Journey is a game of catharsis, a hero's journey. A game that spurred emotional emails from fans and nearly destroyed the company that made it.
Speaking at the 2013 DICE summit, thatgamecompany co-founder Jenova Chen said that Journey started out as a simple idea in 2006: catharsis.
Chen had grown disenchanted with how emotionally simplistic and repetitive most games were. Games often served to fulfill the emotional needs of a younger male audience, giving them a sense of empowerment and freedom. But Chen said thatgamecompany was created to deliver emotional experiences, specifically to deliver catharsis through emotional play.
Earlier in the day, Chen told Polygon that the first game the group created while at USC's Interactive Media Program was inspired by that idea.
"Each game we worked on were based on psychological theories and three act structures," he said. "Our goal is to touch people and help people reach a cathartic moment."
Each of their creations, he said at the time, took a different approach to achieving that moment.
Cloud pursued a sense of calm. Flower was about love. Journey, he said, was about the connection people form with one another in their journey through life.
During his talk, Chen said that it was after flow and Flower that he decided to try to tackle the problem of online gaming and use that to pursue a cathartic moment empowered by those interpersonal connections.
In trying to identify that emotion that he called "connection," Chen said he did some market research. That's when he ran into the astronauts, two men who described to him the experiences of the people who traveled to the moon and back.
One told him how changed those few were, they were more spiritual and more philosophical. The reason, Chen came to believe, was because while on the moon they were freed from distraction and left more emotionally charged and introspective.
That notion helped shape some of the design of Journey. Chen returned to his ideas for the game and worked to strip away as many distractions as possible in order to create a focused experience.
"There is no HUD," he said. "It is a very simple. There is no lobby."
Thatgamecompany then stretched that pure visual experience over the game's levels, designed to loosely follow not just a three act structure, but the monomyth. The idea, he said, is that the journey of Journey has to include a peak, a valley and then a cathartic-delivering final moment.
Chen said the company played around with different forms of multiplayer gaming before settling on a system that allowed players to game together anonymously, but still somehow form a connection with one another through their shared experiences.
After the first year of development, Journey's basic structure and look was sound, but neither were where thatgamecompany wanted them to be. After the second year the game was visually ready, but Chen said the valleys and peaks of their journey were too shallow to deliver any sort of emotional connection to gamers.
The studio decided to spend another year on the game, burning through the reserves of their money as they worked out the kinks of their game and tweaked the experience.
"A lot of people weren't paid," he said. "We also went bankrupt as a company."
The experience left Chen wondering whether Journey was worth it's own journey. The answer, he said, came in the 824 emails the company received after the game was released. Many were very personal, very emotional letters to the developer.
He ended his talk by reading one aloud:
"Your game practically changed my life. ... It was the most fun I had with him since he had been diagnosed. ... My father passed in the spring of 2012, only a few months after his diagnosis.
Weeks after his death, I could finally return myself to playing video games. I tried to play Journey, and I could barely get past the title screen without breaking down into tears. In my dad's and in my own experience with Journey, it was about him, and his journey to the ultimate end, and I believe we encountered your game at the most perfect time.
I want to thank you for the game that changed my life, the game whose beauty brings tears to my eyes. Journey is quite possibly the best game I have ever played. I continue to play it, always remembering what joy it brought, and the joy it continues to bring.
I am Sophia, I am 15, and your game changed my life for the better."
"Because of this email," he said, "I think it's all worth it."