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Ten Years Ago, ‘Journey’ Made a Convincing Case That Video Games Could Be Art

Creative director Jenova Chen conceived ‘Journey’ as an act of rebellion against commercial games. The decidedly emotional titles it inspired forgo violence and point scoring for matters closer to the heart.

Ringer illustration

To borrow internet parlance for a moment, Journey is a video game designed to hit you right in the feels. You play as an androgynous character dressed in a sweeping red robe, dwarfed by stark landscapes of sand and snow. Pushing the PlayStation controller’s left analog stick, you move forward, slowly at first, and then, later in the game, with exuberant speed, as if you’re surfing. Most of the time you’re alone, but if you’re lucky, you’ll come across another figure, its silhouette fluttering in the distance. You might travel together for a few minutes and then part ways, or perhaps you’ll reach the end of the game in one another’s company. Regardless, this time will feel almost miraculous—a chance encounter at the very edge of the world.

The game’s setting gleams with flecks of Gustav Klimt gold while a single towering mountain dominates the horizon. The game is called Journey for a reason, and its deliberately allegorical story curves toward tragedy, as if this is the fate awaiting us all. Unlike most games, you die only once. Rather than a cheap metaphor for failure, it’s something heavier—a crescendo, an act of self-annihilation.

Now, it’s widely accepted that games can move us in ways similar to novels, movies, or music, but in March 2012, when Journey came out on PS3, this simply wasn’t the case. Sure, there were the works of Fumito Ueda, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus—stark, artful games of the aughts from Japan that tugged more on the heartstrings than the itchy trigger finger. So too had the rise of independent games from 2008 onward given birth to a slew of newly personal titles such as Braid. Journey, however, felt different—a video game with levels, an avatar, and enemies, but that, mechanically, eschewed almost all else to focus entirely on movement. The game had cutscenes, but these were reserved for establishing shots of glinting sand rather than moments of genuine dramatic thrust. What Journey achieved—which few, if any, video games had before—was giving you a lump in your throat while you actually interacted with it. This was a big deal.

In this way, Journey helped crystallize the idea that video games could and should be more. In 2007 and 2010, respectively, Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption, games with knotty philosophical questions at their violent cores, had pushed the blockbuster shooter and open-world adventure into newly grown-up territory. But these were also time-consuming experiences that asked you to sink tens of hours into them to get to their narrative payoffs. Journey, by comparison, could be finished in 90 minutes, the length of a film. Certain kids, myself included, grew up convinced of video games’ artistic merit but lacked a work to express this conviction succinctly. Journey was the perfect title to convert churlish nonbelievers—our parents, for example.

I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Gregorios Kythreotis, the lead designer of 2021 indie breakout hit Sable, remembers it like this, too. Kythreotis, who was 19 in 2012, had just started studying architecture, a discipline perfectly suited to the thoroughly spatial medium of 3D games. He was struck by Journey’s confidence: It was the rare minimalist game whose carefully chosen elements had been executed exactingly. The “biggest thing” he recalls, though, was the fact that he felt he could show it to people who didn’t play video games. “They would play it and often be wowed,” he says over Zoom. “It was a lot friendlier and [more] accessible in this regard.”

Alx Preston, the creator of critically acclaimed 2016 action game Hyper Light Drifter and the recent open-world adventure Solar Ash, tells me over a video call that it was Journey’s singular style that caught his attention. “There weren’t a ton of games out there that had this type of look,” he explains. “This type of vibe, these types of color palettes, that wasn’t focused on violence or goofy, silly cartoony things. It was carving out its own niche.”

Sony Interactive Entertainment

Clayton Purdom, who was then writing at Kill Screen, one of the era’s hip new video game publications, echoes this point. (Disclosure: I wrote for Kill Screen while Purdom was editorial creative director.) “I remember interviewing someone who talked about it as a ‘dinner party game,’” he tells me over a video call. “I’m never gonna have a dinner party where we all sit around and play Journey, but it makes sense. The game’s this really digestible, concrete, audiovisual narrative experience that’s fundamentally interactive.” In 2013, a month before the game’s release, Kill Screen ran the headline: “Is Journey creator Jenova Chen the videogame world’s Terrence Malick?” The comparison doesn’t really land beyond a shared fondness for stirring panoramic landscapes, but the question speaks to a time when many were attempting to frame video games as worthy of serious cultural discussion—as if you’d talk about them with your friends in the same breath as the latest Sundance hit.

