The Guru Of Gaming:
An Interview With Jenova Chen
In the mid 1990’s, 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 United States and still unknown to most Americans, The Legend of Sword and Fairy had quickly developed a cult following in China. “At the time nobody was expecting a video game would tell you a touching story… would talk about sacrifice, love, all of these things.” Chen, whose parents didn’t allow him to read novels or watch movies, was particularly vulnerable. He had never experienced such a powerful story. The end of the game left him weeping, and in the sense of catharsis that followed, he began to ask questions he had never asked before: “Who am I? Why am I here? Why am I living? What is the right way of living?” He would later come to identify the game as his first encounter with art.
Chen chose his English name, Jenova, for English class in high school, taking the name from the main antagonist of Final Fantasy VII, a game treated with the same reverence in the United States as The Legend of Sword and Fairy in China. He began to make his own games around that time as well. Yet as central as video games were to his life at that age, he was raised by parents who had taught him that “a game is nothing serious.” He never considered video games a legitimate career option.
After earning a degree in computer programming at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, at a loss what to do with his life, Chen moved to Los Angeles to study filmmaking in the Interactive Media Division at USC. (An anecdote that speaks to how deeply he was immersed in the world of computers: Chen had spent all of his life in urban settings before coming to California, and on his first drive through the countryside, seeing the beauty of the rolling hills and the windmill farms, his first thought was, “Oh my god—this looks like the Windows wallpaper.”) Inspired by the films of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, Chen hoped that he might become an animator. But when his professors discovered he had belonged to a game-making club as an undergrad, his professors encouraged him to make a video game instead of a film. Chen decided to create a game that would be “the very opposite of what ‘video game’ is in the mainstream media.” The result was Cloud. Based on Chen’s childhood hospitalizations for asthma, Cloud puts the player in the role of a child in a hospital daydreaming about flying. The game has no scores, no violence, no competition, and no stress—just a child soaring through 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 simply that the game might be accepted to a festival, was stunned by the response. “I had messages from people in Japan saying they had cried while playing. 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 realised this was my life calling.”
That principle, of designing games meant to provoke a specific emotional response from the player, has been at the core of all of his work since. Upon graduating from USC, Chen founded a game studio, thatgamecompany, and has since released three critically acclaimed titles: Flow, Flower, and Journey. Because he has difficulties with written English, there is no text in his games—no dialogue, no captions—and yet despite of or perhaps partly because of this reliance on visual communication, his games have reached an unusually wide audience for the medium, with a playership that spans all ages. Flow, in which the player takes the role of a microorganism adrift in an aquatic environment, features a design based on the principles of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, resulting in gameplay that can both challenge experienced gamers and accommodate total beginners; in Flower, the player takes the role of a gust of wind blowing flower petals through the air, and the simplicity of the controls—a single button and a tilting controller—has made the game accessible to children with autism and Down syndrome; while in Journey, a game with a reputation for moving players to tears, the player takes the role of a robed figure in a desert landscape, embarking on a pilgrimage that has proven particularly powerful for veterans with PTSD and players grieving recent deaths. The games have been exhibited in museums including the MoMA in Manhattan, the MoCA in Shanghai, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the titles of the games are often invoked as a three-word answer to the question of whether video games are art. Yet Chen is currently at work on a game that he believes may revolutionize the video game industry on a scale unlike anything he’s done before.
Chen and I spoke over our computers on a fall morning. In Michigan, out the windows over my desk, snow was falling; in Los Angeles the weather was humid and sunny. Chen was still in bed, and throughout our conversation was cordial, alert, and quick to laugh.
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Interviewer: The video game is still very young, not even sixty years old. As Scott McCloud has observed, “Each new medium begins its life by imitating its predecessors. Many early movies were like filmed stage plays; much early television was like radio with pictures or reduced movies.” Which mediums would you say that early video games have imitated?
Chen: First… sports. You know, table games, or pinball machines. Poker, ping-pong, racing. [laughs] Early stuff was all sports, because early video games just don’t have that visual fidelity for people to even think about cinema. But ever since we enter console [era], that’s been mostly cinema.
