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thatgamecompany Knows Emotion

Posted September 17, 2013 by Esteban Cuevas in Editorials

This past few days, I decided to sit down and play thatgamecompany’s three games, flOw, Flower, and Journey. I’ve had the Journey Collector’s Edition sitting on my shelf for a couple of months and just hadn’t gotten around to it. My experience with the games was zero except for flOw, which I had toyed with a little when I had first gotten the disc. Having finally finished each of the three games to completion, each in one sitting no less, I’ve come to the realization that thatgamecompany is pushing the medium of video games in an entirely different direction from everyone else in the industry.

A lot of developers in this industry want to have video games give players an experience rather than a game to play. They talk about immersion and how powerful their game is. Above all else, they talk about emotion. David Cage, who is behind titles like Heavy Rain, Indigo Prophecy and the upcoming Beyond: Two Souls, is notorious for wanting to convey emotions in video games. However, what David Cage, Ken Levine, and other developers are doing are all ostensibly the same in how the want to convey emotion: through the narrative of the story. Even many of developer Rockstar’s games, who also put an emphasis on immersing you in a time and place, use the setting for character development and situational context to further tell their story, regardless of how the other, smaller opportunities of the game disrupt the narrative.

I have nothing against wanting to tell stories, especially as a means to convey some kind of emotion, but ultimately, when you tell a story, it’s going to impact some people more than others due solely to the fact that some people, due to their own personal experiences, will be able to relate or put themselves into the character’s shoes better than others. I’ve never been a cowboy or been part of a revolution but I was able to put myself into the shoes of John Marston in Red Dead Redemption. Why? Well, as someone with a Native American mother who is of Mexican descent and lives in California, I’ve heard of cowboys and of both American and Mexican history and am able to put myself in the mindset of the situations that game puts you in. Plus, I live in a part where it looks like the Wild West never fully left.

thatgamecompany takes an entirely different approach to the games they make. The goal is essentially the same: to make you feel. However, their approach is entirely different as they focus on theme rather than narrative. None of their games have a clear cut story that you make your way through, instead having nothing more than an idea or a concept. Flower for example is a dream of a flower, Journey is just having an objective. flOw is merely to exist and survive. Flower and Journey do have a light narrative that serves just to keep things connected but by no means is it the focus. Even if you don’t understand what the story is, you won’t really lose anything as the purpose of these games are for you to understand the idea, the concept, the theme.

Lead Designer at thatgamecompany Jenova Chen once said in a developer diary for Journey that one reason why none of thatgamecompany’s games is because English is not is first language and his team is mostly English speakers. Because of this, he typically thinks of games as having to be universally understandable. It’s near impossible to do that with a game full of dialogue and facial expressions. This is why none of their games even feature human beings. Only Journey has human-like beings and they don’t have facial expressions or verbal communications. This vague presentation of the game’s ideas allows their games to transcend people’s own experiences and allow everyone to be immersed into the emotions their game’s theme is trying to communicate. It also allows for various interpretations.

It’s also important to point out that unlike other art-style games, flOw, Flower, and Journey all still feel like games. There are many art games out there that don’t feel like a video game because they lack that really feeling of interactivity. Proteus, a game that I played (and enjoyed) not that long ago, suffers from this. While it is a wonderful game, it’s hard to call that a game at all since there nothing you do interactively except for walking and looking around. thatgamecompany’s titles still have objectives. They have goals for you to accomplish and incentive created from your success to keep you wanting to continue. Whether the games are good and the incentives are enough is up to you as that becomes subjective (I think they are and does) but they avoid the pitfall of trying to convey its message but failing to make an enjoyable game.

Finally, developers may want to convey emotions in their games but what they really mean is they want to make you feel sad. Sadness is typically the most heartfelt and profound examples of emotion and when you hear some say they feel emotional, they typically mean they feel sad. Now there’s nothing wrong about wanting to convey the feeling of sadness as it’s an emotion that’s typically negative and one we try to avoid. Consequently, we also know less about this emotion than others. However, to truly feel sadness, when need something to be sad for and for that to be accomplished, we need to feel happy or angry or determined or any of the other emotions we can feel. thatgamecompany understands this so when I say their games made me emotional, I mean a bunch of them.

Flower has pleasant, dread, pensive, and pure euphoria over the course of its levels alone. flOw may be the most interesting as it makes a compelling case for rather boring emotions like interest and indifference in a simple example. In terms of the more conventional approach of making you feel sad, Journey is a wonderful example as it doesn’t just make you feel happy before you feel sad. It also makes you feel curious, in awe, inquisitive, surprised, determined, scared, shocked, exhilarated, worried, accomplished, hopeful, and goes that extra mile to make you feel devastated. If you want an emotional experience while playing a game, a TRUE emotional experience, Journey truly understands what that means and delivers in spades, more so than any other game I’ve ever played. Journey is the only game that has ever made me cry. Experiencing it a second time not only made me cry again but even more so than the first time. It wasn’t because it’s a sad ending. It was because I had a revelation of all of what I had felt as I played it, of what was possible of not only the game but of me to feel and I was overcome by that notion.

I don’t know of any company developing games today that is developing games the way thatgamecompany is. They have already accomplished what others in the industry are trying to do still. Maybe thatgamecompany don’t make fun games but they’re not trying to. They’re making enjoyable games that make you feel and succeeding. I know that flOw, Flower, and Journey are now three of the best games I’ve ever played and my Journey Collector’s Edition disc is now one of my most prized possessions. The future of the video game is uncertain. With the push towards triple A titles while that business model is actively failing, I feel worried about the state of the industry. With the rise of more enjoyable smaller titles being released, I feel excited about the games to come. With a company like thatgamecompany around, I feel hopeful for video games as an artistic medium. With all three circumstances combined, I feel intrigued of what will become of video games, good or bad, in the next generation.

About the Author

Esteban Cuevas

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