Develop ’09: Thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen urges for ‘emotional gaming’
In a wide ranging talk at the Develop Conference today that looked at the founding of his company and the making of its games flOw and Flower, thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen devoted some time to rant about a topic close to his heart.
Namely, that games just aren’t trying hard enough to emotionally engage with players and that their content aren’t mature enough.
Thatgamecompany’s PlayStation Network games have been widely praised for their short, subtle and emotive content.
Despite being a gamer all his life - and a games development student no less - Chen said that the content of these games came about from his eventual dissatisfaction with mainstream games.
“I never see that sense of thrill any more in today’s games,” he said.
“Yes, today’s games are more real and satisfying but the underlining mechanics are no different from toys. But the human brain likes information – it’s like a sponge that sucks up information and wants more all the time.”
He pointed out that big budget video games are still fundamentally the same after 20 years of iteration – and the peril of this is that they can be written off as toys, even though they are enjoyed by millions of adults.
“Other pursuits are enjoyed by adults and not viewed as toys,” he said, pointing to sports which are like games ‘fundamentally abstract when players run around a field’ but garner respect.
“As grown up gamer I don’t want to see the games I have been playing with loved turn into toys. I think games need to have more mature content – but not like [Dead of Alive] or [Manhunt], but more sophisticated works.”
Chen pointed to children’s book The Little Prince as a great example of a literary work that operates on multiple levels and is enjoyed by children and adults alike – and said games should attempt to do the same thing.
“Games should make the player think and touch the gamer’s emotion. Gameplay needs to be like any other medium – it has to evoke all kinds of responses. Otherwise our industry will flatline.”
He said emotional content is still ‘a new frontier’ for video games, and that this created a ripe opportunity. Provided game developers try not to stick to what they know – he pointed out that broad genres like ‘action’ and ‘simulation’ are just specific human feelings like ‘empowerment’ and ‘immersion’.
“It shouldn’t be about one feeling – like excitement or happiness. Humans have a range of emotions, and life is stressful.” Games should reflect that, said Chen.
Chen’s experience showed that developers should be willing to cut content and features to make this work, he said.
At one point in its production, Flower included mechanics like spells – after Sony said the game needed more depth – yet play testers were only shouting out expletives or cheering when they succeeded. These base emotions weren’t what the team were trying to convey, so despite purportedly ‘making the game more fun’, Chen had the features cut out.
“Those emotions just derailed the experience – I didn’t want to make a game where people just play and shout out ‘yes!’ all the time.”
Thatgamecompany also cut out all the work done by a screenwriter to give Flower’s story more content and context to retain the purity of their original concept, which addresses the interplay between nature and industrialisation. Instead of relying on script structure to generate emotions, the team relied on the ordering of the levels to achieve this.
Chen said that game developers can do this by looking to contemporary themes when he argued that the industry should approach creating games from the perspective that they are art.
“Most people in the games industry are jaded with this argument about games being art,” he admitted. “But it is important. I’m not an artist, I’m a computer science guy, and as game designer I think art is a component that is necessary,” he said.
Referencing Van Gogh, Tolkien and Alan Moore, he said: “Look at the greatest artists and their works, they reflect the time and the world around them at the time.”