Interviewer: So sports and film. Which perhaps we could have predicted from the beginning, considering that this is a medium whose progenitors were Tennis for Two and Spacewar! Do you think this tendency to imitate techniques found in sports and film has limited video games to any extent?
Chen: Well, we have to start somewhere, right? People haven’t quite figured out cinema until forty years in, when they figured out, hey, you know what, let’s put some sound in there… [laughs] And then there’s a huge expansion in its audience. Before sound, cinema is more of a geeky thing. And also cinematography and the editing was not really there until Citizen Kane, when people realized you can shoot something that’s not necessarily in the real world. So I would say, video games… we’re still at the silent film era. My professor used to say, “The equivalent of sound for video games is not just to get sound there, but the fact that a video game can understand anything that you’re saying.” Siri is still not quite there yet. But if you can have a conversation with a video game, regardless what you say, that could be a huge difference.
Right now we’re still just using our thumbs and fingers. Think about the fidelity of our input. 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 get scary.
Interviewer: You grew up in Shanghai. What was your home like?
Chen: It’s an apartment, it’s very small, there’s only one small room and one big room… and there’s books everywhere. There’s so many books that it has to go below my bed. Below my bed is solid, just all books. 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.
Interviewer: But you weren’t allowed to read novels.
Chen: Right. Because 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. And one of the big things is, when you’re the only child, you know, like many other developing countries, we don’t have very strong retirement arrangement. There’s no 401k or IRA or anything. So the children is 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 yeah, when they 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 got so absorbed you forgot to study. I mean, anything that could potentially get kids addicted, they don’t want us to do.
Interviewer: So you weren’t allowed to read novels, but you had to sleep on top of all of these books.
Chen: [Laughs] Right.
Interviewer: You’ve described your father as a “typical Chinese scholar” who put a lot of pressure on you to succeed. What was your mother like?
Chen: My mother is more of a quiet type. She’s mostly keeping an eye to make sure I have food and I get my medicines. 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. [laughs]
Interviewer: I know your parents didn’t play video games, but did you play tabletop games with your parents?
Chen: They don’t even allow us to play mahjong, because it’s too addictive. So we can only use mahjong to pile up as bricks. We can make a watchtower out of mahjong… We just can’t play mahjong.
Interviewer: I’m fascinated that your parents were afraid that novels would be addictive and yet still allowed you to play video games; that seems like the opposite of parenting norms in the United States, where novels are typically considered to have an educational quality, while video games are often viewed with suspicion, as a corrupting influence, or at the very least a waste of time. But in 1995 your father bought you a computer, which was a huge investment back then. And you’ve said that thanks to pirating, you played “more games than anyone on Earth then ever,” that you became the “guru of gaming.” Where was this computer market that you went to pirate games?
Chen: There’s this Shanghai exhibition hall. It was built by the Russians, so it’s really Soviet. Imagine Moscow, you see those crazy… I guess they’re not mosques but they kind of look like mosques? It’s this huge exhibition place, you know, like a convention center. So people would go there; they would trade stuff. We’re kids, so we just go around [asking], “Hey, can I copy this game?” The price was, I had a lot of disks, but back then disks go bad really easily. So you often go there, you make a copy, and come back home, and one of the disks is broken. So you had to go back again…
And yeah, because I have access to computer games way earlier than other kids, I play a lot of stuff. And they are all in English, and I don’t speak English, so I play these games just haphazardly, but I played a lot of them.
Interviewer: Sounds like hard work, having to go back and forth and make all of those copies.
Chen: Right. And installing them was almost like voodoo. Back then, graphic cards have all kinds of requirements. We don’t necessarily have the latest graphic card and latest software. I mean, RAM was a big problem. [laughs] 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.
Interviewer: 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?
