Well before he began working on Journey, Jenova Chen was, in his own words, “a rebel who wanted to make things that nobody else would want to make.”
He began pursuing that goal while still a college student with Cloud in 2005, a game about a hospital patient whose imagination takes him into the skies while his body remains in bed. With the formation of Thatgamecompany in 2006, he followed it up with Flow and Flower, similarly wordless, emotional, and “zen” games that received acclaim despite – or perhaps because of – their stark differences from everything else available in the mainstream at the time.
But Journey, which this weekend celebrates its ten-year anniversary, took that a step further. While also an emotional, wordless, and beautiful adventure like its older siblings, Journey embraced a new element that they hadn’t: social play.
In Journey, players are automatically paired up with another random player in the same area as they are, and can choose to travel together. Though they can’t directly interact, players can use a button input to make a “chime” sound at one another, which players have used to indicate which way to go, what to do, or just to express joy or enthusiasm at obstacles overcome. The system has sparked countless stories of human connection over the years as strangers helped one another. Chen tells me he’s heard from players who have played the game tens or even hundreds of times, for the sole altruistic purpose of guiding new players.
Journey’s brilliant and at the time completely novel social system was conceived out of Chen’s stated spirit of rebellion. In 2009 when Chen began working on Journey, he was simultaneously watching the rise of Zynga as a dominant force in gaming. As he looked at FarmVille and Zynga’s big promises of “social gaming”, he felt frustrated at the descriptor. “How is this social? It’s just trading crops and numbers.
“Let me work on a game that is truly social, that is emotionally engaging, and two people really connect and bond and care about each other,” he continues. “That’s what I think social is: meaningful, emotional exchange between two people. Can we build a game that actually makes you feel that? I didn’t know how to do it, but we wanted to see if we could make something that people had never seen before.”
But it wasn’t all rebellion. Chen was also playing FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls around that time, and was fascinated by the concept of players leaving one another messages throughout the game, as well as the ability to see other players’ ghosts without actually interacting directly. Through that limited system, players created a largely positive, invisible community of support and guidance as they explored the dangerous world together.
“[The] Dark Souls series was very much antisocial,” Chen says. “It puts the player in a very vulnerable state where the entire world is trying to kill you, and makes the player feel very, very, small. It’s also what Journey was doing: making these players feel vulnerable and tiny, and the world is filled with awe.
“Back then, we [said] gaming felt like work because you will have a boss say, ‘Soldier your mission is to take over that hill over there and kill this boss.’ All the information is shown to you, you’re going to get this reward…Even before you explore, you know everything that’s about to unfold. With Journey, we wanted to capture the fact you don’t know what’s behind that hill. When you don’t know the purpose of the world and the history of the world, you feel vulnerable, and that sense of awe is what makes people pro-social.”
Journey’s wordless structure, which drops the player into a desert world at the start without context or explanation and leaves them to find their own way forward, certainly reflects that. But Chen still had to figure out how to combine that sense of awe with his desired social experience. At the time, someone suggested he ought to put voice chat in Journey so that people could play and chat with their friends, which would theoretically improve sales. But Chen asked his friends and colleagues for feedback, and everyone he spoke to said they hated voice chat in games because of how mean people could be.
So Chen vetoed the idea, opting instead to create a gaming environment that didn’t highlight mean behaviors, but rather encouraged strangers to band together silently, with only a single button chime to communicate with the random people they shared a world with.
“This is the biggest learning from Journey: when we transport ourselves from reality into a virtual world, no matter how realistic that world looks, it’s a new world,” he says. “And what that means is every moral value you’ve built up for reality will be reset, and we all become giant babies…We press the button to see what [the boundaries are] in this new world. We’ll try to say funny things or angry things just to see the response.
“The problem is, when you’re dealing with the internet, the baby also has a megaphone, so they can say the most outrageous things but the other people can’t give them the social response to say that’s not cool. So you get lots of trolls on the internet, and in virtual games…For a time, you could kill somebody in Journey, and people preferred doing that more than helping someone, because it’s just more feedback, more excitement. Then we realized how much feedback you provide is very much a choice by the designer. At some point, the best way is to provide zero feedback.”
Journey’s kind community, which Chen says still gathers around the game’s anniversary each year to replay the game together, is one of many reasons why Journey remains beloved today. Chen admits that he probably can’t keep it going forever, though, despite numerous ports. Thatgamecompany has been able to keep Journey online for this long because it’s written as a peer-to-peer game rather than an online hosted server, and thus is fairly low-cost and low-effort to maintain. But nothing lasts forever.
“One of the biggest challenges for video games is, how can we preserve these experiences, when Journey was originally made on PlayStation 3 and then ported to PlayStation 4, and now everybody’s moving onto PlayStation 5? We can’t just keep porting these decades-old games, right? Very soon, there will not be any Journey playable on PlayStation. And the ports to the PC and to mobile, they all have their gains and losses.”
But that day still hasn’t arrived, and Chen is looking forward to seeing the community gather once again to celebrate Journey’s ten-year anniversary next week. When I ask Chen if he thinks Journey made video games as a whole better, he says he feels it’s not for him to claim that one way or another.
“[When you] try to make something new, the first person is usually not the one who really settles it,” he says. “They’re just [one] person who contributes. If, in the end, someone else really made [the idea] successful, then we’re happy that we’re one of the people who paved the roads, and I think Journey is just one stone in the history of the gaming medium, its evolution.”
But personally, when Chen thinks of Journey, he feels very “happy and thankful,” especially after what he says was a difficult game development process, rife with money woes. Thatgamecompany has become incredibly successful since, too. It has another game out now, Sky: Children of the Light, that lets players meet and befriend one another online, unlocking increased social features over time as their friendship grows. His studio has swelled from 12 to over 100 people, with almost seven million people playing Sky each day across all platforms.
Even ten years and one massive live service game down the road, though, Chen says if he made Journey for the first time today, he wouldn’t change a thing about it – a thought he acknowledges is a bit sad.
“If you made something you believe was perfect, then how could you make something better?”
Chen adds that he received numerous thank-you letters in addition to the critical praise and awards Journey received, which helped him realize he and his teammates’ efforts were recognized and worthwhile. He tells me a specific story about hearing of Journey winning Game of the Year 2012 for IGN from various staff members while he was visiting family in Beijing.
“When I woke up, I saw the emails, I was like, ‘What’s going on? Who are these people? Why are they so happy?’ After I closed the computer, I couldn’t process my emotions. I had to stand up. I looked out the window, it’s snowing in Beijing, and at the time, I just…I felt loved. I felt people from the other side of earth loved something you made and by extension it felt like you were loved a little, and that was a very powerful experience for me.
“It just makes me feel very happy and thankful for everybody who essentially led me to experience that. Yeah, and so, to me [Journey was] transformational. You can feel this kind of bitterness in my early games like Flower and Journey as a young, rebel artist, but if you play Sky, it’s a different person. Yeah. Journey was certainly a very important milestone in my life.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.