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Develop 2009: Thatgamecompany's Chen On How Emotion Can Evolve Games

Emotion will help games mature from toys into experiences for adults, said thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen, urging devs at Develop to think about the feelings games can provide.
Feelings make the game, says thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen. "If the feelings that you provide in your game are unique, then your game will be unique," said the Flower developer's creative director and co-founder at Develop in Brighton. "Today’s games are more real, more engaging and more satisfying," said Chen, "but really, the underlying interaction dynamics aren’t more sophisticated than what we’ve been used to." Games are still closer to toys than the films and literature it aspires to be compared to, Chen asserted. "With a toy like wood blocks, we learn about physics, colors, math by playing, and games tend to offer similar lessons," he said. "Yet people don’t continue to play with toys as adults." Why? Chen suggested it relates to the emotional potential of toys compared with adult-oriented media. "Clearly what we need are more mature games, but that doesn’t mean more sex and violence," he said. "The Three Little Pigs is a fairy tale, enjoyed by children. The Little Prince is a fairy tale, too -- but it’s enjoyed by adults [as well as children].” "You see, what I realized during the development of Cloud was that entertainment is about feelings," he continued. "Entertainment isn’t just for the sake of itself. When we’re hungry, we look for food; when we’re thirsty, we drink. When we want to experience feelings? It’s entertainment that provides, because in society there are restrictions that mean we can’t do whatever we want." On realizing the importance of feelings as a driver of entertainment, Chen investigated the response of critics to films and to games. "The words people [use to] describe films are emotive; they describe films as ‘passionate’ or ‘magical.' But when people talk about games they’re technical, as if they were describing a car. 'The graphics are good. This car has four seats,'" he said. "They rarely consider how the game makes them feel." The reason? Limitations on games' "emotional spectrum." "Most games provide only primal feelings—and in general, power fantasies," said Chen. "I loved these feelings when I was younger, but as I get older, I start to wonder about the other feelings I can have." The evolution of games experimenting in a larger emotional spectrum was something Chen hoped would be analogous to the early film industry. Originally fixated on thrilling the audience with footage of speeding trains, as the audience grew it became necessary to offer more involved and subtle productions. "This is a time when user experience innovation has much more potential to develop video games than technical," explained Chen. "If the feelings that you provide in your game are unique, then your game will be unique." As advice, Chen offered some lessons he had learned from the development of Flower, such as the discovery that in the attempt to make a “fun” game, the team had blunted the emotional impact. "Sometimes hard fun is your enemy," said Chen, "but it’s too easy to try and make a hard, fun game, as it’s almost all we know." Instead, developers are going to have to look at games as art if they want them to be treated as such, he said. Though Chen admitted that this was a topic about which many in the industry are "jaded," he concluded that it was important that designers think as deeply about "what they wish to share with the audience," as an artist would. "Artists draw on their life and time, and reflect on that," he said. "As designers, we have to think about what we want to share with our audience, what we want to tell them, otherwise we’re only wasting their time."

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