Chen: Some kind of strategy game. We’d been playing Japanese-made strategy games, like [Romance of ] the Three Kingdoms. Three Kingdoms actually happens in China, but clearly they got the map wrong, and a lot of the city names, they 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, you know, just kids learning how to program when they’re very young. So we said, “Alright, let’s divide up—you work on this, I’ll work on that.” And back then we were still using BASIC. JPEG hasn’t been invented yet back then. It’s Apple II computer, there’s only green dots, there’s no color on the monitor, so we have to come up with our own way to draw the map of China. So I was just coding, basically, lines and lines. Every single line, coordinates was typed in by myself. So it was a lot of work just to draw a map of China. I spent multiple weekends working on it. And then when I go to school to bring my huge map of China, my disk got scratched. So all my work’s gone. That’s my first experience of making games, is, “All of my work is gone.”
Interviewer: You must have been crushed.
Chen: Yeah. Are you going to do it again? There’s no recovery. That’s just so much work. As a kid I’m like, “Fine, I’m done with making games.”
Interviewer: How does the gaming culture in China compare with ours in the United States?
Chen: I’m feeling so old now. [laughs] Because the culture has changed so much in the past fifteen years. I feel like I’m more of an expert of the culture back in the early 2000’s than today… But the biggest difference is, there was no console game in China. Console was banned by the government, because they consider a Western import a potential corruption of capitalism. Because no government official play console games, they just heard, “Hey, that’s Western media. Well, let’s just ban it.” But some of the government official did watch cinema when they grew up, so that’s why they still say, “Hey, you know, at least maybe we can allow to import maybe a handful of cinema per year.” So then what happen is, no more console is allowed in China. The only game allowed in China is PC games. That’s why Blizzard is particularly huge in China. Because really high-quality PC games are only from a handful of companies. Most of good games are from console companies. And they have no exposure to it.
Interviewer: Michaël Samyn from Tale of Tales has suggested, “The games medium is on the [threshold] of maturity. Maturity, for me, is defined by variety: variety in experiences, variety in the audience. 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.”
In other words, the fact that these things are defined as “games” may be stunting the medium. 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 games often 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? Something that doesn’t include the word “game”?
Chen: Yeah, this was a cool topic back in early 2000’s. People are talking about changing the name of games to “interactive media.” That’s when we were trying to push video games as art and we don’t like people using “games”… But seems like it’s no longer the trend anymore. People just stopped talking about it, because artistic game has sprouted afterwards. So we seem to worry less about how people call them these days. Also, back then, the audience is so small [that] majority of population, they don’t have access to games, so their impression of games was purely on the billboard: Grand Theft Auto, those AAA games. So back then we were saying, “If we don’t change that impression, the audience will never have interest to try anything.” And so that’s why we tried so hard to put video game in the gallery, into museums, and we don’t brand them as “game,” we brand them as “interactive experience,” just to get the audience to take a look at games so they know it’s not just about violence and action. But with Facebook and mobile phones, we don’t worry about them anymore, because everybody is playing games now. It’s not really whether they are interested in games or not. It’s more like, now they are all playing games, can we provide different type of games?
Interviewer: When you released Flower, you described the game as “an interactive poem exploring the tension between urban bustle and natural serenity.” If you weren’t allowed to read novels as a child, were you allowed to read poetry?
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.
Interviewer: Do you read poetry now?
Chen: I don’t read poem anymore because I don’t read Chinese anymore. [laughs] And honestly I can’t understand English poetry. Because not English speaker, when I read them I never know how to read them in the right rhythm. I also don’t think you guys are trying to make it like 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 over 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 this is. Because it’s not a pure game. Game have bosses, game have scores, game have experience [points], game have level ups. That’s how people define games in the early 2000’s… And then there comes Flower—well, what is the goal here? It’s hard to say. [laughs] 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 very hard to describe—but hey, there’s seven verses, there’s seven levels, each one is about a particular mood. The mood does not even make sense as a narrative plot, they are just simply about a feeling, the rising and falling emotion, but together when you have seven verses, there seems to be something is communicated. But it’s so vague that different people take different things out of it. That’s very much like poetry.
