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Matt Nava and the playable art of ‘Journey’

On paper, Journey should have been a minor release. It was a digitally downloadable game that took just a few hours to complete, released by an independent developer with only two previous games on its resume, and it was exclusive to the PS3, which limited its audience. Yet from the moment Journey appeared in March 2012, there was something special about it.

Despite these humble beginnings, the game went on to collect scads of awards, landing on almost every “best of” gaming list imaginable. It became the fastest-selling game on PlayStation Network in North America, and even landed a Grammy nomination for Best Score for a Visual Media category, the first video game to ever receive such an honor. The game was a hit, but beyond the commercial and critical reception, Journey was clearly a work of art. Roger Ebert be damned.

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But with a project like this, developed by a small team of around 12, it needed to work on all levels to succeed. Austin Wintory’s soundtrack had to be memorable. Jenovah Chen’s direction needed to be perfect. Nicholas Clark, Bryan Singh, and Chris Bell’s design needed to be spot on. But before any of that could happen, the art design needed to be exceptional. It needed to convey the message and melancholy mood of the world, and it needed to do so in a way that made the full use of the PS3 hardware without costing the independent developer more than it could afford.

Somehow, all the pieces came together. The look of the game borders in iconic, fitting seamlessly with a brilliant multiplayer mode that doesn’t allow you to speak with the other player or communicate with them beyond the most rudimentary ways. It also has several distinct visual areas that all come to life. It all worked out. Of course, that’s easy to say now that the game has been released.

As the art director of Journey, Matt Nava was responsible for much of the look and flair of the game that went on to receive such high esteem. He made it look easy, as if the game was always in his mind, begging to get out. The truth is far less poetic, and far more grueling.

“It was a real big, blank canvas,” Nava says, looking back. “We didn’t know what it was. All we had was this basic idea of making this multiplayer gamer where the point wasn’t to kill each other, but to work together and have this bonding experience with people online that you don’t even know. Beyond that, it was kind of an amorphous thing, and we had no idea if it was going to work, so there was this kind of ambiguity.”

During the design process of the game, Nava created hundreds of different designs for the character, the world, you name it. Only a small portion of the early concept art actually made it into the game, which recently prompted the release of the book, The Art of Journey.

Written by Nava with a foreword by author Chris Melissinos, it chronicles both the development of the game and Nava’s artwork. It is a must-own for any fan of the game, or anyone interested in one of the fastest growing – and most often overlooked – forms of art being produced today.

While nongamers may not grant Journey’s art the same level of respect that they might a classical painter along the lines of Rembrandt or Van Gogh, the approach those masters of old took wasn’t that far removed from what game designers are doing today.

Regardless of the time period and medium, any artistic endeavor exists to tell a story. Sometimes that is derived from conveying an emotion, or simply by striving for beauty, but there is a story to be had, even if it is a very singular and personal one that the artists embed in the work, and the person experiencing it re-interprets to fit their own sensibilities. Modern audiences certainly take away a different message from Renaissance art commissioned by the Church than the people of that era did, but neither interpretation is right or wrong.

Although video games remain an unconventional medium, and the constantly changing nature of the technology that drives the industry make its products feel transitory, the work and thought behind art in a video game is no different today than it was for painters hundreds of years ago.

“Those classical masters were making art that had to communicate, it had to convey a message, it needed to tell a story,” Nava said. “A lot of it was for the Church, showing scenes from the Bible for people that couldn’t read and things like that. But because they needed to communicate, their art needed to be refined in a certain way and they developed these amazing techniques for doing that. Video games do the same thing.

“They need to convey a message, they tell a story or they communicate gameplay with visuals and audio. So that kind of tradition of having these art techniques and using these tricks to create depth or motion with imagery and poses of characters translates directly. So I think it is kind of this continuation in a way, of that same tradition, of creating imagery that has meaning and message.”

Nava has an interesting view of the world of art. His father, John Nava, is a painter and tapestry maker whose work can be seen throughout the West Coast. The elder Nava cemented his place in art history thanks to a series of well-known tapestries adorning the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, California.

From an early age, the younger Nava was a student of art. American illustrators like Howard Pyle became influential as he developed his own style, and he took inspiration from all sources, including video games. Fumito Ueda, the designer of Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, was one influence for Nava, as was the relatively primitive art style of Nintendo 64 games, in all their polygon-drenched glory.

Following high school, Nava was accepted into Otis College of Art and Design, one of California’s most prestigious arts schools. With a list of alumni that reads like a who’s who of 20th century artists, fashion designers, and experimental designers, the school is well known for its ability to change with the times.

There Nava met Jenova Chen, co-founder of thatgamecompany, which had recently released the game Flow. Chen developed Flow with Nicholas Clark as part of his master’s thesis. It was as much a concept as a game, but it quickly went on to be the most downloaded game on the PlayStation Network in 2007 and won several awards for best downloadable game.

