The Chinese video game artist on emotion-centered play, collaboration beyond language, and the next generation of indie blockbusters.
In the mid 1990s, in the booming metropolis of Shanghai, a teenager named Xinghan Chen played through a pirated copy of a video game called The Legend of Sword and Fairy. Never released in the US, and still unknown to most Americans, the game quickly developed a cult following in China for its emotionally expressive narrative. Chen, whose parents hadn’t allowed him to read novels or watch movies, was especially moved. “At the time, nobody was expecting a video game would tell you a touching story, [or] would talk about sacrifice, love, all of these things,” he recalls. The game left him weeping. In the catharsis that followed, Chen began, for the first time, to ask himself fundamental questions: “Who am I? Why am I here? What is the right way of living?” He would later come to identify this as his first encounter with art.
Chen took the name Jenova during high school, from the main antagonist in the record-breaking video game Final Fantasy VII. Around that time, he also began to make his own games. After earning a degree in computer programming at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Chen moved to Los Angeles to study filmmaking in the Interactive Media Division at USC. He recalls that, upon his first encounter with the rolling hills and windmill farms of the Californian countryside, his reaction was, “Oh my God—this looks like the Windows wallpaper.”
Inspired by the films of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, he hoped that he might become an animator. But when his professors discovered that he had belonged to a game-making club as an undergraduate, they encouraged him to work on a video game. Chen set out to create “the very opposite of what [a] ‘video game’ is in the mainstream media;” the result was Cloud.
Based on Chen’s frequent childhood hospitalizations for asthma, Cloud puts the player in the role of a bedridden protagonist who daydreams about flying. The game has no scoring, no violence and no competition—just one character in a shifting expanse of ocean, islands, sky, and clouds. Within days of its release, it had gone viral. USC’s servers crashed from the traffic, taking the film school’s websites completely offline. Chen, whose greatest hope had been that the game might be accepted into a festival, was stunned by both the magnitude and the intensity of the response. “I had messages from people in Japan saying they had cried while playing,” he says. “Someone even told me I was a beautiful person for making this game. My entire life and nobody told me I was a beautiful person. So I sat back and wondered: what went right? What’s the difference between this game and the others? The only difference I could think of was that the game makes you feel differently. In that moment I realized this was my life calling.”
A desire to infuse his games with emotion has been at the core of Chen’s design process ever since. Upon graduating from USC, Chen founded a game studio, thatgamecompany, through which he has released three critically acclaimed titles: FlOw, Flower, and Journey. His games forgo instructional text and dialogue, due to his limited written English, relying instead on visual cues. It is perhaps because of this foregrounding of visual communication that Chen’s games have reached a playership that is likely unprecedented in its span of ages and nationalities.
The design for FlOw (2006), in which the player assumes the role of a microorganism adrift in an aquatic environment, was derived from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” as a state of full mental absorption within a given activity. The resulting gameplay is at once challenging for experienced gamers and accommodating for total beginners. In Flower (2009), the player becomes a gust of wind blowing petals through the air, and the simplicity of its controls (a single button and a tilting controller) has made the game accessible to children of all abilities, including those with Autism and Down’s syndrome. In Journey (2012), each player guides a robed, “singing” avatar across a desert of ruins. Journey has gained a reputation for moving players to tears, having proved particularly powerful for veterans with PTSD and for those grieving recent deaths.
Chen’s games have been exhibited in museums including MoMA, the Shanghai MoCA , and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. His name, and the titles of his works, are frequently invoked as a quick response to the question of whether video games can be considered art.
—Matthew Baker for Guernica
Guernica: You grew up in Shanghai. What was your home like?
Jenova Chen: It’s an apartment. It’s a very small space—kind of like Tokyo, if you can imagine. I was on the seventh floor, and outside my room was a concrete jungle of buildings. They are all very tall skyscrapers. There’s only one small room and one big room, and there are books everywhere. There are so many books that they have to go below my bed. Below my bed is solid, just all books.
Guernica: But you weren’t allowed to read novels.
