By Darren Gladstone, PCWorldFeb 12, 2009 10:00 pm PST
Games are not art — they’re better. It just depends on whom you ask.
There’s this on-again, off-again argument within the intelligentsia as to whether games should be placed on the same pedestal as books, movies, music, and paintings. But even the newest of the accepted fine arts, movies, have had at least a century to develop.
Conventional videogames–and I’m taking Pong, the equivalent of cave drawings, as my starting point here–commenced less than 40 years ago. In that time, games have mimicked movies, electronically emulated books, and tried their hand at playing on some emotional heartstrings. The big difference is that most conventional art forms are passive and two-dimensional experiences: You sit in front of and soak in whatever the artist presents you with. Videogames attempt to create an interactive experience that puts the viewer/ player in control of the palette.
Enter Shanghai-born Xinghan “Jenova” Chen, creative director of ThatGameCompany. Since earning his graduate degree from the University of Southern California Film School’s Interactive Media program, he has helped craft several simple-but-surreal game projects that do more than cater to a twitch response. His thesis project, Cloud, floated along, accumulating a following on the indie gaming scene. Flow cast players as an ever-evolving single-celled organism–and that, no doubt, inspired the first stage in Spore. The best way to describe Chen’s latest game, Flower: It’s a first-person gardener. And it’s well-worth the $10 asking price at Sony’s PlayStation Store.
The levels, if you choose to call them that, are the dreams of flowers. You are the wind, fulfilling flower fantasies–yeah, it sounds kind of strange. But just try it. This is a Zen exercise with an occasional trophy for completing a task. A meditation pool with an endpoint. More important, it passes my all-important “wife test”: She was entranced as she watched me play, until finally she yanked the controller out of my hand to try her luck with it. The last time I got that kind of response out of her was when BioShock came out.
But back to the old “games-versus-art” argument (I’m looking at you, Ebert). I spent some time chatting with Chen recently about the state of gaming and how (if at all) it’s maturing. Here’s what we came up with:
A Boy and His Flower
PC World: How would you try describing Flower to someone? Is it a game, art, or something else entirely?
Jenova Chen: Flower is made with a different mentality. It’s a safe, warm experience. It’s like a poem or dance that uses symbolism and scenery to give the player a comforting backdrop.
PCW: And I guess that this would make you the choreographer?
JC: [laughs] Yeah, we’re not level designers. We provide all these moves, and because players are different, they will perform the moves differently. It’s a game that is meant not only to play, but to watch.
PCW: A game that you watch–technically, that’d make it art. As for the person who grabs the controls, let’s talk a little more about the game itself.
JC: The end goal of the player is to make the world a better place. The player is the consciousness of nature. You’re living through the dreams of flowers sitting in pots. Gamers call them levels, but each of the dreams for the different flowers has different goals. The Rose, for example, sees a desaturated, drab world of concrete but wants to add color everywhere. As you complete the dream of one flower, the second flower sprouts and fills in a certain aspect of life. The gameplay is that you’re this consciousness, this desire. You’re bringing life into the world–not the guy killing aliens.
We thought of this like a movie experience. You could probably finish this in two and half hours, but you really get a lot more out of the game after you’ve finished and come back to revisit each flower’s dreams. You find more to explore and play more. It will be a good therapy–to heal yourself and reflect on things.
PCW: How did you come up with the idea of making a game about flowers, anyhow?
JC: I grew up in a city, in Shanghai. I was surrounded by skyscrapers and people. I was never surrounded by nature. When I was on my way into Los Angeles, I saw this windmill farm. Grass fields, blue sky–I’d never seen these things before. Where I lived the sky was purple. So, as an urban man, I was attracted to these things I hadn’t really seen before. When you actually go into nature and go hiking, you actually start missing the city and the people. So I wanted to create a space like a window from your living room, and you get surrounded by nature. Meanwhile, you still feel safe and warm. It’s a harmony between nature and urban life.
PCW: Normally, games like this don’t appear on store shelves…
JC: That’s because digital distribution allows for more risk-taking. It allows small development houses to take chances without having to score funding to publish the game on discs. That cost forces you to make sacrifices along the way. It makes you cut costs, enforce deadlines and ship a game that you might not be as proud of. You just can’t run that risk. For a game like Flow, it only cost between 500 and 600k, not even a million. [Ed. note: And that’s gone on to huge success.] Sony’s been great to work with in this respect and has been very supportive both with Flow and now Flower.
Selling Games Short
JC: I think I’m pretty stupid to start a company. I left a lead designer job at Maxis working on Spore to found ThatGameCompany. I was trying to find someplace that was doing what I wanted to do. Nobody was.
PCW: What was missing?
JC: I see entertainment as something that feeds you–like food or water, but for your emotions. Videogames used to be a software niche…but it isn’t fully mature yet. The difference between a new medium and a mature medium is based upon the variety–more than just one or two emotions. There aren’t just scary books or movies. Or sad songs. Games are still largely seen as a toy and not just by the mainstream audience, but by some developers as well.
