Jenova Chen

Jenova Chen

Blog | December 2014

This is the first in a series of articles dedicated to video game theory and philosophy. I have been spending quite some time listening to video game creators talking about their craft, and the best people to listen to about something are definitely the people doing it.

This week is Jenova Chen. He is the creator of titles such as Flow, Flower and Journey. His games are soulful, usually quite simple in principle, beautifully satisfying. He never uses violence or instant gratification, and his talk is inspiring to indie developers.

Emotion in video games

Mr. Chen speaks eloquently about the mono-culture of empowerment emotion in games. So what about other emotions and what is the long term consequence of a repetitive use of games that enforce the domination paradigm on other players and NPCs.

We’ve been hearing quite a bit about how cathartic this power experience and that it doesn’t affect the player making him or her become a serial killer or a sociopath. But denying the influence of that kind of repetitive emotional bound on the individual is like saying "ads don’t affect me" : of course they do. May be not in the obvious way, but they do.

The question is often how do I exploit this to make money? Ever heard indie developers so concerned with monetizing that actually making good games doesn’t figure in their business plan? Isn’t that the worst?

Of course, one can leverage emotions to turn the player into a cash cow, but how is that any different to being a con-artist?


Jenova Chen is a wise game designer, his focus is on the other player in online games, not on using him/her as a tool. Making the other player the focus of your attention.

With Journey, you don’t know who you’re playing with, you can’t talk to him, it’s about the most inner nature of humans, that you like them as long as you don"t know them.

Apparently this is what it takes to make people enjoy working together.

Looking for a narrative formula

This is interesting. Even though he’s not actually speaking about it, Jenova Chen gives a paramount importance to his narrative.

Some, if not most AAA video games, have very basic narrative. Not always a simple story - these may be pretty complex and full of characters and adventure, but those tend to reflect Hollywood standards (unlike, for example, the classical Final Fantasy VII that as become a classic mostly because of the fine detail of its narrative - most people tend to believe it’s for it’s timely ground breaking graphics, but let’s face it, you’d play it today and enjoy it as much even though graphics now look passé and so basic).

However, Hollywood narrative standards have gone the way of the dodo for quite some time, and video games are following the same trend. They throw the kitchen sink at graphic excellence and don’t take the time to understand what makes a good story. A good story is not something that sells, something that as worked in the past so will work again.

There is no formula - even though the Campbell guy with his mythological arc is probably the closer to getting somewhere - as there is no formula for doing good, soulful music.

So indie games may go and forget all about story - which in my humble opinion is the biggest mistake you could make since most of the gamer’s experience will come through feeling the avatar’s journey, thus, through storytelling, not gameplay experience - and they will focus on goofy game developer stuffs like graphics, physics and procedural generation. Beware of the technician in you, he/she tends to forget about the purpose of the game, that is: communicating with an audience and sharing in an emotion.


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