Chen, the creative director of Journey, was held up as the poster boy of this movement, and so he was first in line for criticism. In 2010, film critic Roger Ebert wrote a gamer-baiting piece titled “Video games can never be art.” At the behest of a reader, Ebert was encouraged to check out a TED talk by Kellee Santiago, a cofounder of the studio behind Journey, thatgamecompany. Santiago made an argument to the contrary, referencing, among other games, the studio’s previous title, Flower, in which you play as the wind carrying an assembly of petals. Flower was heralded as a game changer when it was released in 2009, an emotional, nonviolent title that even a novice could play by virtue of its simple controls. (The player tilts the PlayStation 3 controller to change the wind’s direction.) In 2013, it was added to the Smithsonian’s permanent collection and described as “an important moment in the development of interactivity and art.” Ebert, however, took a different view, batting the game away with a typically terse one-liner in which he compared its aesthetic sensibility, not entirely unfairly, to that of a “greeting card.”

When I speak to Chen over Zoom, he doesn’t mention Ebert by name but references the wider discourse. It was a “sense of rebellion” that drove him to make Journey, the idea that games should appeal to an audience beyond the young men who were interested in fist-pumping shooters like Call of Duty. (These games “weren’t actually mainstream,” he says, “they just had billboards on the street.”) Linked to this was the perception of video games in his home country of China as “virtual drugs” that caused people to drop out of college and neglect their relationships.

During the early years of his pursuit of a computer science degree at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Chen snuck into art classes. A few years later, he studied digital art and design as part of a cross-university collaboration with Donghua University. At the time, he and a friend would make video games in their college dorms, Chen art directing and his friend programming. There was little information on video game software available in China, so Chen’s partner learned about game-making from books sent over by a cousin in the U.S. Still, even while Chen was making games as a hobby, he didn’t consider it a viable career path. He intended to become an animation director like those at Pixar. “I felt like that was an industry respected by society,” he says. “I could tell my parents that I wanted to be an artist in this field and they couldn’t say it wasn’t honorable.”

Art as a career was an ongoing point of contention between Chen and his parents. He was born in Shanghai in 1981, five years after the end of the cultural revolution that sought to purge China of its pre-communist art and culture. Despite being an avid drawer, he characterizes his childhood as one devoid of art. Of these early years, he remembers that the sky was always gray except when it had just rained. The dust from the construction sites of the rapidly expanding city would lift and he’d be able to “smell the soil in the air”—for a brief time, “the sky was blue.” In an effort to steer Chen toward “respectable” employment in the modernizing country, his parents enrolled him in a coding class at the age of 10. “In China there was no plan from the government to take care of the elderly. Your kid was your retirement insurance,” he says. Despite initial misgivings about the coding classes, Chen quickly came to look forward to them thanks to the video games his classmates played before lessons.

Chris Bell, a designer on Journey who joined thatgamecompany halfway through the game’s production, says Chen possesses the complete package of skills needed to make video games. “He’s an artist, a programmer, and an engineer,” Bell tells me over a call. Having excelled in programming, Chen rekindled his childhood artistic impulse as a teenager when Shanghai began to open its door to international artists in the 1990s. On the way back from school, he’d stop off at the art galleries in People’s Square. “I would check literally every single show,” says Chen, who savored these “windows to the outside.” When it came to contemporary art, the teenager would ask a central, probing question: “Why does it deserve to be on the wall?”

Fast-forward to 2009. Chen, who had moved to the States six years earlier to study interactive media at the University of Southern California, was wrapping up production of Flower, the second of three thatgamecompany games published by Sony. (The first was a life simulator called Flow.) He was vibing off how people were responding to the game, particularly the finale of its movielike three-act structure, and he was ready to take the lessons learned at USC to the next level. But Zynga had just exploded onto the scene with its interpretation of social gaming, the hit Facebook game FarmVille. Chen remembers watching the company’s CFO give a talk at an industry conference. Having proclaimed the future of gaming as social, the CFO urged indie developers to quit their passion projects and join the company. “Everybody was pissed,” he recalls. “I felt their anger, too. I was like, ‘Who are you? How can you say that you define social games?’” For Chen, social meant an emotional connection between people, not just “trading vegetables with someone on FarmVille.”

