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Jenova Chen is one of the original indie game development stalwarts, having co-founded Journey developer thatgamecompany with Kellee Santiago in 2006.
Chen and his studio have been proponents of making games that bring about more subtle emotions than fear or excitement. On the latest episode of the GDC Podcast, he explained why he's drawn to designing games like Flower, Journey, and the studio's latest game Sky: Children of the Light.
"My goal has changed over time even though the mission is the same," Chen said. "The mission of the company is to help promote video games and let the people around the world that the game industry and games as a media is not all negative like people think. It could be positive, have a good influence on peoples' lives and it could be considered as a form of art."
Chen said at first with games like Flower, thatgamecompany simply wanted to make games that were counter to the game industry status quo. And Journey was a response to games that centered on killing, instead focusing on emotions and working together.
"We wanted to make you feel small, we wanted to make you feel in awe, not knowing all the answers," he said.
But Chen said that even though Journey gained an audience, attention in the art world, and critical acclaim, that one effort wasn't enough to tilt the scales in favor of more evocative games across the game industry.
"After Flower and Journey, just proving a game can touch people does not change the industry," he said. "It doesn't even change society's view on games as much…nobody cared."
"For a while I was very disappointed," Chen said. "I thought that if games could be accepted by the mainstream as art, then people would respect the industry, but they didn't."
He said at one point he spoke with his mentor, long-time game industry figure-turned-investor Bing Gordon, and asked him when society might treat games the same way as cinema and literature; as a form of art.
"Bing just said, 'don't worry, these people are all going to die, the people who didn't grow up with games will die very soon,'" Chen recounted, "'and the ones who grew up with games will already automatically consider them as an artform.'"
"And I said, 'well in how many years?'" (laughs) But Chen said as years have moved on, he's realized it's not about just sitting around and waiting for older people to be replaced by younger people. "We actually have to push for the content itself [so] people who are older will still think games are relevant," he said.
GDC Podcast music by Mike Meehan