When Jenova Chen released Journey ten years ago, he wanted to prove to the world that video games were art. Now, everyone pretty much agrees they are.
So why, he asks, are they still not getting the wider cultural respect they deserve?
“You go to a party, and someone says, ‘What do you do?’ If you say, ‘I write scripts for movies’…They treat you as if you are an author of a book or a poet…You’re a servant for the public. But if I tell them I work in games, in 2005, they said, ‘You know the Columbine shooting? The congressmen said you guys are making kids violent.’ And in 2014 to today, people are like, ‘I heard you guys make a lot of money, right?’…That’s basically what people ask. The only other time people would ask these questions is if you run a casino.
“These days we are working on something different because, now [we’ve proven they’re] art, how come people still don’t respect games? I got these games like Flower and Journey in the MOMA and Smithsonian and in all these contemporary galleries. I thought this is going to elevate the public respect for games, because how is it possible that game is a lesser art form than any others?…If proving games can be art can’t elevate the respect, or how the public view games, what else can I do to change that?”
One reason Chen cites for the continued struggle of gaming for cultural respect is the mobile market, and by association, the rise of free-to-play games and what he sees as predatory monetization tactics. Though he himself has released multiple games on mobile and recognizes there are artistic mobile games out there, he says that the preponderance of those specific business models has dramatically increased the number of people playing games regularly, but also harmed the overall societal image of games as art.
“As a console developer, I feel very mixed, how I want to react to it. On one hand, we have ten times the players now, but at the same time, where is the money flowing to? Where does the talent go? What are we focusing on? I was really happy in 2012 when I saw more and more AAA games starting to become artistic and have emotional power, but suddenly, you have tens of millions of new games created that are the opposite of those old games, with free-to-play and predatory monetizations. The reputation of games today is shaped by these mobile games more than what’s on the console, and that’s why people are treating me as if I’m running casinos.
“To me, that is my saddest realization of the change in a decade, is no matter how much work we did in console, it doesn’t matter because it’s diluted by mobile and this new group of people and new group of games.”
For right now, Chen can’t give any further details on what exactly his new project is or how it will challenge these conventions. But he does confirm that this doesn’t mean his own mobile game, Sky, isn’t going anywhere. He compares Thatgamecompany to pirates, always exploring and on the lookout for new treasure. But now that they have Sky to maintain, their jobs are split.
“One thing I joke about is we finally found one particular treasure [Sky]. Now, we can’t be pirates anymore because the treasure is deep in the mine. We have to dig it up, so we have to have this service operation with hundreds of people, and that’s a completely new stage of life. But deep down, I’m still a pirate.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.