Jenova Chen Interview: Journey, The Origin Of His Name, Fortune Cookies, and His Next Project
When Jenova Chen, the creator of Cloud, Flow, Flower, and Journey, agreed to sit down with me and talk about his success with Journey, how thatgamecompany is doing now, and where they look to be going in the future, I was ecstatic. Jenova Chen, while only 30, is known quite well within the video game industry for his games pushing the envelope on what is considered art. In the following interview, Jenova discussed with me how the video game industry is similar to the food industry, his first encounter with a fortune cookie, and when we should be hearing about the next big title from thatgamecompany. This is definitely an interview you don’t want to miss.
Jordan Bayes of Trendy Gamers (@TrendyGamers): Let’s start with Journey; it has been a big critical success obviously and has received nearly all wonderful reviews. On top of this, Journey is now to fastest selling title in PSN history. What is it about Journey that has resonated so well with so many people?
Jenova Chen (@JenovaChen) of thatgamecompany (@thatgamecompany): Well, this is something new that people haven’t seen so there is this sort of viral factor like “You need to check this out because you have never seen something like this.” But when we were working on Journey, we always thought it would be well received because when we design games we look around at what other players are playing every day. So we look around at online console games and it is very much about competition… People have very negative assumptions about each other. When you’re playing an online game you feel like everybody is a jerk.
So to me I feel like, emotionally, it is very much like this entertainment industry but it is kind of like the food industry. If you eat too much meat, it’s not healthy. You need some vegetables and vitamins. So when we looked at online games we saw that there is a lot of competition already, can we create an online game where people actually like each other or feel better about being with another human being? And we believe that this is a feeling that by human nature we need so if we create this, people will like it. People should like it!
JB: To me, Journey seems like a very spiritual game. It seemed like the journey itself was very spiritual to the character in the game and was wondering was it Journey that made you spiritual or did you make Journey spiritual?
Jenova: When we were evaluating the emotions in gaming, we realized that most of the games are about empowerment. Mankind is empowered by technology. We can fly really fast, we can go up into the clouds, we can talk to anyone anywhere, and we all have these portable devices that pretty much hold all human knowledge and history… Having all of this power, I find that I am lacking this sense of wonder, this sense of awe. Life is very much occupied with tasks, quests that I have to do like on your calendar. Everybody is so busy. That feeling is the basis of a spiritual experience. You feel small; you do feel a lack of understanding.
So before I was working on Journey, six years ago I happened to run into an astronaut who told me surprisingly, everyone that went to the moon in their astronaut group came back very spiritual… So when we were working on Journey, we wanted players to look at each other, rather than their task list or their map. We wanted to give them a feeling of awe. And we don’t want to explain it because we want it to be a real adventure. An adventure is about going to a place you don’t understand… We wanted the player to be a real adventurer. There’s no jobs, no explanation, so one day when they meet another adventurer, it will be interesting talking to them.
JB: To me, the soundtrack in Journey is an absolute triumph. I purchased it myself on iTunes and saw that it is doing fantastic on the charts in Japan. Was it hard making the soundtrack such an integral part of the game and so powerful for the player?
Jenova: Umm….Yes. Austin Wintory and I sat down right after Flower was over and I was describing this game three years ago. And imagine in this three years, all the music has to go through multiple iterations. You know, even like the very ending music was like four, or five, or six iterations.
Yeah it is very hard because, Austin knows, this isn’t a typical game with a typical story. It’s a game based on the hero’s journey… from Joseph Campbell. It’s a story of all stories so he… needs to create something really sublime and it took him over three years to reach that place with the final music. So it’s definitely the hardest thing.
JB: Which way do you prefer to play Journey, alone, or with a second player?
Jenova: I think I probably prefer it by myself because it’s more of a reflection as you play. You think about your life. When you have another player, depending on your experience, I am always thinking “Oh, I have to show him this place.” It becomes less of a reflection and more of a tour guide.
But just today I got an email from someone that played Journey who happened to miss his father’s last phone call and has always been in pain because he missed that before he passed away. He was playing Journey and there was this white character leading and taking care of him along the way and making him feel like a fatherly figure. After the person left, he felt like it was a reflection of his life. Surprisingly though, at the end they reunited and he felt the game helped him to pass on from the grief. So it is very much dependant on what you bring to the game as an experience.
JB: Do you ever have to worry about the costs of the games you make? Like are there ever parts of your games that you end up having to cut that you wish you wouldn’t have?
Jenova: Hmm… I wish that we could have cut the orchestral recording because it is very expensive (Laughs). But you know that part of the budget is controlled by Sony, so if they want to do it and people love it, then I guess it works well. But yeah, we had to cut the multiplayer from four player to two player so that is a big cut.
JB: What was the first game that you played that made you realize that games like Cloud, Flow, Flower, and Journey were possible from an artistic perspective?
Jenova: I think it is because of Cloud. When I was working on Cloud it was a university gaming innovation grant. You know, originally I was pitching this game Cloud as a game where you are the alien from Jupiter… and you have all this high tech technology to manipulate weather and cause hazards. So my professor said “Why don’t you change this character from an alien to a boy? What would happen?””
