That Game Company is known for having a unique approach to game development, creating titles that contrast directly with the violent adrenalin-maximizers that many studios produce. (And there’s nothing wrong with adrenalin-maximaizers; don’t get me wrong.) Instead they’ve made the short, thoughtful games Flow and Flower.
We’ve got an interview with some of their staff, focusing on narrative in video games, game mechanics, and their new title Journey.
HBHUD: Are there any issues or emotions that you feel can be addressed more fully in video games than in other mediums? If so, what are they?
That Game Company: I don’t know that there are specific emotions, but games have the capacity of creating experiences that can deeply resonate within us. I am a person that learns by doing, which to me is evidence that interactivity is a very powerful medium. Other issues that I think are well-suited for video games are ones that inspire audience participation or action in the real-world, such as politics. I don’t think there have been many very good experiences in this space, but I still see a huge potential there.
HBHUD: The video game is the only art from where the artist/s cedes some control to the audience. This presents some challenges when integrating narrative, e.g, when playing conventional video games, I often find that the story feels very artificial. Standard cinematic techniques don’t seem to translate well. Do you think there is any place for highly structured story in video games?
That Game Company: I think a highly structured story within a well-designed game can really make you identify with the protagonist in a unique way. For me, this happened in Red Dead Redemption. I have seen films and read books in the Western genre, but could never identify with the feelings of the characters, as they are so often very machismo. However, playing as John Marston allowed me to get into his perspective in a way I had never before experienced. I think in video game plots there is often somewhat of an uncanny valley in characters – they want you to play as a person, but leave that person so generic that you are able to pretend you are in the game. This doesn’t work. I think either leaving it very vague and open-ended, like in From Dust, or having a very specific character works much better.
HBHUD: What’s your reasoning for–so far–focusing exclusively on game play, visuals and music to the exclusion of dialogue?
That Game Company: Because we aren’t writers, and it keeps our localization costs down! Seriously, though, we find it allows the player to bring a part of themselves to the game. We like to leave our games open to individual interpretation, but hopefully without being so vague as to be annoying or frustrating.
HBHUD: Do you have any plans to integrate dialogue or narration into future projects?
That Game Company: Another component to visual storytelling we like is that it allows for anyone anywhere in the world to get some meaning out of the experience we made, as we initially created it. We would like to continue to design with this goal in mind.
HBHUD: A novel allows the reader to think the writers thoughts, to have her/his ideas flowing through their neurons. In film we see through the directors eyes, focusing only on what he wants us to see. What piece of himself/herself does a game designer/writer give to the player?
That Game Company: I think game designers are very similar to architects. They create a space in which the audience can move freely, and yet be in a certain state of mind or emotion because of the way that space was designed.
HBHUD: Flower isn’t really a game: there’s no score, you can’t lose, and it’s not challenging. But it’s a hugely enjoyable experience. Are things like scores and level-ups anathema to art?
That Game Company: You do level-up in Flower – your swarm of petals grows and moves in an elegant way, and the music grows as you do. Scores can be embedded into the player’s experience of the game – they don’t have to be this artificial number that increases as you do stuff. It’s true, in our games, you can’t lose. We feel that we are trying to overcome a barrier to entry that many people have with video games, which is pure terror when they pick up a controller. To invite more people to play our games, we removed those barriers.
HBHUD: Journey’s main character has a minimalistic design–to the point where her/his/its sex, or even species, is not entirely clear. What was the impetus for this?
That Game Company: Part of it is to reset the player’s expectations as to what they should or shouldn’t be doing in the world of Journey. And part of it is influenced by the story, but that’s for the players to discover.
HBHUD: Thank you.
[All of our questions were handled by Kellee Santiago on the That Game Company side, though they were answered by various people on the TGC team]