Q&A: Thatgamecompany's co-founder talks Journey

Thatgamecompany doesn't actually specialise in games - not really, anyway - it specialises in creating emotional experiences.

Despite the fact that the word is in Thatgamecompany’s name, the company doesn’t actually specialise in games - not really, anyway. Journey, like Thatgamecompany’s previous titles Flower and Flow, is as much about creating an emotional experience as it is about gameplay. When PC World previewed the game in July of last year, we were struck by the art and beauty of the game.

Journey is the brainchild of Kelle Santiago. Santiago has a solid resume in gaming. She started working in the games industry in 2003 at House of Moves, where she worked on titles such as Guitar Hero and LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth. In 2006, Santiago established Thatgamecompany with co-founder Jenova Chen, and she began work on downloadable projects for Sony’s PlayStation Network.

In Journey, the player is a robed character of ambiguous gender who wakes up in the middle of the desert, and has to find his or her way to the top of a mountain. Along the way, players run into other people in the same world - although only one at a time - but they have no means of communication aside from a sombre, musical sound that can be made by hitting a button. You don’t know the other person’s gamertag or identity, and there’s no voice communication. You just play together, or walk away.

'How did such a concept come about?' we wondered. We approached Kellee Santiago to answer a handful of questions for us about the game.

What was the inspiration for the unique multiplayer features? Well, we knew from the beginning that we wanted our third game for PlayStation Network to be online. And we had to consider, what would a TGC game in that space be like? When we were in our research phase, we took note that the majority of online console titles emphasise the execution of power over one another, or the execution of power with another person onto something else. In addition, so much of the online interactivity outside of gameplay mechanics behave essentially as chat windows or like a telephone, which is just connected to a game. But what would an online game look like without all of those mechanics in place? What if we built an experience that focused on the feeling of just being with another person online? In all TGC experience, we aim for accessibility, both in technology, but also in content. We want to pick themes that anyone could relate to, and also anyone could potentially play. So for the experience of being online, we wanted to integrate it completely into the world of Journey. So there are no lobbies, no menus for connecting or disconnecting. As you wander through this world, you can happen upon another robed figure like yourself. And that’s another person online, somewhere in the world. You can choose to travel together, or you can go separate ways, and you will be disconnected for one another, and left open to connect with someone else. Have you found that people interact the way you'd expect when they're playing multiplayer? Throughout development we learned a lot through rapid iteration prototyping and playtesting about how people can behave. And what we found is that in games, all players are like newborn babies (yes this could be interpreted badly...) they respond to the thing that gives them the most feedback, whatever that is. In one iteration of Journey, we played around with having collision. Players could bump into one another, and we thought this could allow them to then help each other out of sticky situations. However, what happened is that because pushing each other around was so much fun, it’s just what players gravitated towards. The biggest payoff was pushing someone off a cliff, so that’s what you felt compelled to do! It’s not because we have no humanity, it’s just what the rules within the magic circle of a game tell us to do. This is why the focus of Journey today is so much on the environment around you. We wanted to create a strong sense of place, and hopefully a place that is interesting to revisit and traverse with different people.

How do you go about telling a story with characters that don't speak? This is nothing new, there are stories that have travelled thousands of years in the form of paintings that have no words. The difficulty was trying to tell a story that is left open to interpretation, but doesn’t feel frustrating or confusing. I hope we found that balance. What kind of experience do you want gamers to have while playing the game? Whatever experience they wish to have. In the end, you have to let players be players. Critical reception has been overwhelmingly positive so far - do you worry that Journey might speak to real enthusiasts rather than the average consumer? I’m very proud of the experience we’ve created in Journey, because it’s true to what our original intentions were with this game. And it wasn’t an easy process – we went through a lot of struggles both in ourselves and as a team, and it wasn’t always clear that we would come out of these three years with the game we intended to make. I’m very curious and excited about what players will think of it, but the part of development I worry about is over now. Do you mind that some people debate whether Thatgamecompany's games are games at all? No, I think it’s great that people talk about our games at all! Some developers like to engage in this dialogue, but for us, we just make what we want to make, without putting any constraints on what the definition of that experience will be. Whether it turns out to be a ‘game’ or not is something other people can figure out. Are there any plans to port any of your games onto the Vita? We have just been totally focused on making sure Journey for PSN is the best it could possibly be. We’ll see what the future holds! Do you think being a woman has an influence on the way you think of games and game development? I think each person’s background has an influence on their perspective on the world, and if they are a creative person, it absolutely impacts what they create, and how they go about creating it! I think diversity of thought in game development is so important to the growth of games as a medium, and to the sustainability of game making as a lifestyle. Journey will be available for PS3 through the PlayStation Network on 15 March.

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Siobhan Keogh

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