With a manifesto on game design and some surreal games, Jenova Chen is armed to break the mediocrity that exists in today’s world of video games. Jenova has thus far released two innovative games, Flow and Cloud, which can both be found on his website for free.
His games are meant to create meaningful experiences that will attract both gamers and non-gamers alike. I had the pleasure of interviewing the visionary on the topic of his games, what motivates his unique approach, and what he might ask you to fetch him if you’re working at the McDonald’s drive thru.
PS. If you missed our first interview with him, you should fly over to Fronz’s.
Dick McVengeance: So, first off, our Destructoid Quick 5. Little icebreakers, so to say. What’s your least favorite video game?
Jenova Chen: There are so many games that have disappointed me. But I won’t consider them the worst. Disappointment happens here and there; you can’t really compare which one is more disappointing.
DMV: Who’s your favorite robot?
JC: So far… my favorite robot is Google!
DMV: Good answer. And what do you usually order from McDonalds?
JC: A chicken sandwich and a combination of Power Ryte mixed with lemonade. It’s green.
DMV: Sounds delicious. There might be a market for Jenova Juice. But anyway, what do you think was in the suitcase in Pulp Fiction?
JC: Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it.
DMV: Unacceptable! And finally, your favorite movie?
JC: That’s a tough one too. I like Miyazaki’s animated movies, they are very purifying, but if you are asking about live-action movies, Forrest Gump is the one touched me a little bit more than the others. Fight Club’s also very good in my opinion. But they offer different tastes; it’s not about the best, but a wide spectrum of things you can enjoy.
DMV: Good five. Now on to the heavy questions: In your documentation for the game Flow, you talk of the “Flow Theory”, and it seems to be the core principle behind your games. Care to explain what it is?
JC: Flow is used to describe human’s optimal experiences. The experience where you totally immersed in your activiy, so that you forget about time, pressure and anything but the things you are doing.
DMV: So the game must be extremely reactive to the player’s actions?
JC: Not necessarily. Meditation can also bring a person into flow. People coming up with goals and pursuing them will likely generate flow experiences. It can happen during writing, painting, sports, playing video games and so on.
DMV: I must say that I have really enjoyed playing Flow, and that it’s a marvelous game.
JC: Thank you very much and that adds one more reinforcement of the theory I am researching.
DMV: I’ve heard fellow gamers say that even though you’re playing the game by yourself, it feels as though you’re playing with other people. Have you thought of trying to get Flow put on the DS?
JC: Yeah, we have thought about every possibility for Flow. In fact, we have contacted Nintendo.
DMV: Are they interested in pursuing Flow, or are you still in the early stages of talking with
Nintendo? JC: Well I can’t really tell you details, but Flow is going to be appear on a next gen console.
DMV: That’s wonderful to hear. You’ve commented in your blog before about the lack of story in games, saying, “The idea of story is largely used to set the stage for first person shooters and role-playing games. Once the game begins, story elements become simplistic, linear or at least pre-defined, and “underwhelming” — if they exist at all.” Do you think it’s truly possible to have a game where you can do anything within a world, akin to a pen and paper RPG?
JC: That was probably from 2 years ago. My current understanding of story is very different. Story is how our brain thinks, remembers and communicates with each other about context. However, entertainment does not rely on stories. Entertainment is about a sequence of emotional experiences. You can have the same Spiderman movie with the same story but directed by two different directors, and I bet you will find the entertainment values are going to be drastically different.
It’s the “storytelling” in the current entertainment media like film and TV or comics and literature that matters rather than the story itself. “Storytelling” in movies is about how to manipulate the audience’s emotion through camera, script, sound, acting and so on. For video games “video game design” is the new noun as the same as “storytelling” in film. It’s about how to let the player feel certain way through gameplay, graphics, control, sound, and of course story if there’s any.
DMV: Do you think it’ll be possible to have games where players can do whatever they choose in the context of a scenario, and have it affect the overall story? I mean, separate and apart from games that offer multiple endings, but rather, players aren’t restricted to several options?
JC: Well it is possible, and it has been done. But was that immersive? Was that fun? Not all of them are. Story is not what matters, the experience player went through is. And the player will describe the experiences in a narrative structure to others and memorize them as story.
DMV: What do you see as the biggest problem with video games today?
JC: The laziness and business model which has limited the current game makers in the shadow of movies business model. That, and a very very very narrow target market. As a public media, films and music have reached to everybody in our society, but so far, games are still not accepted by the majority as a form of art and entertainment. People inside the industry have been dying to expand their market. But the way they are doing it is not insightful.
DMV: Do you see Nintendo’s philosophy with the Wii and their Touch Generation products in line with your views, then?
JC: Nintendo is one of the very few ones who actually managed to reach new audiences. Nintendogs, Brain Age, have introduced a very different audience group into the media, But we need more companies and games to really push the industry forward. I don’t know if you feel this way, but I find hard to find a game to play these days, and most new games that are coming out are always clones of others. I just don’t want to waste my time on a clone game. I want to play something new, not just graphically prettier, but emotionally makes me feel differently.
DMV: Yeah, that’s one of the main reasons I picked up Beyond Good and Evil recently.
JC: I liked Beyond Good and Evil, there are moments where I was really touched. Yet a big part of the game is still pretty traditional. And that’s why Katamari Damacy and Shadow of the Colossus shined in the gaming community; they offer a very exotic emotional experience that the North American audience rarely sees. Okami and Viewtiful Joe are also good examples of unique feelings. They are normal interns of their genres: side scroller arcadish game and action game but they provide a very unique feeling through the way you play, see, and listen.
DMV: One last question: besides Miyazaki, what other storytellers, whether it be anime, film, videogames, etc. have significantly influenced you?
JC: I’d say Mihaly Cszksentmihaly, the creator of Flow theory. Tracy Fullerton & Chris Swain, professors teaching game design theory and techniques in USC, Kentai Takahashi, creator of Katamari Damacy, Shadow of the Colossus [creator, Fumito Ueda]. Movies are inspiring in their own way, but they don’t necessarily change my game design philosophy.
DMV: Well, thank you for taking the time for this interview. I hope all goes well with your projects, and I look forward to playing them in the future.
So where can you download Jenova’s games and keep an eye this guy? Check out his web site. and blog