Oct 30, 2012

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.

[youtube][/youtube] 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.”


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2 thoughts on “Journey: An evening with Robin Hunicke

  1. Jeremy

    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.

  2. Hosking Claire

    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.

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