Zen and the Art of Thatgamecompany

Welcome to one of my new experiments for the year!

I’m trying to cross-breed my one-off reviews and my developer case studies, the ones that span multiple posts. So with these, I will 1) share what I learned about the developers of iconic games, and 2) give my interpretations of their works. It’ll be a bit more structured and “educational” than a typical review, but don’t worry, you don’t have to take notes and there’s no test at the end. It’s more like a miniature version of the developer highlights I’ve done in the past, condensed into one post.

Today we’re meeting Thatgamecompany, a studio responsible for some of the iconic “artsy” indie games of the late 2000s and early 2010s: Flow, Flower, and Journey. They recently completed a new game called Sky for iOS and Android that they plan to release on Nintendo Switch later this year.

Jenova Chen, co-founder of Thatgamecompany and director of all their games

The Beginning: Cloud Formations

Thatgamecompany was founded in 2006 by two graduate students: Jenova (Xinghan) Chen, a Chinese immigrant, and Kellee Santiago, a Venezuelan immigrant. Chen grew up in Shanghai, where he and his friends played console games in a more roundabout way than we do in the States. Due to the Chinese government’s console ban in the ’90s, Chen read reviews written in first-person to help its readers immerse themselves into the games. He learned about Final Fantasy VII this way, which captured his imagination; in fact, he based his English name off the game’s villain bearing the same name. He earned a college degree in Shanghai for computer programming but wanted to work more in digital art. He moved to the United States to pursue a graduate degree in University of Southern California (USC).

Kellee Santiago, co-founder of Thatgamecompany, advertising the USC Games Expo in 2020

Kellee Santiago immigrated to the USA when she was much younger, and grew up playing detective games cooperatively with her brother. She initially went to New York to pursue a degree in theater, then transferred to USC where she changed tracks to game design. In 2005 Chen, Santiago, and five other students created an experimental game called Cloud that won the Student Showcase Award at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in 2006.

Their first project, Cloud, is still available on the internet

Cloud formed the foundation for Chen and Santiago’s new approach to game design, drawing from a variety of inspirational wells. As a child, Chen was often kept indoors and hospitalized due to asthma attacks, and would often daydream. When he arrived to the United States, he noted how white the clouds looked when compared to Shanghai’s industrial haze, and wanted to create a game about a child daydreaming he was in the sky controlling the clouds. Santiago wanted to focus on tapping into a player’s emotions rather than telling a complex story or designing challenging gameplay. The gameplay, at best, is reminiscent of the gathering mechanic in Katamari Damacy, and not surprisingly, that game was another inspiration for the pair. Chen and Santiago aimed to build a new space for video games where the experience is evocative, relaxing, and simple. They called the new genre “Zen games.” After winning their award at GDC, Chen pitched Cloud to Sony executive John Hight. Hight knew he had found something interesting, but unfortunately the rest of Sony wasn’t impressed… at least, not yet.

Jenova Chen (right) during an interview with IGN Unfiltered

The Contract With Sony

As Chen and Santiago finished their graduate program in 2006, with their seed of an indie studio barely planted in the ground. The future was tenuous. Chen took a job at Maxis working on the game Spore so that he could keep his visa, as he wasn’t receiving a steady enough income with Thatgamecompany.  Santiago became the studio’s producer, though she was still significantly involved in the game design process. Before graduating, Chen released a Flash game for his thesis, entitled Flow, a simple game of controlling an ever-evolving microorganism. Chen made the game to test the theory of game difficulty dynamically changing in order to keep a player fully engaged within a game. This time, Sony took notice. They offered Thatgamecompany a contract of releasing three games on the PlayStation Network (PSN), which they agreed to. Flow was reworked into a more fleshed-out experience and ported to the PS3 as the first game for this contract. It was released on the PSN digital storefront in 2007, with subsequent versions releasing on the PSP, PS4, and PS Vita. With the growth of online distribution stores, Thatgamecompany found the freedom to pursue their projects without the massive financial hurdle of distributing a physical copy of the game.

Following Flow, Chen, Santiago, and the rest of the studio began working on their next game for the PSN. Chen saw the PlayStation as a portal to different worlds, and imagined the console taking players to a virtual backyard, a way to be “embraced by nature.” This time they designed the player to control a gust of wind that would collect flower petals as it blew past them. They used this simple gameplay premise to pursue a wordless narrative bared around the tensions between natural and urban environments. Flower was released on the PlayStation 3’s PSN in 2009, with subsequent ports to the PS4, PS Vita, and PC. Critics adored it, and thousands of players downloaded it, much to the surprise of the studio.

An Arduous Journey

With some momentum under their wings, Thatgamecompany pushed forward with their third and final title in the contract with Sony. Santiago moved out of direct involvement with the project as she had to handle more responsibilities of managing the studio itself, while Chen remained the director for the game.

Journey’s development was rather tumultuous. After Flower, the studio more than doubled in size, and Chen struggled not only with managing this larger group of people, but also with trying to pair down his ideas into a focused experience. This time, the emotional target was to make the player feel small, to create a sense of awe and wonder, to propel the player to explore, and to help other players spontaneously. He looked to Tibet and the Middle East for his visual inspiration, and took a play-by-play retelling of the Joseph Campbell’s monomyth for a narrative structure, though like with Flower, Journey’s story was wordless. The initial difficulties in development resulted in several delays, which proved costly for the studio as time went on. In the months leading up to the game’s release, the studio began inching ever closer towards bankruptcy, with several developers temporarily working without pay. Journey was finally released on the PlayStation 3 in 2012, with subsequent ports to the PS4 and PC. It won several Game of the Year awards, with several critics giving strong emotional responses to the piece.