This became the seed from which the rest of Journey grew. Chen wanted to show the world a game in which you truly emotionally engaged and connected to another person. It was another “act of rebellion,” against both Zynga’s transactional idea of connection and traditional multiplayer games filled with “foul-mouthed, teabagging” kids. When Matt Nava, the art director on Journey, interviewed to join thatgamecompany in 2008, the first question Chen asked was how he’d approach the social world of Journey: What would it look like, where would it take place, what would happen? Nava, “sweating bullets,” replied, “When you see another player in the game, through the visuals and the setting, you should immediately want to go to them. You want them to be the respite in the environment.”

Nava’s art, both elegantly minimalist and capable of summoning a deep, mythical history, is central to the success of Journey. In the same interview with Chen, Nava suggested brightly colored characters inhabiting a barren desert setting. This would become the game’s defining image. These creatures are humanoid but not identifiably human; they have bright eyes but no other facial features. The world they inhabit is filled with ruinous temples, tombstones, and sand that glints and glitters as if its very surface is dancing. When your character moves over these particles, their pointed legs deform it as if the grains have a physical presence, not just a flat, lifeless texture. Your character’s scarf, flapping in the wind like a ribbon, has a tangible quality, too, another component that tricks you into thinking this is less a computer program than an actual place of elemental forces.

You’re also swept along by Austin Wintory’s rousing soundtrack, which (in lieu of any text or dialogue) functions much like a narrator. “The music is very much a guide for the player,” says Wintory, who admits he felt a huge amount of pressure as a result of the soundtrack’s prominence in the experience. The composer was keen to avoid dictating emotions to players; rather, he wanted to create a musical environment in which they could bring their own “emotional projection into the equation.” Wintory refers to a feeling of “camaraderie” between himself and Nava; the pair would “riff a lot,” almost as if they were in a “feedback loop” with one another.

Nava, whose father is also an artist (the creator of a series of grand tapestries that hang in a cathedral in downtown Los Angeles), says he was obsessed with creating an “iconic” art style. He did so while working within the technical limitations of the PlayStation 3 and, more importantly, what he and the small team could physically produce in the allotted schedule. In the late aughts, out-of-the-box game-making software such as Unity and Unreal (now industry standards) weren’t yet widely used, so thatgamecompany had to build their own set of custom tools. In the early phase of development, Nava and graphics programmer John Edwards went back and forth constantly about what was and wasn’t possible. Ultimately, it was a case of “if you don’t need it, you don’t make it,” so they homed in on the fundamentals of the world: characters, architecture, sand, and fabric.

Despite a strong central idea and a mass of raw talent at thatgamecompany, the production of Journey was challenging. Executive producer Robin Hunicke, speaking five months after the game’s release at Game Developers Conference Europe, referred to a nearly catastrophic level of miscommunication within the team. Bell, who was hired initially as a producer and who later transitioned to a game designer role, took it upon himself to act as a mediator. Some relationships became so fraught that Hunicke described them as breaking down into “personal grudges.” At one stage, Nava arrived at work to find there was already a full-blown argument happening. He quit on the spot, only for Santiago to chase him down the sidewalk and coax him back into the building.

As time wore on, one deadline with Sony passed, and then another. The company’s finances were in such dire straits that Chen and the founding members of thatgamecompany all dropped to half salaries for the final six months of development. Nava says the team fell into the same trap as so many creators who believe that “in order to make great art, it was worth the suffering.”

During a period of acute creative drift, an exasperated Nava took it upon himself to design a level, much to Chen’s annoyance (as lead artist, this was categorically not Nava’s remit). From his perspective, there were a handful of mechanics but nothing was really sticking, so he focused instead on creating a series of “atmospheres” that the player would progress through. Nava thought back to specific “moments” he had in mind when he was painting the concept art, and then fed them back into the levels. The most famous of these sees you hurtling through a stone tunnel while a sumptuous orange sun sets to your right. “Thinking about it as moments was the real trick,” says Nava. “That’s what people remember the game for.”