Jenova Chen: Right. Because of the one-child policy in China. There’s a new book coming out called One Child, written by a friend of mine who’s a Pulitzer Prize winner [Mei Fong]. She did extensive interviews about these people who grew up in China who benefited and suffered from the one-child policy. Like many other developing countries, we don’t have very strong retirement arrangements. There’s no 401k or IRA or anything. So your children are your retirement plan. Because of that, all parents want their children, their only children, to do really well financially, so that they can essentially take care of their parents when they are older.
The benefit of it is gender equality, because if you only have a girl, the girl has to be, you know, “the man,” who is going to take care of everybody. As a guy, you also have to be super competitive. You want to go to the best school, take the best paid job. That’s why you get the whole Asian “lawyer, doctor, engineer” stigma.
So when parents want you to do really well academically, they want to avoid you getting into anything that would distract you—you know, rock and roll music, or really serious, long novels that you get so absorbed in, you forget to study.
Guernica: You’ve said your father put a lot of pressure on you to succeed. Was your mother similarly demanding?
Jenova Chen: My mother is more of a quiet type. She mostly kept an eye out to make sure I had food and I got my medicine. She was the one taking me to hospital a lot. My dad is mostly the one who demands academic excellence. But I’m pretty sure she’s the true master behind everything.
They didn’t even allow us to play mahjong, because it was too addictive.
Guernica: I know your parents didn’t play video games, but did they play tabletop games with you?
Jenova Chen: They didn’t even allow us to play mahjong, because it was too addictive. So we could only use mahjong [tiles] to pile up as bricks. We could make a watchtower out of mahjong—we just couldn’t play mahjong.
Guernica: Still, though, in 1995, your father bought you a computer, which was a huge investment back then. And you’ve said that, thanks to pirating, you became the “guru of gaming.” How did you purchase these pirated games?
Jenova Chen: There’s this Shanghai exhibition hall—it was built by the Russians, so it’s really Soviet—it’s this huge exhibition place, like a convention center. People would go there. They would trade stuff. We were kids, so we would just go around [asking], “Hey, can I copy this game?” I had a lot of disks, but back then, disks went bad really easily. You would go there, make a copy, come back home, and one of the disks would be broken, so you would have to go back again.
Installing them was almost like voodoo. Back then, graphic cards had all kinds of requirements. We didn’t necessarily have the latest graphic card and latest software. I mean, RAM was a big problem. So a lot of time I went in there just to wrangle the computer to get the game installed and make it play. You kind of have to become a tinkerer.
Guernica: You mentioned once that the first video game you ever made, which you had to store on a floppy disk, was accidentally destroyed. What type of game was it?
Jenova Chen: Some kind of strategy game. We’d been playing Japanese-made strategy games, like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which actually happens in China, but clearly they got the map wrong, and a lot of the city names are not accurate. So we were like, “Well, let’s make a real one, based on what we know about China.” We were a small class of kids learning how to program, so we said, “All right, let’s divide up—you work on this, I’ll work on that.” And back then we were still using BASIC; JPEG hadn’t been invented yet. There were only green dots—there was no color on the monitor—so we had to come up with our own way to draw the map of China. I was just coding, basically, lines and lines. I typed in the coordinates for every single line myself. I spent multiple weekends working on it. And then when I went to school to bring my huge map of China, my disk got scratched, so all my work was gone. My first experience of making games was, “All of my work is gone.”
Guernica: You must have been crushed.
Jenova Chen: Yeah. There’s no recovery. As a kid I was like, “Fine, I’m done with making games.”
Guernica: The video game as a medium is still very young, not even sixty years old. Which mediums did early video games imitate?
Jenova Chen: First, sports. You know, table games, or pinball machines. Poker, ping-pong, racing. The early stuff was all sports, because early video games just didn’t have the visual fidelity for people to even think about cinema. But ever since we entered the console [era], it’s been mostly cinema.
Guernica: Do you think this reliance on techniques taken from sports and film has limited video games in any way?
