"Everything is intense the first time you experience it," says Jenova Chen, the 27-year-old creative director at Santa Monica-based studio ThatGameCompany.
The first few World War II shooters Chen played floored him. We were all floored until the last Great War became such a vanilla setting for shooters. Old hat, and don't we want something new?
With games like Flower and flOW, that's exactly what Chen tries to give players: Something new. And he's giving them that via a new method for console gamers, digital distribution. Each year, video game after video game hits retailers. Few of them we remember; few of them stick with us. The rest sit on our shelves with nothing more lasting than the plastic boxes they came in.
ThatGameCompany doesn't do sex or violence. "I've played a lot of first person shooters as a child," says Chen. "I don't see the need to improve my headshot." More importantly, he doesn't see the need to make games to have other players improve their headshots — not because he's some prude, but because it's been done. A gajillion times.
"I joke that we probably have the highest per-day rate of conversations about ethics and morality when it comes to making video games," says ThatGameCompany president Kellee Santiago. "We take artistic responsibility very seriously, as we believe we owe it to players to always provide them a meaningful experience in exchange for their time and money." Something more meaningful than exploding barrels or ridiculous cleavage. Something neither black nor white, but gray.
For Chen, his earliest emotional connections to entertainment were via gaming. "My parents restricted what I watched on TV and the books I read," he recalls of his childhood in Shanghai, China. "I guess they were worried about content." Instead, his computer engineer dad got him a computer (a PC-286), figuring that it would inspire young Jenova to follow in his old man's footsteps. It instead inspired him to spend an inordinate amount of time gaming. "They thought I was studying," says Chen. "They didn't even know I was playing computer games."
Chen did follow in his father's footsteps — to a point. He got a Bachelor in Computer Science and Engineering at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 2003. But he wanted to somehow combine his computer science background with his love of art and enrolled at the University of Southern California. "When I came to America, I couldn't believe how green everything was," Chen recalls. "It was such a shock — like the first time I cried." An ocean away from dense, urban Shanghai.
"I met Jenova in 2004, when he took my seminar in critical game studies," recalls associate professor Tracy Fullerton at USC's Interactive Media Division. This was the first time USC offered the grad school study of games at academic level. The students debated and discussed game theory, and, when they were finished with that, they debated it some more.
Students were asked to keep a "design journal." "The idea was to get students to really think about the games they were playing, to analyze them in terms of their mechanics and the types of play they promoted," says Fullerton. All the students did the assignment, but Chen did more of it, turning in a hundred or so pages of analysis of the games he was playing. "It was incredible," says Fullerton, "here was this guy who was pretty quiet in class but it was clear that there was a lot going on in his head."
Everyone has ideas. Everyone has things going on in their heads. It's a matter of getting them out of your head and onto paper — or in this case, into an actual game. 2004 — one year after Jenova had come to America — was a watershed. At that year's GDC, he checked out the indie-slash-student games. "Honestly, I wasn't that impressed."
Chen put his money where his mouth was, and pitched what would become Cloud — what Chen calls "a game that's not a game" — to Game Innovation Lab at USC, which Fullerton directs. It wasn't Chen's first game, as he'd worked on a couple PC titles while an undergrad in Shanghai. This was, however, his biggest. "We would give the team $20,000, a place in the lab and faculty advisement and see if we could make something truly innovative," says Fullerton. "So we chose the idea for Cloud out a bunch of ideas – of all of them, it seemed the most intriguing and definitely risky."
Three months later, the end result was risky. Risky, elegant, beautiful and deceptively simple, where simple is not a euphemism for simplistic. The dreamlike Cloud let players fly through the sky, leaving a fluffy vapor trail behind. While Chen ended up taking an industry job under Will Wright at EA, he and his USC classmate Kellee Santiago were able to parlay Cloud into a three game deal with Sony. To date, ThatGameCompany has turned out two of those titles: fl0w and Flower.
In an industry where first-person-shooters continue to dominate, these titles stick out. They're gentle games about gentle things and are almost poetic in their lack of specific meaning. According to Chen, "The fact that we have funding from Sony to make these crazy games says something." Perhaps it says how far the industry has come — that there is a place for a unique developer like ThatGameCompany.
Sony seems to think so — well, at least at Sony. "New concepts like Flower which really go outside traditional design can sometimes be hard to communicate to consumers and even internally," says Sony Santa Monica's external product development direct Tina Kowalewski, "but at Sony we would like to think we have the foresight to take well-calculated risks which provide us content players cannot find anywhere else and production schedules which make such risks viable."
"Games need different hues of color," says Chen."Novels and films has many different genres. Games are mostly action. Most focus on primal feelings. And the industry is constantly produc[ing] Hollywood summer blockbusters." They are summer blockbusters not only in the non-stop action, but in their bloated budgets and endless sequels.
While titles like Flower clock in at a couple of hours, that does not mean they are casual. "Casual games," says Chen, "are too shallow." What they are is easy to get into. ThatGameCompany wanted to make a new, yet totally accessible experience. In Flower, for example, Chen's small team removed everything that made test-players utter the word "fuck" in frustration.
"Having a player play a sequel or grinding through to boost game play time is a crime," says the iconoclastic Chen. "And if we did a sequel, it would have to be something new. That's why it's easier just to do a totally new game." Chen and ThatGameCompany are moving on to their next challenge: a new project that they've just began. "This new game is slightly larger and more of a challenge," says Chen. "The game concept is big. It's risky." Riskier than games about clouds and flowers? "Yes."