The gambit paid off. When it was released on March 13, 2012, Journey received rave reviews from outlets such as The Guardian (“the best video game I have ever played”), Eurogamer (“a “sand-blown chunk of spiritual eye candy”), and IGN (“one of gaming’s most beautiful, most touching achievements”). Nava is right to point to the “moments,” which Kythreotis remembers as “a really special aesthetic experience,” as key to its creative success. But the multiplayer is integral, too—arguably an overlooked aspect of the game that to this day breathes an improvisatory life into it. Humans behave differently from AI characters; they move erratically and compulsively, both too slowly and too quickly, and this discord, which takes place against the game’s pristinely melancholic world, is vital to its balance.

Still, the production took its toll on the team. Bell and Nava both exited soon after, citing difficulties relating to the company culture. As Nava explains, they weren’t the only ones: “I don’t think many people fully understand what happened,” he says, “but [thatgamecompany] shut down basically. Everyone left.”

The studio was later revived for the production of 2019 iOS title Sky: Children of the Light, another multiplayer exploration game albeit set amid billowing clouds. In 2017, Bell returned as a designer, noting a broadly positive change in work culture. Chen was now decidedly in charge, whereas before there had been wrangling over decisions between him and his thatgamecompany cofounders. With a bucketload of VC funding rather than a Sony publishing deal, the company had more time and money to explore different ideas. Since then, thatgamecompany has continued to grow. A few days after my conversation with Chen, his company announced a $160 million investment deal alongside the recruitment of Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull, who will serve as principal adviser on creative culture and strategic growth. I suspect a younger Chen would be pleased at this development: a titan of Hollywood animation joining his artistically committed video game studio.

How should one assess Journey’s influence? It’s not Grand Theft Auto III, a blockbuster behemoth that inspired a deluge of imitators (mostly hyper-violent open-world crime games such as Saints Row). If you look at the following decade of games, few bear the explicit influence of thatgamecompany’s flagship title. Oceanic explorer ABZÛ and open-world puzzler The Pathless are exceptions, but these were both made by Giant Squid, the studio Nava cofounded in 2013 following his departure from thatgamecompany. Importantly, Journey showed Nava both what games could be and how not to make them, a lesson he carried into his new studio, one built on making “artistic games” in a culture that is “sustainable and happy.”

In a wider sense, Journey helped engender what we’d now call a vibe shift. Put simply, if video games mostly traded in the various emotions related to killing shit, point scoring, or problem solving, Journey was part of a new wave that broadened their dramatic texture. Purdom threads a line between Journey and small-scale interactive works such as Florence, If Found …, and, most recently, puzzle game Unpacking, each of which tells decidedly personal stories. “I think, in some ways, it did help break ground on the whole ‘games are emotional’ angle,” he says. Some titles arguably leaned into sentimentality too hard—2016’s Unravel, for example, an almost unbearably cute platformer starring a yarn of wool. Despite a slew of games Purdom refers to as “feelings porn,” Journey also led to experiences that were, for lack of a better word, more “honest.”

Purdom, however, is rightly wary of ascribing too much importance to Journey. It came out the same year as Gone Home, a first-person exploration game that centers on a queer relationship, and 13 months after Dear Esther, a macabre, William Burroughs–inspired adventure set on a blustery Scottish island. Each was influential in its own way, but the legacy of these games resides more in how they collectively pushed a different emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic agenda to the mainstream. (Kentucky Route Zero, Cart Life, and Papers, Please are a few of my favorites from the time.) Still, these were all games you had to play on your PC with a keyboard and mouse. Journey, published by Sony for the PS3, “helped kick open the door in a more popular way,” says Purdom. “You could throw that game on and play it on the couch.”

Journey immediately became the fastest-selling game on the PlayStation Network at a time when most titles were still bought in brick-and-mortar stores. For Nick Suttner, who was working as a senior product evaluator in Sony’s third party department, the game was “perfect ammunition.” He and a small team were responsible for getting games onto the PlayStation Store in an era when resources for such titles were highly contested. “We had to fight for everything,” he tells me over Zoom. “Indies just weren’t part of the ecosystem.” The success of Journey fed into what Suttner calls a “holistic push” at Sony, which had also included a three-year, $20 million publishing fund for indie games that was announced in 2011. A year after Journey’s release, explosive blockbusters Killzone: Shadow Fall, Destiny, and Watch Dogs dominated the PlayStation 4’s glitzy announcement, but amid all the gunfire was The Witness, a serene, first-person puzzle game. It felt like part of a sea change in priorities at Sony that Journey was partly responsible for.