So we kind of just go with it and actually moved a lot of people. That was the moment where I actually realized, it’s not a better made game technology wise, but it gives a better feeling, and a lot of people liked that. Because that was the game that gave me the inspiration that we could innovate gaming based on feeling rather than technology.
JB: So far, all of your games have come from the downloadable space. Now that Journey is finished, would you be interested in exploring retail titles?
Jenova: Well, I don’t know if you heard, but in UK, the Gamestop there is doing really badly these days. The retail market is shrinking every year. What I believe is that the digital download market is growing every year. So you want to be in the market that is growing. Otherwise your business will be really sad (Laughs).
JB: Recently your three game deal with Sony has ended and I was wondering if you would be interested in expanding your audience to Xbox Live or Steam in the future?
Jenova: We make a very specific type of game. We want to give these games to more and more people. In order to do that, we have to find these platforms that allow us to expand the reach of our products, so cross platform is definitely what we are thinking about right now.
JB: Would you ever consider bringing your games to handhelds like the Vita?
Jenova: In the past I used to think that was impossible you know, because a big screen experience is very different from a small screen experience. But with these handheld devices getting higher and higher resolution and faster and faster graphics…that is definitely worth looking into.
JB: Recently Kellee Santiago, a co-founder of thatgamecompany left. I was wondering, as a co-founder yourself, do you plan to stay at thatgamecompany forever or do you ever plan to move on to something different?
Jenova: Well you know, as the other half of the creator of the company, the company is pretty much my whole identity. I feel like I don’t have to go somewhere else. Basically tgc (thatgamecompany) has four major owners, Kellee, me, our lead engineer John Edwards, and our lead designer Nick Clark. Kellee leaving is a big loss for us, but we still have 75% of tgc here. So it is still the developer that made these games.
JB: Do you have a clear vision yet about where you want your next game to go, whenever that might come out?
Jenova: Journey is our first step to make a game that makes the player want to socialize… If there is a direction that we want to move onto more, it is to see if we can bring people closer in our next game. Make people feel more connected and attached to each other.
JB: Are there any games coming out in the foreseeable future that you find interesting from an artistic point of view?
Jenova: Well there are games I am expecting to play like Diablo 3 or whatever Blizzard is making for their next MMO. In terms of artistic point of view, that is hard to say. Because you don’t know it is artistic until you play it. There are guys that will say “I want to make a game about this and that” but that doesn’t really speak much to me. I am somewhat interested in this little game this indie developer is making right now called The Storyteller.
Of course, I guess I am interested in Jonathan Blows next game. I know that there is something there that is going to completely blow my mind away but I don’t know what that is so I’m curious.
JB: I’m curious about your name. I know why you changed your name but I was wondering why you chose Jenova as opposed to anyone else in Final Fantasy VII?
Jenova: So in China, our English education was somewhat behind in my generation. Now kids learn English when they are really young. So we were taking English class in high school and the teacher wanted us to create an English name. At the time I happened to be playing Final Fantasy VII with my friend, and he is a big Final Fantasy VII fan so he pretty much called himself Cloud the whole time.
So I can’t call myself Cloud as well so I thought about calling myself something better than Cloud. There is Sephiroth but I didn’t even know how to pronounce it, it is just too fucking long. So I thought, well technically both Cloud and Sephiroth are made up of Jenova cells, so Jenova is way more powerful than any of those characters. So I chose that name so I could show my classmates how my name was so much more awesome.
I started using that name on emails and on Steam but wasn’t using it as a name. So I came to the States and had my Chinese pride and wanted to use my Chinese name. My Chinese name means the Milky Way, the silver star river, which is super cool but the problem is that it is very hard to pronounce and nobody remembers it. So every time I went to class I had to correct my professor and the class was very small with only six students… After a whole semester, after he gave me an A in the class, he still couldn’t call my name correctly. That was when I gave up. I would find something easier to pronounce and remember.
My last name, Chen, is one of the biggest names in China. There are millions and millions of Chens. So I didn’t want to be called Jackie Chen, that name is already taken. So I thought, I’ll use Jenova, nobody in this world is named Jenova. So I thought, it’s meant to be.
JB: Since this is almost completely off topic at this point, I promised a friend I would ask, what is your favorite kind of cookie?
Jenova: Hold on… Cookie? (takes long deep breath and gathers thoughts) You know, I really hate sweet stuff. Like, whenever I’m offered a cookie I always choose to not eat them. But I did eat a fortune cookie, which is also an American invention. The first three fortune cookies I ate I actually swallowed the fortune that was in them. So when I had the fourth I was like, what is this?
JB: To wrap this up, is there any sort of timeline that fans could look forward to hearing about what you will be doing next?
Jenova: Hopefully it will be a couple of months.
JB: Alright, that is about all I have for you today. Thanks a lot for talking with me!
Jenova: Yeah, thanks for talking with me. I will see you later then.