A screen shot from the video game 'Sky: Children of
Image courtesy of thatgamecompany

Jenova Chen Is Still Trying to Convince the World Video Games Are Art

Why the ‘Flower’ and ‘Journey’ designer has left his arthouse roots behind for the masses.

Inside Jenova Chen’s web browser is an app called “The Last Sunday.” Users input their name and date of birth, and the app, assuming life expectancy is 80 years old, spits out how many Sundays are left until you probably die. According to the app, it’s “to remind oneself that time in life is limited and is not to be wasted.” When Chen and I were speaking in late October, the acclaimed designer behind Journey and Flower only had 2,030 Sundays left.

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“How are you going to spend these weeks Jenova?” read the browser tab shared with me on the call. “I have [people] applying for jobs [saying] ‘Oh, as a teenager I played Journey and it left [a] strong mark in my life and I wanted to work for this company,’” said Chen. “And it was kind of crazy to think about like, ‘Wow, it's another generation of people now.’ That's just a quick reminder that I'm already on a dying path and the second half of my life.”

In the second half of his life, Chen has a singular mission: change society’s perception of video games. The game Chen has been working on since Journey was released all the way back in 2012 is Sky: Children of the Light, an experience that builds upon the lessons of Journey—you fly around in a cape, there’s a heavy emphasis on unique social interactions. 

Sky didn’t prioritize consoles, debuting on Apple and Android devices in 2019, before Switch in 2021. Uniting all three platforms is their ability to tap into wider audiences, people who aren’t making God of War Ragnarok a best seller. (Funnily, Sky hit PlayStation this week.)

“The only way to change the public is to have that reach,” said Chen. “I mean, the public's impression of modern day video games in the United States is still Call of Duty. It's the thing that has the massive reach and it has the—almost like propaganda, basically—commercials. And indie art house [games], we can never afford any marketing. So in the end, I was thinking, am I going to stay focused on first trying to be a fine artist, or should I change my approach and do it in a way that could actually convince more people that games are art?”

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Chen and the studio he co-founded, thatgamecompany, became one of the public faces of the movement to “legitimize” video games as true art. Flow, Flower, and Journey were a trio of games seen as the tip of the spear when it came to answering this existential question that continued to, for better and worse, haunt the medium, despite its increased popularity.

A screen shot from the video game 'Journey.' Image courtesy of Sony

A screen shot from the video game 'Journey.' Image courtesy of Sony

Journey has moved me as much as any other piece of art or entertainment has,” wrote critic Keza MacDonald for The Guardian at the time of Journey’s release.

The reason Chen and I were talking over Zoom was, ironically, linked to the past he’s trying to leave behind. Flower is part of an ongoing exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art in New York called “Never Alone” about how “we spend a huge portion of our lives in digital worlds.”

“When I was in school, I really saw myself as a solo artist,” said Chen. “I'm trying to prove this [video games] can be fine art. I want to put this game in the gallery and in the museums, and at the time, Sony publishing was telling me, ‘You have too much ego, you need to let your ego out, and then you will focus on making money.’ I was like, ‘That's a such an insult to an artist. [laughs] Who cares about money?’”

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It doesn’t matter how much Flow, Flower, or Journey made for Sony’s bottom line. (Journey did sell very well, however.) They weren’t expensive to develop compared to the cinematic spectacles Sony has become known for, and beyond being drivers of artistic discourse, they won a ton of awards. All three games were regularly in conversations for games of the year, and the games started showing up in the places Chen was seeking legitimacy from in the first place: museums and art galleries. That’s where art lives! Now, games were there, too!

“Am I going to stay focused on first trying to be a fine artist, or should I change my approach and do it in a way that could actually convince more people that games are art?”

But today, the experiences give Chen pause. Years ago, Chen was a guest at an art museum in Qatar, where the World Cup is currently being played. During the visit, Chen was asked by Qatar’s royal family if he was interested in being commissioned to produce a piece.

“That was the moment I was like, ‘What am I doing here?” said Chen. “Because I'm trying to get into the fine art realm, and trying to use games to show fine art, but is fine art the way to change society's view of games? Because I bring my parents and my families to the galleries to see our games displayed next to other contemporary installation arts. Everybody likes our pieces because it's more commercial, it's more designed [for] easy access. But what happened is I started to realize that fine art is a world—it's really only affecting the people who go to the museum or the people who trade art. It does not change the masses. Yes, so Journey is shown in one of the most prestigious museums. How many people care? How many people know? I showed the world it's possible, but that doesn't change the world. So that is the moment I realized that I can keep making fine art, but you'll never change the public's opinion on games. That was the sad realization I had.”