Interviewer: Your games include no text. Which wouldn’t be that unusual for a puzzle game like Tetris, but for your games, which are intended to have a significant emotional effect on the player, it seems like a risky choice. Especially for Journey, which tells the story of a lifetime, a story on an epic scale, and which was designed to be a “social game”—a “social game” that allows absolutely no talking.
Chen: That’s because of cinema. I went to film school, did screenwriting, so I am familiar with cinema, and as you know, early cinema doesn’t require any words. Particularly silent films. You can tell a lot just by watching. That’s what I like about—I mean, “video game,” 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: cinematography, lighting, character performance… If you pay attention to silent era movie actors, they are big about postures, really exaggerated expressions, so you can understand how they feel. We use all kinds of techniques that’s from cinema to help communicate emotion.
Storytelling is essentially a linear emotional arrangement that evokes certain strong feelings.
Interviewer: 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, words can actually prevent a social connection from forming.
Chen: And when you want to use a word, it’s also very very hard. Like 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. And that’s just very low efficiency, for me. Maybe I’m just, you know, lack of vocabulary, so I can’t find the most accurate way to express the words. It’s much easier to just describe that through visuals and audio instead.
Interviewer: Journey’s visuals, like Ico’s, were partly inspired by the work of Giorgio de Chirico. How often do you visit a museum or a gallery looking for inspiration?
Chen: I spend my entire college era going to museums. Every weekend. A lot of galleries and museums. Because I was forced to study computer science as my major, which I started learning since I was ten years old, I’m really fed up with computers. But I like art, which was much more interesting. But I don’t have a formal art training like most of the artists. They would start systematically training and drawing and sketching since they were very young. So the only way I can train my art was just doodling. But I have no mentor. And I’m interested in art, so I’ll go to all the art classes I can find in the school, but my school was an engineering school… So I end up going to a different college to audit art classes.
But I love galleries, I love art, so I go to one gallery at a time. And Shanghai was a big city, so every week there’s new galleries. So yeah, I went to a lot of galleries. [laughs]
Interviewer: Do you remember any exhibits in particular?
Chen: I think when I was in college I was not old enough to understand most of them. Life was so simple before you belong to society. I could not understand some of the deep meaningful things. The stuff that impressed me when I was younger are mostly visually stunning. One piece, people put fifty wolf—they’re dead wolf, just furs outside—they piled them up into a giant piece, and all of the wolf is rolling together. It was impressive. I was impressed mostly by the visual spectacle.
But I would say the stronger feeling I got is usually from cinema and games. Because you put so much time, and it’s very intimate. The gallery setting is almost too clinical… I don’t think any particular art piece left me a strong impression, compared to cinema and games.
Interviewer: After the spectacular downfall of Virtual Boy and Sega VR in the 1990’s, the video game industry abandoned virtual reality for decades. But virtual reality technology is finally primed to return to the marketplace: Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, and HTC Vive are all scheduled for release in 2016. Will virtual reality be a new medium, one distinct from video games?
Chen: I think it is similar to how a colored movie was compared to when it was black and white. It provide enough sensory [details] that there’s almost a new level of realism and immersion that happens. And it’s a very obvious difference. But I think cinema doesn’t change its language that much when it moved from black and white to color. Same thing happens, a giant HDTV to a headset display. I don’t think the language will change that much. Certainly now we have to be a lot more sensitive about scale, which was not a problem when it was on a flat screen. But I think game itself will still be the same. It’s an upgrade rather than an evolution.
Interviewer: I know that you admire Walt Disney, and that you’ve invested a lot of time studying the history of The Walt Disney Company, enough to know what a “weenie” is. When was the first time that you went to an amusement park like Disneyland?
Chen: Disneyland isn’t until 2004… One of our classmates [at USC] was an ex-Imagineer. So he took us to Disney and told us about the techniques they used. And I was fascinated. I was like, “This is a big video game, except it’s built in real life.” All of the techniques they applied are actually game design techniques. So it was very relevant to me.
Interviewer: You’re saying there are similarities between the narrative structure of a video game and the narrative structure of a ride at an amusement park?
