Jenova Chen had the core idea for Journey even before Thatgamecompany existed, and it evolved from his frustrations playing World of Warcraft.
Chen told a packed room of developers at GDC 2013 that loneliness during his school years also influenced his vision for the game. Speaking the day after Journey cleaned up at the Games Developer’s Choice Awards, Jenova explained: “In early 2006 I already had the idea for Journey. At the time I was in my third year of playing World of Warcraft, and that was also the time I was getting really sick of it.”
“Most of the time I was busy at school, so I had almost no social life and being online with real people was something that made me feel less lonely. When I was online I wanted to have a connection with the other players, but most of the other players didn’t care about that; they wanted to talk about the strategy to kill the boss, for me to get out of their way, or that they wanted that loot,” he continued. “The more I played, the more I realised I had no connection with any of these people, it was just highlighting that I was a lonely person.”
The creation of Journey would not begin until Chen would complete several more games, and he began to explore the idea that games largely traded on the feeling of “empowerment.”
“When you are empowered, your first reaction is, ‘how do I employ my power?’” Chen posited. “If you give me a gun and lock me in a room with one other person, I think I’m going to use it.”
This was something that struck him even with online, collaborative games like the Left4Dead series. “The only time I felt collaboration was when someone patched me up,” he said. “Most of the time it was, ‘get out of my way, I want to shoot this zombie.’”
Similarly, while collaboration could be forced – as for example in World of Warcraft – by making the players individually weak in the face of powerful monsters, there was still no connection between the players. So Chen asked, “What if we have less people, a very hazardous environment in fact that there are only two people left? All of a sudden the guy in the distance becomes a lot more interesting.”
Chen went on to discuss the team’s original co-op experiments, revealing that while the game famously does not require any direct collaboration, this design resulted from the early feedback from Sony that the game would require to be played through in singleplayer. He showed one of their earliest prototypes, “Rope” where players were required to drop ropes for each other to navigate a 2D platformer. “What if you are playing alone? You can’t play this game,” he said.
Another problem with requiring collaboration was the tendency for players to “grief” each other, with Chen recounting a story later in Journey’s development were the game included the ability to move the other player, originally intended to allow players to climb up rocks together. Players more often used this move to push the other player to their death.
“At first I thought it was just our playtesters, but one time I was playing with John Edwards [thatgamecompany’s engineer] and he killed me… more than once. I was like, ‘John you know this game is about working together and having an emotional connection!’”
“After that,” Chen said, “I was disappointed in humanity.”
The thing that helped Chen see the project through? A chance meeting with a philosophical friend of Kellee Santiago’s. “He said, ‘your players are babies,’” explained Chen. “They don’t carry the morality of their real life. Babies only seek feedback. With helping a guy up a rock, there is almost no feedback, but pushing a guy into a cactus there is so much – blood, screaming, death.”
“To control the player,” Chen said, “you must control the player’s input and output.”