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‘Journey’ Designer Jenova Chen Wants Everyone To Be A Gamer

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‘Journey’ Designer Jenova Chen Wants Everyone To Be A Gamer

Jenova Chen's tasted the acclaim of winning awards, of seeing a game of his crowned the best of the year, and that same game leaving an incredible impression on players around the world. As the director of 2012's PlayStation 3 hit Journey - the third game from LA's thatgamecompany, which Chen co-founded in 2006 with Kellie Santiago, and since ported to other platforms - he's traveled the world, accepting accolades aplenty and regularly finding space for new trophies in his hand luggage.

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Now, it's time for something else. Something both smaller and bigger at once. A game that combines the social and exploratory elements of Journey, and its emotional resonance, with a platform that not just millions but billions of people have access to. The new game from thatgamecompany is Sky: Children of the Light, and right now, it's a mobile-only experience.

Sky: Children of the Light / Credit: thatgamecompany
Sky: Children of the Light / Credit: thatgamecompany

"Society has legitimised games as an art form, but now with mobile, we have an audience where nine out of ten people have never touched a console," the Shanghai-born Chen tells me. "There are two billion people playing smartphone games. But there's definitely a problem with the perception of mobile games. The players on mobile, their first response is often: you're just trying to squeeze more money from us.

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"Our games are positive, and artistic. They're hopefully something that will change people's lives for the better."

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"But I thought that we'd changed the perception of games already, with games like Journey. Games can be a positive influence. And people talk to me about money all the time, like I run a casino or something; not like I'm a poet, or a movie director. They look at me like I'm here to exploit people, in the mobile space. So it's important for us to make Sky with a positive influence, in this mobile space where nine out of ten people don't have experience of high-quality games. Our games are positive, and artistic. They're hopefully something that will change people's lives for the better."

Sky is free to download, on Apple devices right now but it'll come to Android very soon, with PC and console versions hopefully arriving by the middle of 2020. It bears a few similarities to Journey - you fly, for a limited time, and emit pulses, chirps, to activate objects - but features a lot more player customisation. Like Journey it's relatively risk free, although there are areas, and creatures within them, that pose minor threats.

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Sky has so far racked up over five million downloads worldwide, and expands Journey's one-to-one multiplayer design by having many players present in its world at once. But it's crucial to Chen and his team that Sky represents a safe place to play, to interact and communicate.

Journey / Credit: thatgamecompany
Journey / Credit: thatgamecompany

"I believe every virtual world has a voice, and it will influence the behaviour of the player," he says. "It's the designer's job to decide how they want to treat their society. So I see every game creator as an artist - some are using a realistic style where they're capturing the light and dark of society, like EVE Online for example. That game has backstabbing, piracy, political betrayal, all kinds of stuff. But I see thatgamecompany's style, and my own style, as more romantic.

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"We want to create a space that's very safe, that still allows you to have an emotional vulnerability with each other. I could offer you a hug in Sky, but you can just turn away. It's all about building trust, and having choice."

Hugs are just one way that players can interact in Sky. A wide range of actions, of poses, can be unlocked via a fairly traditional-feeling skill tree - from holding hands to piggyback riding - and players who want to play together can do so while feeling confident that no unwanted strangers spoil their fun.

Sky: Children of the Light / Credit: thatgamecompany
Sky: Children of the Light / Credit: thatgamecompany

"You have to level up your relationship with another player, through hugs and high-fives and things," Chen explains. "And then you can ask to text chat with them, and both of you need to consent. You can turn down their hug, their invite or whatever - just walk away. Everything needs consent."

Chen tells of families, players from different generations, coming together through Sky; of players from Japan and South Korea reaching out to each other despite the countries' fraught relationship, to enjoy some virtual hang times. He recounts a message sent to him from a 67-year-old grandma from Hawaii who downloaded Sky on something of a whim and fell for it in a big way, telling Chen that the game reawakened feelings of love within her.

"Sky is a game about creating emotional connections, at an intimate level, between people," he says. "I was mostly thinking that gamers are lonely, and they can make friends here. But I didn't really realise how lonely older people are. When I heard her story, it reinforced that in Sky, you're not judged on your age, or your gender, or your ethnicity, because all the characters in Sky appear as kids. And I designed it because I, myself, had been labelled while playing World of Warcraft - I wanted an MMO where I could be anyone, without anyone judging me."

Sky: Children of the Light / Credit: thatgamecompany
Sky: Children of the Light / Credit: thatgamecompany

More than anything else, though, Chen wants his games to evolve the medium to a place where we no longer think of a 'gamer' as we do now: somebody who enjoys the 'hardcore' titles, the action-packed shooters and super-competitive multiplayer affairs. He shows me a graph that displays movie genres preferred by men and women, and the male side - where we see action, sci-fi, horror - pretty much accounts for 99% of the games that we see coming out of the triple-A space.

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"Now, when we ask: are you a gamer? We're asking if they like the genres that are popular now. We don't ask people: are you a movie watcher? Are you a music listener?"

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"When you look at everything that men like in their movie tastes, every single genre is mirrored in console games," he says. "But where is a video game that makes you feel love? Where is the rom-com in video games? But here, in the middle of the graph: this is what I call Every Single Pixar Movie. Equally liked by men and women, and equally liked by old and young people. Every single Disney animation falls in here, and Harry Potter, too.

"There's romance in here, and comedy. There are artistic moments, human moments. These films are about drama, where there's a transformation of a person from one state to another - the switching of a job, or the breakdown of a relationship. Life to death, that's the drama of Journey. With Sky, I'm adding more fantastical things, and fun things, to appeal to younger players and get them playing with others."

Sky: Children of the Light / Credit: thatgamecompany
Sky: Children of the Light / Credit: thatgamecompany

Sky wants to mean something to everyone, to anyone, then; and to be another step for Chen towards us shaking off the current connotations regarding who is, and isn't, "a gamer".

"If gaming is the entertainment of the future, then these other areas that aren't being explored, they're huge oceans of opportunity," Chen says. "The market is there for different kinds of games. But now, when we ask: are you a gamer? We're asking if they like the genres that are popular now. We don't ask people: are you a movie watcher? Are you a music listener? That comes down to what mood you're in.

"My goal, before I retire, is to have everybody stop talking about whether you're a gamer or not. That's why Sky took a long time to get made (there are seven years between Journey and the new game), so that we could place it in this territory between games that are popular and those that aren't getting made. And if it's popular, then more people will feel comfortable stepping into the same area."

Sky is out now on iOS. More information at the game's official website.

Featured Image Credit: thatgamecompany

Topics: Interview, Indie Games

Mike Diver
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