PCW: Wouldn’t you say, though, that these days games are getting a little more sophisticated?
JC: Well, the people who accept a new technology are the younger ones — the ones willing to adapt. That’s why the first games mostly catered to kids. In order for the business to succeed, they’ve needed to focus on the kids. To a degree, it’s still that way. Kids like flashy imagery and colorful cartoons. And as they get older, they like more competition and to be more powerful. Many games are based on this empowerment.
PCW: And I guess that feeds into the stigma still attached to games…and being a gamer.
JC: Yeah, no one asks you if you’re a film watcher or if you’re a reader, but when it always comes to games, you’re a gamer. That’s because we’ve got a ways to go. People use phrases like “cool” and “fun,” but seeking a more sophisticated audience means doing more. People read a book, for example, but there’s this thought that they will absorb something from it. Something mentally stimulating that they will be able to use elsewhere.
PCW: At least some games strive to do more, but I’d have to agree that there’s still a lopsided focus on something like graphics.
JC: If you think about it, most movies are divided by feelings. Games are divided by technologies–or the skills that they test. That often casts games as dismissible pastimes. Think of game design as a bucket. Crytek created a beautiful engine and Crysis looks realistic and good. But if the story doesn’t rise to the same level as those graphics, it feels like an uneven effort and things in the game spill over the sides. If the gameplay isn’t as good, it doesn’t feel right. Because [ThatGameCompany] is small, we don’t have the luxury to pile up one feature like, say, graphics or story and focus on the whole package. We need to keep things concise.
PCW: Concise is one way to put it. Here’s how your games work: Tilt the PS3’s Sixaxis controller to move and press a single button. No instructions, no tutorial, you just drop players into the world.
JC: We need to provide content outside the red zone so that adults and people that normally wouldn’t think to grab a controller, would. And when they do grab the controller, make it simple to understand. At first, we tried different gameplay with complex controls–even with health points–but that didn’t feel right for the emotions we wanted to convey. The music and ambiance combined with the visuals and controls convey more. That’s why there are no voices, no words, and no instructions.
Games, the New Movies
PCW: Since you’re coming from the perspective of a USC Film School graduate, where would you say games are now compared to, say, movies?
JC: When films first appeared, it was this brand-new medium that started as a technology innovation. Sophisticated storytelling came later. It’s easier to sell a technology if you evoke primal feelings. If you look at some of the earliest films, like a French one that captured a train coming through a tunnel, it scared people out of their seats. Don’t games sometimes get those same reactions?
PCW: No arguments about games tapping fear and adrenaline. That, they’ve got down. But using that film comparison, have we at least made it out of the “talkies” stage?
JC: The game industry started in the ’70s and has grown very quickly. The very first generation of filmmakers who grew up with films as kids–they went to universities and studied how to craft films. The George Lucases and Steven Spielbergs.
When George Lucas went to film school, people were surprised that there actually was a school for film. Now, people are reacting that same way to game schools. In school, we studied all these mediums–storytelling, psychology…and I think, as a result, when I mention some ideas to current game designers, they’ll say, “Oh, this sounds cool, but is it fun?”
I guess my answer would be that we’re at the point where George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are coming out of film school.
PCW: You heard it here first–THX1138 and The Duel, coming to a console near you soon! Seriously, though, there is this dismissive attitude toward gamers. Do you think this next generation of designers will change people’s minds about games?
JC: People coming out of game design schools are now thinking about games differently than those that’ve come before. We hope that games will become more respected. In Japan, everyone reads manga–it’s a national art form. Successful businessmen and teenagers read them on the trains. In America, comic books are viewed as some nerdy activity. Why so different? The content matured at a different pace–and I don’t want to see games get lumped into that same, immature category.
PCW: Sorry for the clichéd question, but can a videogame make you cry yet? Besides if the game is too tough, that is….
JC: There are moments in gaming where you’ll empathize with a character and maybe feel a little sad. Well, videogames have made people cry. It’s easy to cry if you’ve experienced something deep and emotional. A role-playing game in China I played made me cry–even if it’s cliché–but as a kid, if you’re exposed to something for the first time and conveys a story. If you’ve never read Shakespeare and someone slips Romeo and Juliet into a game, the first time you see it somewhere is bound to make you cry. The medium improves by the kids who get moved and are motivated to make their own games.
PCW: How many times has it backfired, though? That the game gets in the way of a good story?
JC: I force myself to play some games…like Final Fantasy XII. I had to struggle through because of all the [endless quests]. Even though I really wanted to know how the story ended, after a couple weeks I had to just give up. The chore of making your character gain more experience to complete the game had no relevance to real life. And that is where a lot of games lose people.
PCW: Thanks, Jenova.
Maybe part of the problem is that they are called “games.” Snobs turn their nose up and think of Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 or something–and instantly file it in the category of mindless diversions. Their loss. You got a better name for videogames? Let me know!
Until next time…
Need even more nerdity? Follow Casual Friday columnist and PC World Senior Writer Darren Gladstone on gizmogladstone on Twitterfor more time-wasting tips.