Chen: Yeah, amusement park has narratives, but that was not my focus. I was more focused on how they guide the user flow, how they keep you entertained, and the details. Like, for example, sound is important—they had to invent a sound system where, no matter which corner you go, the volume is never too high or too low. They also had to wrangle with parking and user flow. To me what’s interesting is more logistics than the individual rides. I mean, the rides are spectacles. And that’s all cinema stuff. You don’t really interact. What I’m more interested in is how to interact with people and how to alter the space so that people behave certain ways… It’s like a Mecca of usability design, the Disney park.
Interviewer: Narrative doesn’t seem to be your focus when you’re designing games, either. You have a unique design process—from how you’ve described it, when you begin to work on a new game, instead of starting with an idea for a story, you start with an idea for an emotion. 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 you’ve said that process is particularly difficult working in a medium that historically has explored such a narrow range of emotions. “It’s very easy to communicate with artists or music composers to give you an emotion at any intensity that you want, because they’ve been training for hundreds of years and have so many references. But it’s very difficult to work with interactive designers… What is sadness, what is fear, in terms of gameplay? There’s very little reference.” As a result, thatgamecompany spent as much time building prototypes for Flower and Journey as building the actual games. Is that common for indie game developers, having to make so many prototypes?
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. As frontier, 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 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 only alone, or they’re students, but they’re not pushing the medium. They’re just here to make money.
Interviewer: For you, what’s the distinction between a game that is art and a game that is not?
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 them, 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 existing individual who actually made it did not get a chance to put too much of themself in the game. And I think it’s very important just to have the human elements in the piece. I was talking to someone who was sponsoring a lot of the very well-financed artistic movies today, and she was saying about how when she was young, she was very lonely, she was an introvert, she doesn’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’s not alone. I think it was the human elements of these art that reached to her, that she felt like, “Life is still worth living.”
So to me, art is essentially a way to make people connect with another human being. In many ways, art is the better part of the artist who created them, because every human is flawed. But when they create something, they put the best part of their humanity in those pieces. And so when the audience touch the piece, they felt hope, they felt something positive. Something human. And to me, that is the most useful thing about art, is to make people connect.
And so, yeah, I mean, I still hope that more people can create art, even though artistic genres may never be the most popular and money-making genres. But the thing is, I think art is more long-lasting… It stays in people, and it changes them.
Interviewer: It’s interesting that your definition of art centers on the “creator.” The video game, like film, is a collaborative medium. Do your games contain pieces of everyone at thatgamecompany?
Chen: Yes, it does.
Interviewer: So all of you are the creator.
Chen: Yes. I think, like cinema, a lot of people are focusing on the director, but there’s the screenwriter, there’s the composer, there’s the actor, and we often forgot about their input. But it’s the unity of their input as a group of people, the unity of what they’re trying to say, that really becomes strong. If everybody is trying to say something different, it’s just noise.
It’s a choir—when everybody sings the same notes, it resonates with the body, with the building. But if everybody is singing without practice, then it’s just a very impressive noise. Which often you find from AAA games.
Interviewer: When you first started your own company, was it difficult for you to find a way to bring those different voices into unison?
Chen: It was challenging. It’s always challenging when you work with people. I have never found a time when it’s not a challenge to make everybody say the same thing.
Interviewer: Kellee Santiago, co-founder of thatgamecompany, has defined art as “a way of communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging.” Although that isn’t necessarily incompatible with your definition, it’s a different definition. I would imagine that must add to the challenge of bringing those voices into unison—that your collaborators not only have different ideas about the specific piece of art that you’re working on, but different concepts of art in general.
Chen: [spoiler alert] Yeah, we would debate to a very high extent about the details about something. Whether you can see or not see the corpse of the player at the end of Journey was a heavy debate. It was a debate until two weeks before shipping. So it’s these little details. Like, do you lose all the scarves or not all the scarves? Do you get to see their names at the end or not see their names at the end? Every single choice was heavily debated.
Interviewer: Before finding her calling in video games, Kellee was active in experimental theater. Did she bring any lessons from that medium to your studio?