Journey also saved the studio financially, though several changes were still in store for them. Kellee Santiago left Thatgamecompany to work first for Ouya, then for Google Play Games. The contract with Sony also ended, meaning Thatgamecompany was left to find a new platform to develop for. Feedback from Journey showed that players wished there was a more ubiquitous platform to share the game with. This prompted Chen to develop their next game for mobile devices, continuing their focus on noncompetitive, exploration-focused, cooperative play. Seven years after Journey took the indie scene by storm, Thatgamecompany released their newest project – Sky: Children of the Light in 2019, subsequently winning several mobile awards that year.

When Sky releases on Nintendo Switch, you can be sure that I’ll review it. For now, though, I will focus on Flow, Flower, and Journey.

My Impressions of Flow, Flower, and Journey

All three games, Flow, Flower, and Journey, embody a refreshing minimalist approach to game design. Despite being very different games, none rely on any handholding or text-heavy tutorial, and none require any heads-up display (HUD). In order to accomplish this and not leave the player confused or frustrated, it’s vital to have clear audio and visual cues as well as simple controls.

I found this approach to game design rather elegant. You begin confused, but then after some trial and error, the elements start to fit into place. Flow sets the precedent. After munching on the first few creatures, you see your organism grow. After experimentation, or perhaps a chance encounter, you see eating a red creature sends you farther down to more difficult creatures, while eating blue creatures send you up to easier ones. The basic gameplay hook is set. Flow’s ruthless microbial world of “eat or be eaten” is married to this zen soundscape. Your creature gracefully evolves in an effortless ebb and flow from easy to difficult sequences. It’s certainly relaxing, but it doesn’t quite reach the same emotional places as the other two games.

In addition, Flower and Journey‘s simplicity allow for deeper emotional impact. My mind remained uncluttered from learning complex strategies, or mastering a combat system — game mechanics that are certainly intellectually engaging, but not necessarily emotionally resonant. Without these traditional elements to learn, my mind focused more on the images and sounds themselves. It was like video game poetry: short yet full of vivid imagery, symbolism, and raw human expression. If I had you level up or manage an item inventory, the emotional beats would have been interrupted. The spell needs to remain intact.

That doesn’t mean that gameplay has no stake in this experience at all, though. Flower continued Flow’s viscerally satisfying gameplay loop of collecting petals and growing bigger, paired with fast and fluid controls. Journey’s controls focused on gliding with your sash, and while you can also make the sash bigger, the loop doesn’t have that same kind of momentum that Flower does. I loved being a gust of wind, sweeping through hills and canyons, gathering colorful petals as I went and restoring dead areas of a virtual landscape.

Being games whose narratives hinge solely on a wordless audiovisual experience, it was key that the visual cues, audio feedback, and soundtrack combined in perfect harmony. I commend OST composers Vincent Diamante (for Flower) and Austin Wintory (for Journey) for hitting those moments spectacularly. In Flower, each petal I picked up resulted in a soothing chime. Similarly, in Journey, I felt immersed hearing the rustling sand and rippling robes. The locales of Flower were certainly zen, but not exactly distinct, whereas the vistas I saw in Journey were striking. Its imagery left me staring at my screenshots.

Due to the nature of these games, it’s hard to talk about their actual “stories,” as the meaning of the experience is left up to you, and can in fact change from one playthrough to the next. On one level, you can see Journey for its face value of a person learning about the past of their civilization. On another, you can see it as an allegory of life and death. And in a different phase of your life, other parts may call your attention more than others.

Which one is better? Well, that’s hard to decide. I enjoyed the moment-to-moment gameplay of Flower better, but the overall picture of Journey left me more emotionally moved. I have one request though: can we stop comparing every artsy indie game to Journey? Please? As much credit as it deserves for making the most popular case for video games being art, other games have, in fact, been able to iterate upon the game and improve the foundation it has laid.

I find it especially cool that you can explore the world together with other players in this chill way.

No matter who you are, whether or not you like video games or are good at them, these three games are simple enough, short enough, wholesome enough, and evocative enough that I highly recommend anyone, any single person, to play them. And if you don’t own a PS3 or PS4 like me, you can easily find Flower and Journey on Steam. I’ll update everyone with my thoughts on Sky once that releases later this year.

Did you like this new kind of review? It’s certainly more to read, and I’m worried it might be too much. Was hearing about the history and development interesting enough? I have a few more posts lined up like this, so I’d appreciate feedback about it. It’s also a lot more work to write, so I’m planning on doing these perhaps every other week, or once a month. We’ll see. If you’ve gotten this far, thanks!

Further Reading / Sources

  1. https://youtu.be/4zJdF0z2ppU
  2. https://youtu.be/UGCkVHSvjzM
  3. https://youtu.be/RoHrwAacTwo
  4. https://youtu.be/K9y6MYDSAww
  5. https://kotaku.com/the-ten-most-influential-women-in-games-of-the-past-dec-5438346
  6. https://kelleesantiago.com/
  7. https://blog.ted.com/fellows-friday-with-kellee-santiago/
  8. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102246406
  9. https://web.archive.org/web/20100509105600/http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/24110/Interview_Kellee_Santiago_Talks_Thatgamecompanys_Road_Ahead.php
  10. https://www.ign.com/articles/2012/08/14/how-thatgamecompany-struggled-to-save-journey
  11. https://web.archive.org/web/20150213043344/http://www.edge-online.com/features/why-thatgamecompany-nearly-fell-apart-after-releasing-journey-and-whats-next-for-the-studio/
  12. http://www.jenovachen.com/flowingames/cloud.htm

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