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This drives Chen for the next decade. To be clear, Chen isn’t wholly dismissive of the path to arrive here, because those same games deeply influenced the next wave of game creators. Some of them are coming to work on Sky, others have gone on to blaze their own paths.

A screen shot from the video game 'Flower.' Image courtesy of Annapurna Interactive

A screen shot from the video game 'Flower.' Image courtesy of Annapurna Interactive

“In a wider sense, Journey helped engender what we’d now call a vibe shift,” said Lewis Critic in a recent 10-year retrospective on Journey’s influence. “Put simply, if video games mostly traded in the various emotions related to killing shit, point scoring, or problem solving, Journey was part of a new wave that broadened their dramatic texture.”

It’s not like Sky would be unrecognizable to anyone who’s played Flower or Journey, even if there’s a good chance many of the people who adored those games probably haven’t tried it. The reason it came to PlayStations last—the opposite path for many console games, which usually arrive on mobile later—is because the audience Chen wants to talk to isn’t there. 

“Every other medium started just like a video game,” said Chen. “For example, American comics. It was considered a poison for quite a long time. Today, it's [a] national treasure. It's American myth, [a] national treasure today. When first poetry was introduced, poetry was considered too bad for the young people. And today, it's certainly [a] national treasure. So my friend said, ‘Whatever your parents say is junk is going to be [a] national treasure in your generation.’”

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Video games, Chen believes, are following the same path. But it doesn’t happen naturally and requires a spark. Over the course of our 30-minute conversation, Chen brought up Disney several times as a guiding light for what he’s trying to achieve with Sky and whatever comes next. Chen pointed to what movies like Snow White did for the legitimacy of 2D animation, or Toy Story for the legitimacy of 3D animation. (He brought up this same theory of the case in a 2020 interview with The Washington Post.) Chen doesn’t believe that video games have had that same moment yet, and it’s become his mission to create that spark.

“I bring my parents and my families to the galleries to see our games displayed next to other contemporary installation arts. Everybody likes our pieces because it's more commercial, it's more designed [for] easy access. But what happened is I started to realize that fine art is a world—it's really only affecting the people who go to the museum or the people who trade art. It does not change the masses.”

“Being a commercial success means you reach millions of people,” said Chen. “That's how you change society's view.”

As of 2020, Sky had been downloaded 50 million times and had eight million players. 

When Chen was making boutique arthouse games for Sony, money was an afterthought. He was an artist. Now, commercial success is front and center—part of the mission. Sky prioritizes mobile players on Apple and Android, an ecosystem ripe with exploitation, especially for children. Chen has two kids, a four-year-old daughter and a son who’s nearing one years old. Both are too young to Sky, a game Chen says is aged at teenagers and above, but eventually that’ll change, and the ethics of running a mobile game weigh on him. 

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“Free is not free,” said Chen, “and they will try to squeeze your money anyway and they will use all kinds of psychological tricks. I mean, as a designer, you learn that by trade. So my moral compass is very simple because we want to be a respectful industry, and we want to build a respectful experience. We want to change people's view on games. So what is a respectful experience?”

For Chen, that comes down to a simple mantra: “Would your mom agree with that?”

A screen shot from 'Sky: Children of the Light' Image courtesy of thatgamecompany

A screen shot from 'Sky: Children of the Light' Image courtesy of thatgamecompany

“Would your mom agree that you pay something because you're greedy for a discount?” he said. “Would your mom agree if you pay something because you fear of missing out? Would your mom agree if you are paying money to beat others for an unfair advantage?”

There are items to purchase in Sky, a free-to-play game where players can experience the “gameplay” without ever paying a dime. But even if you want to spend money, it’s not not about making it faster to upgrade your character, or getting access to better weapons. None of that is present here, a game largely about causal exploration with strangers. Instead, the microtransactions are entirely cosmetic, or make gathering candles, one of the game’s main currencies used to purchase additional emotes or season-specific cosmetics, much faster.

“I don't want my kids to play gacha,” said Chen. “I don't want my kids to play to spend money just to compete with others for vain stuff. So then, you start to think: What is really worth to be purchased? I'm just following that rule of ‘Would Pixar do with that? Would Disney do that? Would me as a parent do that? Would I allow my kids to play anything like this?’ If it's no, then we don't do it. I know plenty of people do it because it makes money.”

You might not be surprised, then, to learn that Chen is also really enjoying Marvel Snap at the moment, a mobile card game that’s been praised for its surprisingly chill monetization.

It’s too early to tell if Sky will be gaming’s Snow White moment. Maybe it’s the game that comes after that. Either way, it’s okay. Chen has at least 2,000 more Sundays to keep trying.

“I still think our industry hasn't really earned the respect that we hope it does,” said Chen, “and that's what I'm working on every day, trying to break that thing.”


Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).