The two remained in contact following Nava’s graduation, and after a few animation gigs, Nava was invited to join thatgamecompany as the art director for the studio’s second title, Flower.

Flower proved to be another success for thatgamecompany, and helped to solidify the studio’s growing reputation for creating games that challenged the traditional concepts of art. They were not typical games built around gameplay, but rather they were experiences built around cultivating a particular mood or emotion. While that type of reputation is one that most developers would kill for, with it comes a tremendous amount of pressure and responsibility.

Flower was starting to get some really good reviews – there was a lot of hype about it, and it was kind of casting this big shadow on us,” Nava recalls. “Could we make something bigger than Flower – better than Flower – that would satisfy the people who enjoyed [it]? And how could we make something even more meaningful, or different. How could we make something that would feel like it was part of the TGC franchise, but also new and exciting? It was a big challenge.”

For TGC, when approaching a game, before they even begin to consider things like gameplay or story, the first step is deciding what it wants the gamer to feel.  Everything then comes from that genesis.

“The main thing that we want is to convey a message, or to convey a mood or a feeling to the player,” Nava said. “I think that is the most important thing to begin with.”

Once the main themes and goals for Journey were established, the work fell to Nava, who was responsible for all the concept art, as well as all the texturing. Working closely with the team from the start, Nava and TGC came up with the general idea, and then he went to the drawing board – quite literally. From there he created dozens of conceptual pieces by hand. Most were sent back, but little by little, piece by piece, the game began to take shape.

As the development continued, the art eventually began to form around the technical limitations of the hardware. The PS3 is a powerful system, but there are always going to be technical limitations, especially for a company without deep pockets. Things like rendering shadows remain a sticking point for most games, which required imagination and creative design to overcome. The PS3 itself is technically capable of rendering shadows, but it was simply a matter of priorities. Programming shadows would be costly and time consuming, and it would have taken away from other aspects, like the lighting effects and sand physics.

“We found what the limitations were, and we designed the game around them and spent our time working on the things we could do really well,” Nava said.

Of course, those that have played Journey will know that the game is very much left open to interpretation. There were certain guideposts to help you along and to give you a few ideas as to the nature of the world, the character, and what your quest is, but the game – like any good art – allows you to fill in certain blanks and inject your own interpretation of what it is. This was very much intentional, and solidifies the reputation that TGC has earned.

“What we wanted to be was kind of this universal thing. What we found was that the best way for us to achieve that was by letting different people interpret it in their own way and come away with something that’s meaningful to them personally,” Nava said. “To get there, as a team we built this whole back story to the world and we had a lot of detail and all this stuff, and we used that as a guiding principle to make sure the world felt cohesive. But we left out a lot of the strict details of this world that we built, and left areas open to interpretation, so that we could achieve that universal quality where people could take away their own thing.”

This concept was so ingrained in the making of Journey that it even infected the developers themselves, and led to several spirited debate.

“Even on the development team itself there were different interpretations about the game, and that was something we were OK with. That is what we wanted our players to experience.”

After three years of development, Journey was released on March 13. It was immediately greeted with near universal acclaim, further increasing the reputation of thatgamecompany, enough so that Sony even released the Journey Collector’s Edition, a collection of the developer’s three games on a single disk, as well as a handful of games designed as part of a competition. The collection even features commentary tracks for the games.

Nava hopes to continue in games and further expand into animation as well. At some point in the future, he’d like to create his own IP with friends. For now though his focus on gaming, even as the industry seems to be pushing away from artistic design and more towards photo-realism.

In a way, the photo-realistic approach is almost easier. The more realistic something is meant to look, the more it can be judged as a success or failure on a technical level. Building a world based on a creative, abstract vision requires an intense amount of teamwork, as well as a group all working on the same page. Striving for photo-realism in a game is something that can be measured by anyone working on the game, but to create a world based on creativity and imagination requires trust throughout the team.

“When you are actually trying to do something that is unique and illustrative and artsy, that comes from the mind of one person,” Nava offered. “To really get the whole team to understand that, it takes a lot of communication. And that’s why I think it happens a lot more with smaller teams.”

Hyper-realistic titles remain the lifeblood of the industry, and the driving force that continues to challenge developers. But on the fringes, away from the traditional gameplay, there are games like Journey that point to new possibilities, new ways to play, and even new ways to think about gaming.

Journey is potent ammunition in the battle to establish games as legitimate art. It may be one of the best examples that video gaming has potential as a medium for artistic expression, not just thrills.

The success of Journey has shown that there is an audience for games like this. They enrich us as gamers and improve the overall industry. They may also be some of the most compelling art being created in any medium today.

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