Jenova Chen: Well, we have to start somewhere, right? People didn’t quite figure out cinema until forty years in, when they figured out, hey, you know what, let’s put some sound in there. And then there was a huge expansion of its audience. Before sound, cinema was more of a geeky thing. And also cinematography and editing were not really there until Citizen Kane, when people realized you could shoot something that’s not necessarily in the real world. So, I would say, video games are still in the silent film era. My professor used to say, “The equivalent of sound for video games [will be] for a video game to understand anything that you’re saying.” Siri is not quite there yet, but if you can have a conversation with a video game, regardless of what you say, that would be a huge difference.
Right now we’re still using our thumbs and fingers. That’s just a few buttons to press. Maybe some of them have pressure sensitivity, but the amount of data we’re squeezing into a controller is so small that there’s no real, meaningful conversation we can really have with the system. In the future, when we can talk to video games, that’s when games will get scary.
Guernica: How would you compare the gaming cultures in China and the US?
Jenova Chen: The biggest difference is, there was no console game in China. Consoles were banned by the government because they considered Western imports a potential capitalist corruption. So the only games allowed in China are PC games. That’s why Blizzard is particularly huge in China; because really high-quality PC games only come from a handful of companies. Most good games are from console companies, and China has no exposure to them.
Guernica: Michaël Samyn, co-founder of indie game studio Tale of Tales, has said, “When there’s a game out there for every single person on the planet looking to be entertained, the medium will be mature. I believe that the major thing standing in the way of this happening is what many consider to be the core of the medium: the high priority put on gameplay and fun.” You’ve hinted at this as well in the past. Early versions of Flower made a conscious effort to be “fun,” which you’ve said resulted in a blunted emotional impact. And many of your games are cited as examples of art—The Endless Forest, Dear Esther, Dys4ia, Elegy for a Dead World—arguably aren’t games at all. Does the medium need a new name?
Jenova Chen: In the early 2000s, people were talking about changing the name to “interactive media.” That’s when we were trying to push video games as art and didn’t like [the term] “game.” But it seems like that’s no longer the trend. Also, back then, the audience was so small. The majority of the population didn’t have access to games, so their impression of games was purely [from] billboards: Grand Theft Auto, those AAA games [big-budget blockbusters]. Back then we were saying, “If we don’t change that impression, the audience will never have interest in trying anything.”
That’s why we tried so hard to put video games in the gallery and into museums. And we didn’t brand them as “games,” we branded them as “interactive experiences,” just to get the audience to [see] it’s not just about violence and action. But with Facebook and mobile phones, we don’t worry about that anymore, because everybody is playing games now. It’s not really about whether they are interested in games or not. It’s more like, now they are all playing games, can we provide a different type of game?
Guernica: When you released Flower, you described the game as “an interactive poem exploring the tension between urban bustle and natural serenity.” You weren’t allowed to read novels as a child, but were you allowed to read poetry?
Jenova Chen: We do have to learn poetry at school. Poetry is interesting to me, particularly Chinese poetry. It’s like an ancient form of song. There’s five sentences, seven sentences—they’re very different from English poetry. Chinese poetry is much more rigorous. You can only use this many words, and they will form some kind of rhythm so people can actually sing it. To me, poetry is quite abstract but also quite beautiful.
Games have bosses, games have scores, games have level-ups. That’s how people defined games in the early 2000s. And then comes Flower.
Guernica: Do you read poetry now?
Jenova Chen: I don’t read poetry anymore because I don’t read Chinese anymore. And honestly, I can’t understand English poetry. Because I am not an English speaker, when I read it I never know how to read it in the right rhythm. I also don’t think you guys are trying to make it like a song. So I don’t read poetry. I mostly watch. I watch documentary movies and play games. Even these days, when I want to learn something, I prefer a video documentary to just a text. I feel like I learn more from the combination of sound and visuals.
But then why do I call Flower poetry? Because it’s really hard to describe what it is. It’s not a pure game. Games have bosses, games have scores, games have level-ups. That’s how people defined games in the early 2000s. And then comes Flower. Well, what is the goal there? It’s hard to say. It’s this very abstract idea of the dreams of flowers. What is the game about? There’s not much of a story; there’s not a main character; there’s nothing. What are the game levels? It’s all very hard to describe. But there are seven verses; there are seven levels; each one is about a particular mood. The moods do not even make sense as a narrative plot, they are just simply about a feeling—the rising and falling of emotion—but together there seems to be something that is communicated. But it’s so vague that different people take different things out of it. That’s very much like poetry.
