Published Feb 21, 2009"When we started we don't know what we are making. We just had this concept that every PlayStation is like a portal in your living room, it leads you to somewhere else," explains Jenova Chen, the Shanghai-born brains behind the Zen koan game Flower. "I thought wouldn't it be nice if it was a portal that would allow you to be embraced by nature."
The downloadable first-person Flower goes even further by making you play as nature. Opening on an inner-city windowsill, the PlayStation Network game takes place amidst the dreamscapes of its titular potted plant. Using intuitive motion-sensitive controls, you literally play as the wind, picking up flower petals as you flow through fields and valleys brought to brilliantly verdant life with over 200,000 individual blades of grass.
It is a, shall we say, groundbreaking design choice. Modern games favour realism over naturalism, often limiting surroundings to decaying metal corridors, urban cityscapes and post-apocalyptic wastelands. Chen, who helms thatgamecompany, has become a cause célèbre in the indie gaming scene by exclusively trafficking in nature, from his flash-based university projects - the online sensation Cloud and his master's thesis-turned-primordial PSN hit flOw - to his latest effort Flower.
"I grew up in a very metropolitan city, very polluted and not a lot of green. But when I moved to California, I would drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco and see these endless green fields, extending to the horizon," says Chen. "I felt this strange attraction to it - it's very romantic and dreamlike. When I was thinking about what kind of experience I wanted to offer the player, I wondered, how can I evoke that feeling?"
Chen's focus on feelings is another way in which he's become a gaming pioneer. "What made Cloud successful? We were providing a very unique emotional experience that was very different from the primal excitement and stimulation-based experience that's on the mainstream market. It's more of a moody, dreamlike game," he says, noting, "the people who liked it were not the hardcore gamers."
Indeed, many have questioned his cred since his "interactive art" games don't keep score - this was particularly true of flOw, where moving and evolving your underwater micro organism was the only discernable game play. But Chen's gaming background runs deep, right down to cribbing his chosen first name Jenova from Final Fantasy VII when he was a high school student in China.
Raised on a steady diet of pirated PC games, Chen studied computer science in school but considered game design a hobby, since the only developers in China were outsourced labour for Japanese and American studios. It was only after enrolling in the interactive media program at USC (initially with the intention of landing an animation gig at Pixar) that Chen realized gaming could be much more than that.
"The school took us to the Game Developer's Conference. I was totally shocked and moved by the atmosphere and the passion of 20,000 developers from all around the globe coming together to share their experiences. That was the moment I realized that making game is actually an honourable career," he recalls. "I just never saw games as a serious business because it was always associated with childhood play. But this made me feel that games are changing and the medium is maturing. I could see a great future there."
Chen's work is helping bring that future to fruition. He created Cloud as a response to the then-new GTA San Andreas, which had launched a media-driven backlash against gaming. "I wanted to create something that was the opposite of what the media had seen videogames as, the opposite of violent, the opposite of goal-driven and points-collecting. We tried to be rebels and the success of Cloud was totally unexpected. Once we put it online, our servers crashed four times. Some people even said they cried because of the game. And a lot of people that had never even played games came to the site and downloaded Cloud. That was an epiphany. "
Ultimately, Chen's goal is not that different from Nintendo's successful "blue ocean" strategy of appealing to non-traditional gamers, except he's after a more mature audience.
"I'm just sick of laser robots and chicks. I'm tired of space marines. I want something more sophisticated. I'm making games for adults," Chen says. "A lot of us have grown old. A lot of us stop playing because we think it's not worth our time. If you have a job or you have kids, would you spend 40 hours grinding just to see an ending? The content in games today is just not useful to your life. What do you learn - how to double-jump? But if videogames can offer new type of emotions, new type of feelings, than more people can enjoy videogames."
Chen hopes thatgamecompany can become an industry spearhead, pushing the boundaries of what videogames can communicate and even what videogame are.
"People ask us if we're trying to create a new niche of relaxing games. That might be what it looks like but it's not really our intention. We try to make every game a new experience. I don't think flOw and Flower are the same game, but the two of them, and Cloud, are trying to stay away from violence and stimulation," Chen says. "But we can't call it a genre yet because we are the only ones making them."