Jenova Chen: Journeyman
“There’s this quotation from St Augustine…”
Jenova Chen puts down his hamburger and fixes me with a warm but firm stare. Trust the designer of Flower and Journey to invoke a 3rd century theologian as an entry point to the subject of online tea-bagging. “Augustine wrote: ‘People will venture out to the height of the mountain to seek for wonder. They will stand and stare at the width of the ocean to be filled with wonder. But they will pass one another in the street and feel nothing. Yet every individual is a miracle. How strange that nobody sees the wonder in one another.’”
Chen takes a quick breath. “There’s this assumption in video games that if you run into a random player online, it’s going to be a bad experience,” he continues. “You think that they will be an asshole, right?”
I nod, still thinking about Augustine and the sense of wonder I’ve felt since first sitting down to talk to this studious Chinese game developer.
“But listen: none of us was born to be an asshole,” he says. “I believe that very often it’s not really the player that’s an asshole. It’s the game designer that made them an asshole. If you spend every day killing one another how are you going to be a nice guy? All console games are about killing each other, or killing one another together… Don’t you see? It’s our games that make us assholes.”
Chen and I meet for lunch a few days before the official release of his latest game, Journey, in a bustling café a couple of hundred metres from the Moscone Center in San Francisco. It’s filled with loud bits of conversation, snatches of dialogue from people taking a food stop midway through the Game Developers Conference.
Chen speaks with the manner of a computer science nerd; quietly thoughtful in a way that some might take to be nervously arrogant. But his words are that of the exuberant preacher, a humanist sermon to a congregation of one delivered as a call to action for game designers to create better systems in order that they might create a better online world.
Not for the first time during out lunchtime discussion, I touch my arm and feel goosebumps. Chen, as a music journalist from the 1960s might say, has soul. But where did this heart come from? What journey led the designer here?
The Call To Adventure
At the age of 14, perched on the edge of his bed in a tiny apartment in Shanghai Jenova Chen put down the controller and cried.
“My parents were incredibly strict about what I was allowed to read or watch,” he tells me. “I had limited access to novels, television or movies so this game was the first piece of media that moved me to tears. It was my first cry and it was so deep and strong. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before.”
The Legend of Sword and Fairy is the equivalent of Final Fantasy 7 in the Chinese RPG history. Its story of love and loss deeply affected a generation of Chinese. “Looking back today I find the game shallow and clichéd,” he says. “But it was the first impact a medium made on me in this way, and I fell in love.”
Through those tears Chen found catharsis (a term he returns to time and time again during our conversation) and, when they had dried, he felt a peace in which he began to question his existence. “I found myself asking: what kind of life do I want to live? What is good? What is bad? Why am I here? Afterwards I felt like a better person.”
“Then I began looking to the future and I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to helping others experience what I had just felt. I didn’t know it was gong to be through games at that time, but I knew it was going to be through something.”
For the first 22 years of his life, Jenova Chen didn’t leave Shanghai.
His was a childhood defined by boundaries: physical, social and parental. The city’s over-crowding confined his family to a small apartment. China’s one-child policy ensured he had no siblings, while the country’s lack of state or company run retirement plans placed full responsibility for his parents’ pension on his shoulders.
The burden to succeed at school in order to earn a good salary was immense. For Chen, a gifted and talented young student placed in a class of high achievers, this pressure was heightened yet further still. “It’s a cruel system,” he tells me. “Every semester the last three kids in the class are kicked out. I was in this elite class so if you were kicked out you dropped to a ‘normal’ class and people would call you a loser.”
Boundaries, competition, leaderboards: all societal systems that Chen grew up with and that are also prevalent in most videogames. And yet, they are curiously absent from his creations. I ask him if the pressure of growing up within these physical and psychological confines is what has drove him away from competitive, task-based games. After all, Flower is set in the countryside, its chapters interspersed by short cut-scenes showing a wilting flower in an urban apartment, perhaps dreaming of freedom from Shanghai, while his latest creation, Journey, is a game with the capacity for multiplayer competition wholly removed.
Until now, Chen has spoken in gentle voice, pausing to compose each response, occasionally reflecting inquiries back at me. But at this question he becomes visibly irritated. “I am a competitor,” he says. “I play and love competitive games. You know, I was champion at a fighting game in high school. I was a StarCraft champion in college. I still play DOTA. I love to win. I love to win. When it comes to making games it’s not like I love peaceful games. I make this kind of game because I want to win as well. To me the measure of a human’s greatness is the value they can contribute to society. The game industry doesn’t need another shooter; it needs something to inspire them.”
Read the rest of this interview over at Eurogamer here.