Guernica: Your games include no text, which wouldn’t be that unusual for a puzzle game like Tetris, but for games like yours, which are intended to have a significant emotional effect on the player, it seems like a risky choice. I’m thinking specifically of your most recent game, Journey, which tells a story on an epic scale, and was designed to be a “social game.” How were you able to conceive of a “social game” without language?
Jenova Chen: That’s because of cinema. I went to film school and did screenwriting. As you know, early cinema doesn’t require any words—particularly silent films. You can tell a lot just by watching. I mean, [with] video games, they put “video” in front of the “game.” They didn’t say “games;” they called them “video games.” So to me, video is a huge component. It’s more about what you see and what you hear than other elements.
In cinema we have all kinds of ways [of communicating]: cinematography, lighting, character performance. If you pay attention to silent era movie actors, they are big about postures and really exaggerated expressions so you can understand how they feel. We use all kinds of techniques from cinema to help communicate emotion. Storytelling is essentially a linear emotional arrangement that evokes certain strong feelings.
Guernica: You’ve said, “I think words complicate things. Our vocabulary is limited. There are words that exist in one language and not in another language. It creates barriers that keep us from understanding each other. I’m often frustrated using words to talk to people.” So in a sense, you’re saying that words can actually prevent social connection.
Jenova Chen: And when you want to use words, it’s also very hard. Like [when] we want to find a tag line for a game, and it takes us weeks and months just to choose the right word in one of the sentences. That’s just very low efficiency, for me. Maybe I just lack vocabulary, so I can’t find the most accurate way to express the words. It’s much easier to just describe [things] through visuals and audio instead.
Guernica: Journey’s visuals, like Ico’s, were partly inspired by the work of surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico. How often do you visit a museum or a gallery looking for inspiration?
Jenova Chen: I spent my college [years] going to galleries and museums every weekend. Because I was forced to study computer science as my major, which I started learning at ten years old, I was really fed up with computers. I liked art, which was much more interesting, but I didn’t have formal art training like most artists. They would start systematically training and drawing and sketching when they were very young. The only way I could train was just by doodling. But I had no mentor. I was interested in art, so I went to all the art classes I could find in the school, but my school was an engineering school, so I ended up going to a different college to audit art classes.
I love galleries, I love art, so I would go to one gallery at a time. And Shanghai was a big city, so every week there were new galleries.
To me, “indie” is this romantic kind of idealism. We don’t know if this is going to work commercially but we really want to see it, because nobody has seen this before.
Guernica: Narrative doesn’t seem to be your focus when designing a new game. As you’ve described elsewhere, instead of starting with an idea for a story, you decide what you want to make the player feel, and then you set out to find an experience that can deliver that feeling. But because video games have historically explored such a narrow range of emotions, you’ve also said that this development process can be particularly difficult. As a result, thatgamecompany spent as much time building prototypes for Flower and Journey as it did building the actual games. Is it common for indie game developers to have to make so many prototypes?
Jenova Chen: Yeah, I would say so, because we are trying to do something new. And that’s what I consider indie. To me, “indie” is this romantic kind of idealism. We don’t know if this is going to work commercially but we really want to see it, because nobody has seen this before. There’s this kind of frontier feeling. We explore the boundary of the medium. It’s a very risky place. Some people just—they never make it. Their game doesn’t stick. Many people dive into this field not for money but purely for the love of the medium.
But today the world has changed. So many people come in here making clones of Minecraft games. Another DayZ, another Five Nights at Freddy’s. They’re indie, because they’re alone, or they’re students, but they’re not pushing the medium. They’re just here to make money.
Guernica: For you, what’s the distinction between a game that is art and a game that is not?
