revolved around sharing connections with a stranger, creating moments of togetherness without communication. Initially he was thinking of these ideas in an MMO context, but of course there was no money back then. After Flow and Flower, the team was finally ready to tackle a social experience.

"I really wanted to make something that makes them feel differently, or makes people trust each other better," Jenova says regarding making a social experience free of the antagonisms found in so many experiences. For inspiration, he learned a lot from astronauts who returned to earth with a new spiritual framework for life.

Early ideas involved more people, but was cut down into two players to have a game "that makes you feel somewhat lonely, but somewhat saw, but you have a great sense of awe." To actually execute that emotion, they needed to prototype a lot. Chen actually always starts prototyping with music first, working closely with Austin Wintory on the Journey score early. This allowed them to build the game around the music.

Another mechanical prototype they called "rope", which had two characters, each with their own abilities, to help each other, in a 2D platformer. This didn't work at first as it must be multiplayer and the team needed a single-player experience too. Made another prototype where single-player could move faster along paths left by past players. When players were together, they also become stronger, but is not entirely necessary. Some final design choices in Journey definitely grew from these prototypes.

This early prototype also features the ability to distract monsters from other players, but found it was far too difficult in a 3D experience due to readability reasons. The team even prototyped hiding from a sandstorm with another player, which was scrapped in 3D, but does seem somewhat included in Journey's final levels.

In a 3D environment, large-scale environments also seemed boring as it's difficult to measure progress. This birthed the presence of dunes and sand-trails to create a sense of progress and allow players to draw in the sand. "We tried to capture the realism that we wished," Chen says, explaining why they chose to let players surf down sand dunes.

When the team focused on one-on-one interaction, they also wanted to recreate a sense of flow and abandon the sense in some multiplayer games that others are slowing you down. As Chen states, "the player needs to have the choice to stay in the experience, to have the flow."

Another early prototype allowed players to share flight resources. Psychologically, players felt like other players were stealing from them or stalking them. To eliminate it, they dropped resource sharing.

Another early idea was to have players be able to lift other characters up and help them climb over obstacles. But players ended up pushing each other into dangerous situations. "For quite awhile I was disappointed by humanity." What players actually want is feedback, "of course the player wants to do that." As he states, "in order to shape player behavior, you have to control player input and output."

Achieving Emotional Catharsis

To achieve a level of emotional catharsis, Chen drew a lot from Joseph Campbell's work on The Heroe's Journey monomyth. The goal was to map a characters pathwayfrom birth to death. Once they had that, they could map out emotional range for the entire experience, then break this down even further into gameplay and story elements for each segment.

By the end of the first year, thatgamecompany had blocked out much of the game, but the emotional arc wasn't working. "How do you design for sad," he asks. By the end of the second year, the emotional arc has made much more progress, but testers still did not enjoy the game, except for one person who found a bug without realizing and thought the game was over entirely when the character died.

In order to fix the catharsis problem, the team had to lower the mountain and make it feel more like a struggle and less like a slog. Thus, Chen and the team added new animations and created the scene where Journey's character has to slog through the snow, losing their scarf size, and feel threatened by monsters. They added two new areas as well to increase the time players spend in the final area. "A lot of times I thought three minutes is enough time to walk to your death," Chen says.

The team also expanded the final joyful push up the mountain. Initially it was very on rails, so they opened up the area and created a sense of excitement. They even brought back the surfing mechanic for a brief moment. They gave back freedom and didn't take away control until the very last moments of entering the light.

Launching Journey

"It was really relieving the first day we launched the game," Jenova says, especially when they saw players apologizing in online forums for having to leave games early. He also really appreciates the fan art from the game, as it reflects what they remember and value in the game.

"Up to today, we have 896 emails from fans with personal stories," Jenova explains. Chen reads one email in particular from a young girl who's father died and who's life was improved by his game. "Let's make each other's life better," he concludes. It's certainly one of the most noble goals games can achieve.

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