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Journey: An evening with Robin Hunicke

Watching Robin Hunicke play Journey—the videogame she worked on at thatgamecompany—at ACMI last week was a revelation. It was, in more ways than one, a moment to find your place in the universe.

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It took me a while to realise that Robin Hunicke was crying. She speaks with such a steady and eloquent passion that the first time she brushed at her eyes, I thought she was just cleaning her glasses.

“I’m here with my daughter. We’re making a game together,” a man in the audience had asked.

“But one of the problems we frequently grapple with is the idea that games are for boys.”

Maybe we’re used to talking about gender and culture in a wider sense, but for that evening, this man and his daughter’s question was arresting, and almost out of place. Let me give you some context.

Robin Hunicke is a globally successful videogame designer and producer, having worked at EA, thatgamecompany and Tiny Speck before recently moving on to form her own company, Funomena. She is an impressive person, as renowned as a speaker on the subject of videogames as she is for the videogames she has made. Hunicke was at ACMI that evening to play and talk about Journey, an extraordinary videogame that she worked on at thatgamecompany.

It is Journey as much as Hunicke or the questioner that made this moment remarkable. There is not an ounce of exclusion in Journey’s blood. It is a game that has the warm embrace of pensioned romance, or the familial caress of shelter from cold rain. The moment that Hunicke began Journey was a familiar kind of homecoming, as if the game does not so much open for the player as it enfolds them. It is a piece of software that has been crafted to allow two perfect strangers to share attachment and intimacy across a high-speed broadband connection. It is something that gives a perfect stranger the power to love you.

Hunicke’s answer: “Games are for everyone. That’s like saying food is for men, or fragrances are for women. It’s just not true anymore. We all have feelings, we all have emotions. We all want to play. You wouldn’t tell kids that girls can’t jump rope.

“You don’t say those things.”

It was fervent, and it was honest. It was an hour and seven minutes into the evening. But it was, in a way, only a warm-up for what was to come.

*

Everyone should try and see a game designer play their creation in public at least once. Here in Melbourne, I have been lucky enough to see two designers play their own games at ACMI in two months.

The first was Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the quiet and pensive designer of Rez and Child of Eden. Mizuguchi sat in front of several hundred people and steadily answered the insightful questions of Dewi Tanner, a local videogame producer formally of Japan. Mizuguchi would often pause for some time before giving his answer, as though nothing was worth saying unless it was said in the best way possible. After a while he rose and stood before a screen on stage and performed a level of his Child of Eden, his arms and torso moving with the kind of confidence only a Kinect-ready game designer could have.

The second was Robin Hunicke, who sat in front of only dozens of people in ACMI’s smaller studio room last Wednesday night. With Hunicke was Leena van Deventer, a local videogame maker and writer, who was there to guide the discussion. Van Deventer was subtle and probing, but she could never hope to lead the conversation that night: that was instead given over to Journey, which Hunicke played for almost all of the evening.

She played idly, almost absent-mindedly at times, concentrating on one of van Deventer’s questions as she let her character move without focus. At other times she spoke with ease while simultaneously moving around Journey’s world with a fluency I do not possess: sand-surfing her nomad through the optimal paths, finding secrets, singing songs.

She could only play by herself that evening, as a recent software update meant ACMI’s PlayStation 3 could not connect with others. It was certainly a pity—Journey is designed for anonymous companions—but in other ways it was revealing.

“One of the things we worked on from the very beginning was to figure out how to establish the sense that you are alone, but that there are also others,” said Hunicke. “People who travel into space sometimes have a sense that they’re very important—they’re scientists. When they go into space and see the world from a very different perspective, they realise that they are in fact alone.

“This idea that you’re not in charge of everything, that everything around you is bigger than you, transforms people.” This is as true of Journey as it is any videogame: there is a clear process at work that moves the player from wonder, to responsibility, to fear, to triumph. “They understand their place in the universe.”

*

Everyone has a story about the first player they met in Journey.

Mine was dancing in the distance, as far away as the game would let me see. She was faster than me, flying between flags and solving puzzles with an effortlessness that I took as competition. I caught up to her and shouted, and she responded. She would not slow for me, but I could keep up.

Eventually we worked as allies, freeing the friendly and helpless flying creatures that inhabit Journey, passing the song that is inter-player communication in Journey between us almost compulsively. After what felt like an hour, I was genuinely upset to turn and see her disappear into the sand, frozen as though death had come. It was more likely a disconnected internet connection, or maybe a break for dinner, but it is the finesse of Journey that turns finality and frustration into melancholy.

“When you are alone in the wilderness and you pass a person on a hike,” said Hunicke, “you see them and you feel another human.”

“We wanted it to be like that. You can feel their humanity.”