Jenova Chen: I think “artistic” simply means there’s more of the creator in the thing. Whether it’s painting or song or movie or game, the creator puts more of themselves into the piece, so when the audience see it, they feel something real, they feel something human, they feel something that’s like a person. I think a lot of the big games, they’re formulated, they’re manufactured, so the individuals who actually made them do not get a chance to put too much of themselves into the games. And I think it’s very important to have the human elements in the piece. I was talking to someone who sponsors a lot of the very well-financed artistic movies today, and she was saying [that] when she was young, she was very lonely. She was an introvert. She didn’t feel she belonged to this world. She couldn’t fit anywhere. But it was the art, the books, the movies she saw, that made her feel she was not alone. I think it was the human elements of this art that reached her.
So to me, art is essentially a way to make people connect with other human beings. In many ways, art is the better part of the artist who created it, because every human is flawed. But when they create something, they put the best part of their humanity into it. And so when the audience touches the piece, they feel hope, they feel something positive, something human.
I still hope that more people can create art, even though artistic genres may never be the most popular or money-making genres. But the thing is, I think art is more long-lasting. It stays in people, and it changes them.
Guernica: I’m curious about whether there’s a sense of unity among game companies. The video game industry seems to be having a moment similar to what American comics experienced in the 1960s and 1970s, when the underground comix scene began to challenge the superhero status quo of DC and Marvel. Collaborations were common, and everybody knew everybody: Robert Crumb hung out with Harvey Pekar; Justin Green and Art Spiegelman were roommates; Gilbert Shelton and Jim Franklin were co-workers. Is there a similar sense of community in the world of indie video games today?
Jenova Chen: That’s essentially the era from 2003 to 2013. That ten years was exactly [as you describe]. The indie game developers were united and challenging the big studios. Because the barrier to entry for making video games was very high, there were only a handful of developers around the world who were doing indies. Back then, I could name everybody just with my two hands. Everybody knew everybody because there were only [so] many venues.
Today, the era has changed. Everybody is indie now. Everybody making a random stupid mobile app is essentially indie, because they make it at home; they make it through Unity, and there are so many of them. We don’t recognize everybody anymore.
Guernica: You’ve talked before about how competitive you are, and how as a game designer you’ve been driven in part by a desire to win in the video game industry. Having established yourself as one of the premier auteurs of the medium, you’ve essentially already won. What are you competing against now? Is there a final boss?
Jenova Chen: After we made our games, I did a lot of speeches, and I ran into a lot of students who would come to me, whether it was in China or Europe or America, saying, “Hey, we really like the type of games you made—are you guys hiring?” “Hey, we want to do games like yours, but nobody’s willing to fund us. We want to join a big company to work on these artistic games, but most of the companies are focusing on making money.” Many of the trending gaming companies are mobile and social. So when [students] are hired, they’re not hired for emotion, they’re hired to design very addictive mechanisms. A lot of them are very unhappy working for these companies. But the economics do not allow them to fund their own studios.
I feel somewhat responsible for these people, because if we hadn’t made these games, they probably wouldn’t be thinking about making artistic games. They probably wouldn’t be frustrated with the fact that they can’t make it today. I am trying to do something to solve this problem. I feel like we need to create a commercial success [with] artistic content. When people see success, particularly investors, they are much more willing to invest in artistic projects. Unfortunately, right now, most of the money-making games are casinos, free-to-play games. And that’s what the money people want to invest in. Nobody wants to invest in highly emotional, artistic, inspiring games. So what we are trying to do is to [make] a commercial case for something very artistic. Pixar is probably the best example I can think of. After Pixar’s first success, there’s DreamWorks, there’s Sony, there’s Blue Sky, there’s everybody—the whole industry sprouted after the success of the Toy Story.
Guernica: So the final “boss” is to prove that an artistic game can be a blockbuster hit?
Jenova Chen: Yeah. Back then the problem was, “Can video games be art?” And we’ve been working on that. And then people saw they could be emotional, they could be moving, and a lot of people wanted to make artistic games. But they couldn’t, because there’s not enough funding, either from big publishers or from the private sector. What I want to try to prove is that artistic games, when done properly, can still be a commercial success. By doing that, I will be able to essentially shift the industry and create more opportunity for people to create artistic games. In a way, making money is important for us right now. Not because we need it, but because the industry needs it.
To contact Guernica or Matthew Baker, please write here.