Chen: That’s interesting, because Kellee is the producer and the president of the company, so she’s not really actively participating in the detailed design of the game. I think if there’s any theater experience [that she brought], it’s more about the team building or the company culture.
Interviewer: So she helped the company achieve that unison of voices. I’m curious whether there’s a sense of unity among game companies as well. The video game industry seems to be having a moment similar to American comics in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the underground comix scene began to challenge the superhero status quo that had been established by DC and Marvel. Collaborations were common, and everybody knew everybody: Robert Crumb hung out with Harvey Pekar; Justin Green was roommates with Art Spiegelman; Gilbert Shelton and Jim Franklin were coworkers. Is there that same sense of community in the world of indie video games?
Chen: That’s essentially the era from 2003 to 2013. That ten years was exactly like you said. The indie game developers are united and challenging the big studios. Because the entry barrier of making video game is very very high, so there’s only a handful of developers around the world that are doing indies. Back then, I can name everybody just with my two hands. Everybody knows everybody because there’s only this many venues. That’s the era of like, Jonathan Blow.
Today, the era has changed. Everybody is indie now. Everybody making random stupid mobile app essentially is indie, because they made it at home, they made it through Unity, and there’s so many of them… We just don’t recognize everybody anymore.
Interviewer: Do you feel like your work has been accepted as art outside of the gaming community?
Chen: It’s been accepted in galleries. It’s in MoMA, it’s in Smithsonian, it’s in MoCA… I mean, there’s always exhibition requests, so I know the games can be put in a gallery. But at the same time I felt like most people would never have experienced all of the games that we made. They’re more likely to have played Candy Crush or Angry Birds than going to a museum and check out a game exhibition. So, that’s the reality.
Interviewer: The reality in a lot of mediums.
Chen: Yeah. I think to me the theme is, things are changing, things are shifting, and even the artistic video game. “Can a video game make you cry?” That was a big thing in 2007, but nowadays there are many games that made you cry, so that’s no longer a question. “Is video game art?” That’s no longer a question. So time has changed.
Interviewer: 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. Which, having established yourself as one of the premier auteurs of the medium, you’ve essentially already done. Having won that battle, what are you competing against now? Is there a final boss?
Chen: I do feel like—after we made our games, I did a lot of speeches, and I run into a lot of students who would come to me, whether it’s in China or Europe or America, they’re saying, “Hey, we really like the type of games you made—are you guys hiring?” And I say, “Well, we’re not.” “Do you know if there’s any other company who’s doing what you’re doing who we could go to work for?” And I can think of a handful of company. But [the students] were mostly saying, “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 the companies are focusing on making money, making retention and monetization conversions.” Because many of the trending gaming companies are mobile and social. So when they’re hired, they’re not hired for emotion… they’re hired for designing very addictive mechanics. So they are kind of puzzled. A lot of them were very unhappy working for these companies. But there is just no economics to allow them to fund their own studios. Because Kickstarter is more of a favor for old-time creators who have made something that we all remembered… But if you’re new-time people just out of school it’s very hard for you to generate that kind of momentum. And unfortunately I felt like a lot of people who tried artistic games had that desire to make them but they don’t have the necessary economic environment to support it. And so for me, I feel somewhat responsible for these people, because if we didn’t make these games they probably wouldn’t be thinking about making artistic games. They probably wouldn’t be frustrated with the fact they couldn’t make it today. And I was trying to do something to solve this problem. And just like Pixar—before Pixar made a CG animation feature and made a lot of money, many people were saying, “CG, this is just kind of a cool, trendy thing, it’s never going to stay, it’s just good for commercials only”—I felt like we need to create a success in a commercial sense for 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. Like, free-to-play games. And that’s what the money people want to invest in. Money. Nobody wants to invest in highly emotional, artistic, inspiring games. So what we are trying to do is to create a successful case in a commercial sense for something very artistic. I think 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.
Interviewer: So the final boss is to prove that an artistic game can be a blockbuster hit?