Religion, friendship, and emotion: A Journey post-mortem

GameSpot Asia talks to the director of this evocative title about the game's engine, inspirations, and the ups and downs of the project.

Online adventure game Journey was released recently to much praise from critics. GameSpot Asia chatted to the game's lead developer Jenova Chen about the personal journey he undertook while creating the game.

GameSpot Asia: It's been a few years since Journey was first announced. Has the road to releasing the game been very taxing?

Jenova Chen: Journey was in development for three years. The most difficult part wasn't the creative challenge; it was the human challenge. People are really burnt out working on the same game for years and not getting any really feedback. Development is fun when you get instantaneous feedback--the reality is most of working on a game is working on the back.

Many people come and go. The development cycle was very much a reflection of the game itself. It starts off as a easy open space, then very quickly you get lost, not knowing which way to go, then finally you figure out a direction, but finishing it is super tough. The transcendence is huge as well.

We learnt so much outside of the game; more about my life, where I want to go. It was a big trip.

GSA: The game uses the Phyre Engine. How long did it take to create the engine? Or was it an expansion of an existing engine?

JC: Phyre engine is not our creation; it was developed by a second-party developer in the UK. They developed it for PlayStation developers working on small things. We were used to using it on Flow and with Journey, they renamed and we continued to use a few of its functions. Rendering, modeling, animation; the works. We also write a lot of it ourselves. It works more like a middleware.

GSA: What was the art team's inspiration for Journey's unique somber-but-serene look and feel?

JC: Firstly, we wanted to have a world that was exotic, yet familiar; an alien space, with ancient civilization. You can think of the Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, so we tried to create a new ancient Eastern-Western mixed architectural structure.

The somber feel must come from the desert. The desert was picked as it provides a very abstract background, so you, the player, are the focus. If you were in a jungle, there would be too many details, distractions, diminishing the focus on the player.

GSA: How did you get Austin Wintory to work on Journey's soundtrack?

JC: It's a long story, but to put it short, we were both at the same film school. He was studying film soundtrack production, and when I was talking to another student about music for my games, that student introduced us. Who knew that we would be working together like this? This is the third time we've worked together now; we even worked on Flow together.

GSA: What was the philosophy behind the exploration structure of the game?

JC: We founded thatgamecompany on the philosophy that games needs to explore a wider variety of emotions. Every game we make, we wanted to bring a new emotion to our audience. When we worked on Flow, as so many games are about violence, racing, competition, we wanted to create a feeling that was very new--on the opposite end of the spectrum; a sense of peace, tranquility, and meditation. Flow is very much based on that meditative state.

For Flower, because so many games are about destruction, we wanted to evoke a feeling of life-giving. The player, instead of destroying things, can bring a positive energy, a positive change to the world. It also deals with the emotions between urban bustle and natural serenity.

Every urban man has that desire to get out into the country, into nature; but we were born in the cities, we can't completely abandon them. There's always very much a common desire between humans to have a harmony between the two, and the game is very much about exploring that harmony.

As for Journey, it's our first online PlayStation Network title, so we wanted to make an experience based around online multiplayer. We looked around and saw that most of the console's online games are about killing each other or killing something together. Therefore, we felt that rather than having a game where other players are hostile and rude, you could actually feel they are friendly, and you could potentially make a friend and an emotional connection with that player in the game.

GSA: Were the philosophies of Buddhism part of creating Journey?

JC: I feel that Journey is a very spiritual game. People from around the world ask me if the game has a religious connection. Many religions share an affinity with Journey - this is because many religions partly share a common structure.

Journey is based primarily on Joseph Campbell's work. He studies various myths and folktales from all around the world making comparisons. He found that there is something called 'The Hero's Journey', which is common to cultures all around the world. Journey, as a game, is inspired by the 'Hero's Journey' structure. Funny thing: I often get people asking about Christianity and other religions.

GSA: What went right during the production of the game?

JC: We finished it. We stuck to the original Journey arc. The game as it looked two months into development is just how it is in the final game. We did not change a thing.

GSA: What do you think went wrong in the development process? What would you have improved?

JC: A lot went wrong. We tried a new style of management for team dynamics. The maximum people we had was 13 people in the office, and we had very little management experience. Experimenting with management style sometimes failed, so we lost some people, and hired more people. The problems weren't in the game, but in the office: how to lead a team, how to maintain team morale.

Kellee Santiago is the manager, while I'm the creator. During Flow and Flower, however, we realized we needed to improve management. We had consultants that suggested how we should run an artistic studio, we tried them out, but it didn't work, we tried something else, it didn't work.

We were considering on making Journey a four-player title. At the time, morale was low so we thought it would be easier to do two players. In the end, however, the two player design is much more emotional than a four player dynamic would have been.

At the end of the day, lots of things were challenging, but at the end if the game has turned out how we wanted and turned out pretty good, then it's hard to say that anything 'went wrong'.

GSA: The game's beginning and end, to us, has been about reaching up high to the "promised land" and seems to instill tones of reincarnation (the bit where you restart the game). How would you wish others to interpret Journey's ending?

JC: Reincarnation is also a very common theme to many religions around the world. My own opinion on reincarnation is that, if you think about it rationally, even if it does exist, you'd never know it because your memory isn't carried with your soul to your new body. I can't say if it's true or not, but on a broader level, I do see that as one life passes away, another life comes back.

GSA: Will it be tough for Journey to find a sufficient audience, given people's expectations for games nowadays?

JC: I have faith that there will be a market for Journey.

GSA: Will thatgamecompany take a long break after this, or has the company resumed working on a new project?

JC: We are still focusing on promoting Journey, and haven't yet anything to discuss about the future. No teases yet.

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