The decision to design for deeper interaction rather than the usual levels of distrust and exasperation usually found in online environments is what defines Journey. “We didn’t know how people would be in this world,” said Hunicke. “The first couple of days after release we kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it never did. We would have journalists coming up to us in tears. That was stunning. It really works.

“People can love one another through this mediated interface. They can feel connected. The world doesn’t have to be about dying and killing. You can actually love one another.”

Love is rarely the first word that people reach for when describing the world of videogames, and van Deventer took the opportunity during the course of the evening to ask Hunicke about her experience in the male-dominated videogames workplace.

“In the end, I am a minority, and I am always aware of it, and I always will be, no matter how much nominal power, or no matter how much design credit I get,” said Hunicke. “It will always be different.

“It’s important to recognise that the only way for that not to happen is for there not to be the same unjust ratios,” Hunicke continued. “It’s very frustrating sometimes to go to an indie event and feel that this is an environment where people have the most right to be different, the most leeway to be openly gay, to be transgender, to be angry, to be political, and yet it has a tendency to conform.”

It was striking to hear Hunicke talk about such disjuncture and exclusion in the videogames industry while watching her play what is probably the most inclusive videogame I’ve ever played. The disconnection grew even more powerful as Journey entered into its ominous, ‘belly of the beast’ middle act and the room at ACMI descended into darkness.

“Kelly [Santiago] and I were 20% of Journey, but we never did find and hire a female programmer,” continued Hunicke. “I did try, but I didn’t succeed. It’s a personal goal of mine to find excellent talent of all kinds, and I still struggle.

“We all have to take personal responsibility for that effort, and I wonder sometimes why it’s so hard. Why is it so slow? Why am I still struggling with this as a developer? Can I make a difference?”

*

Hunicke eventually put down her controller. Journey had reached its climax, and she would not go beyond the early scenes of snow. It was too personal to continue, she said. Though it would have been thrilling to see her play through perhaps the most moving section of Journey, she was right. Some things need to be experienced alone—or with only an anonymous internet user who could be hundreds of kilometres away.

Yet like Journey, Hunicke was most impressive at the last. After the audience question and answer session that saw the moment described above, Hunicke began to speak about her own goals as an artist, and how she sees Journey positioned in relation to the often-conservative world of videogames.

“Real art makes you feel uncomfortable,” said Hunicke. “It’s nice to make something beautiful, it’s nice to make something sensual and tactile, but truly amazing cuisine challenges the palette. When you smell it and swallow it, you get a sense of the fat, and all of the flavours together make you think. It’s dialogue, it’s communication—it’s not just sweet and then salty and then it’s over.

“A lot of games can be that way. It feels good in the same way that eating fries and ketchup feels good. But then it’s over. And you weren’t really thinking, you weren’t really having an experience.”

The crowd at ACMI had been attentive all evening, but this was something different. This, 90 minutes into the evening, was a moment.

“Really great food, really great films, really great games, really great clothes, really great sex, everything about the world that’s worth it challenges you and takes you to a place you didn’t expect to be, even for a moment.

“If you spend your whole life playing games and all you talk about with people is games, you’re creating this solid note in your life that will never be able to live up to all the other things you’re doing.

“It’s really important that we, as a group of artists, confront and trample the notion that there is only one note. That there is only one audience for videogames. That there is only one way of making them.

“That kind of thinking is what generates bland. If you really want to innovate and make a difference, you have to keep exploring the boundaries between the things that we’re comfortable with and the things that we’re not comfortable with.”

Hunicke lent back in her seat. The evening was over. Though she made an attempt to apologise for ranting, it was beyond unnecessary. The small crowd applauded like a big crowd and most stayed in their seats afterwards far longer than was necessary, soaking up the final few drops of atmosphere, of Journey, of that warm, loving game, and of Hunicke, one of its brilliant, articulate creators.

It is rare to hear a videogame creator talk with such eloquence and passion, and rarer still to see them play their own game in such a thoughtful and public forum. Melbourne has been in the enviable position of hosting some world-class videogame events over the last six months—with people like Mizuguchi, Tim Schafer, Warren Spector, and Mare Sheppard playing starring roles— but this, this was something else.

This was the evening of the game that embraces you, of its amazing creator, of self-doubt, of humanity, of finding your place in the world, and of being moved by a father and daughter who felt locked in by outdated preconceptions.

It was fervent, and it was honest.

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  • 1
    Hosking Claire
    Posted October 30, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    Came here expecting to shake a fist at the idea of art needing to be discomforting to be good, but no, Hunicke makes a lot of sense. Sometimes things have to jar a bit to heighten your awareness enough to absorb them. I didn’t expect that to be a truth about the benefits of diversity/difference in the community as a whole, but it is.

    Beaut write-up Dan, makes me wish I coulda been there.

  • 2
    Posted November 9, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    I really wish I’d (a) known it was on and (b) didn’t now live in Wagga.

    That would have been amazing.

    Journey was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had with a videogame.

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