Videogame designer Jenova Chen ?was driving when he first noticed the grass fields. Arriving in America from ?the modernist steel-and-glass sprawl of Shanghai, he’d never seen anything like the verdant landscape beside the interstate highway in California. He stopped his car, grabbed his camera and started clicking. “It was like the desktop wallpaper of Windows XP,” he remembers. “Green grass fields stretching to infinity. I saw a windmill farm – something I’d never seen before in my life. It was like someone seeing the ocean for the first time.”
His snaps didn’t do the vista justice, so he tried a 360-degree panorama. But that didn’t cut it either. There was something about standing there with the wind in his face, the smell of the grass in his nostrils, that couldn’t be captured in ?a digital photo. Back home he began painting ?the landscape he’d seen, using artistic exaggeration to capture the feelings it evoked. ?But the pictures had an unexpected result.
“I realised whenever I finished a nature painting I felt extremely lonely,” he says. ?“That’s weird, right? The experience was so happy, but after you’re in the wilds for a while ?you feel isolated. If you grew up in a ?city, urban is something you’re familiar with and feel safe in. A complete wildness is kind of alienating to me. You can see in my drawings there’s a flower and the grass but there’s always a little house in the distance or the city skyline in the background. I find those things give me peace, a sense of safety. As I was exploring, I realised how ironic that is.”
Surprised by this revelation, Chen began ?to wonder if it was something that he could express in a game. “I thought: ‘Can I create an experience that’s the perfect dream that blends the urban with nature?’ You’re sitting in your living room, you turn on your PS3 and it becomes a portal for you to enjoy a natural world, but at the same time it brings you back to the city. That ended up becoming Flower.”
Thatgamecompany’s average age while making Flower was 22. From left: Kelee Santiago, Nicholas Clark, John Edwards, Jenova Chen, Matt Nava, Martin Middleton and Rick Nelson
There aren’t many videogames that make you want to reference 19th-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau or iconic poet Walt Whitman when you talk about them. But then, there aren’t many videogames like Flower. With its keen sense of the tremulous beauty of the landscape and the tension between urban living and a rural idyll, it’s a remarkable achievement – a game that celebrates nature’s awe-inspiring beauty through ?a hi-tech, hi-def, highly abstract rendering of its textures and colours. Like Thoreau, retreating ?from the world to the lyrical isolation of Walden Pond, Flower is a game that’s good for the soul: contemplative, transcendent and serene. Making it, though, was anything but.
Founded in 2006 by Chen and Kellee Santiago, graduates of the University of Southern California Interactive Media MFA programme, thatgamecompany has earned a reputation for making unconventionally tranquil games that privilege emotional tapestries over adrenaline-charged feedback loops. They’re the kind of games that evoke passionate responses ?in players.
Cloud, made while Chen ?was still a student, set the trend. Allowing you to fly your avatar through fluffy clouds in a clear blue sky, it was simple yet somehow uplifting. “People were saying they had tears in their eyes while they were playing the game,” he recalls. “We were getting crazy emails: ‘Tell all the people who worked on the game that you ?are the most beautiful people.’ No one in my life had ever said that to me before.”
After Cloud came Flow, where players ?piloted an aquatic creature through a surreal underwater world. It caught the attention of ?Sony, which signed thatgamecompany for a ?three-game deal to make PlayStation Network titles. After Flow came Flower, and when the boutique indie game studio took the concept to Sony, the publisher could instantly see its potential, even though the gameplay was still far from locked down.