However, Sony’s support for indies wouldn’t last. A few years later, when it became clear that the PlayStation 4 was trouncing the Xbox One, the company’s focus shifted back to blockbuster game development. Sony poured resources into the next generation of megahits, such as The Last of Us Part II, Marvel’s Spider-Man, and Ghost of Tsushima. Along the way, Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, which was both the developer of the God of War series and an incubator and publisher for indie developers, had a game canceled. This meant layoffs on the development side and a deprioritizing of the publishing division that had launched Journey a few years earlier.

Sony Interactive Entertainment

On December 1, 2016, the indie-oriented publisher Annapurna Interactive announced its formation, led by Nathan Gary, the creative director of Sony Santa Monica’s indie development efforts. Chen, who has been variously described as a “scout” and “spiritual adviser” to the company, refers to himself as “more of a cofounder.” Having sourced investment for Journey’s follow-up, Sky: Children of the Light, Chen was perfectly placed to introduce Gary to potential funders. After securing a deal with Annapurna, itself a film production company behind a string of auterist hits including The Master, Zero Dark Thirty, and Her, attention turned toward signing games. If there was a guiding principle, says Chen, it’s that he and Gary were looking for game makers who were ready to put an aspect of their personal life into the game. Chen describes this as an “innately artistic” approach; the creators are “honest,” saying something that is “truthful to their own lives.” Crucially, these works are more likely to resonate because, as Chen sees it, “our lives are all intertwined.” In other words, we see ourselves in these games.

Chen says Annapurna was also looking for emotional tones underrepresented in games. He mentions 2017’s What Remains of Edith Finch, a game he characterizes by its “dark humor,” and one that his former colleague Bell took a lead role in designing. Maquette, released in 2021, fits the bill, too, a decidedly Hollywood-feeling romantic drama wrapped around a mind-bending puzzle mechanic. In fact, almost the entirety of Annapurna Interactive’s roster is a reflection of the central thesis that has steered Chen’s career, namely that gaming must look beyond the 15-to-35 male demographic if it’s ever going to evolve, let alone be taken seriously.

When I ask Chen about Journey’s influence on the wider gaming landscape, he doesn’t mention specific titles or trends, but pulls focus back onto the work itself with, to my surprise, an extended music metaphor. “If you want an orchestra to move people, then every instrument has to perform the same piece of music. Every element contributes to the storytelling,” he says. “And what we learned is that the interactivity is the soloist. It’s the lead of the orchestra in gaming. A lot of games in the past have told emotional stories—Final Fantasy, for example—but they relied on traditional media. I love it, but the moving part, the part where you cry, is when you watch the cutscenes. At that moment, what really touched you is cinema, not games.”

In a way, it’s surprising how few blockbuster games have internalized this lesson. The recently released Horizon Forbidden West is a good example. When I play that game, it moves me, but mostly because of the sense of awe I feel at its shimmering, windy world. It’s the same for Ghost of Tsushima and the Uncharted games. That’s not to deny the validity of these experiences, but their moments of personal drama are delivered without the player’s input. Journey, in its own very specific way, figured out how to make drama interactive. Purdom refers to Signs of the Sojourner, an indie card game about friendships and conversation, as a “next step” in this regard. “It’s a mechanically complex game entirely in service of inspiring these kinds of emotional experiences,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Wow, I’m feeling regret because I hurt a friend’s feelings thanks to the way these cards played out.” My own mind is drawn to Hideo Kojima’s postapocalyptic hiking simulator, Death Stranding, and the grueling slogs my character endured through snowy mountains. These interactive journeys mirrored the protagonist’s emotional arc, and each landed with greater heft as a result.

This is the magic of Journey. At the start, you move tentatively but curiously. In the mid-game, you’re cascading down dunes at extreme speed. And during the very lowest moments, you’re barely making a step at a time. Then, when you have nothing left to give, you stop moving entirely, however hard you push forward on the controller. “What Journey did really well,” says Chen, “was to make interactivity the climax—the memorable moment.”

Lewis Gordon is a writer and journalist living in Glasgow who contributes to outlets including The Verge, Wired, and Vulture.

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