Ryan Cash & Eli Cymet from Snowman have kindly allowed us to share highlights from episode two of their podcast Art & Craft in which they interview Chris Bell, designer on Journey, What Remains of Edith Finch and Way.
Journey and What Remains of Edith Finch are two very stirring games, both of which take different approaches to interaction and storytelling. Chris Bell was a designer on both of them. Join us as we chat with him about connecting powerfully with players, freeing yourself from the weight of expectations, and finding inspiration in the unlikeliest of places.
I guess I want to start with the question I feel I ask a lot of game developers and designers and artists when they come on … do you feel like you have a memory of a time when you went from playing games as things you loved and enjoyed to looking at them as things that you could create?
Certainly, I grew up playing videos games. I had a childhood that was sort of work hard, play hard, and so I played an abundance of games growing up but it probably was around college, looking into grad school where I went to study graphic design in the university of Florida, and learned to make things there and had to present them to people and pitch my work and show off my things and get them critiqued and that helped build a sort of design spine.
What’s a design spine, I don’t know that term?
I could feel confident that the ideas I was putting forth and the form that they were taking were able to stand up on their own, and I could defend them in the same way that when you go to an art school you have to often defend your work and argue what it’s about, and it also gave me an environment where I could critique others work and help them … the programme I was in was very emblematic of an art studio where we all had our own independent desks and we could all lean over each others shoulders and pitch in on what each other was doing.
It was when I was near graduating when I wasn’t satisfied with going in and just taking a crappy design job. I was seeing a lot of my peers, people who were doing great interesting work in graphic design school … going and working on less interesting projects at creative firms and that’s not really what I wanted to do.
I wanted to create experiences and I wanted to tell stories and so I ultimately decided that I was going to go to grad school to study game design.
I went to Carnegie Mellon and there was a programme there called the Entertainment Technology Center, and it was a programme created by both the head of the computer science department and the head of the theatre department … So we had a lot of professors and such from Disney … so it was there where I was able to compare with other students who had skills that I didn’t have where I thought I could also offer my own.
We formed these small teams and made a number of projects, each one seemingly more successful than the last, and then the last thing I made there was a game called Way. That was the game where it sort of really came into view what I could offer…
It’s a game in which you’re paired anonymously with this stranger and you’re communicating without words, so you’re puppeteering your character and one player actually comes to realise … that the other person sees the world differently than they do … you guys can traverse a landscape and meet in the middle where some special moment happens … that was influenced by a trip abroad where I had a really interesting set of experiences where I was forced to communicate without words … I wanted to make a game specifically about them.
Hearing Chris mention his trip abroad I’m struck by a realisation. I’ve heard this story before … Long before today, before he ever agreed to come on my show, I was in attendance at a talk Chris gave at the 2012 games developers conference in San Francisco, where he discussed how he found some of his voice as a designer, in the unlikeliest of places, a Japanese fish market. Its the kind of serendipitous story that bears retelling, so I asked him to do just that.
Sure, so I was doing this study abroad in Japan, it was a class that was sort of a mix between English and creative writing and art making and graphic design, and so it was our first morning there in Japan, it was extremely early, I had never been really anywhere outside the States … and we were headed to this Tsukiji fish market, it was one of our first trips.
And that’s that huge dockside market where they haul the salmon out at 5am and then auction it off, right?
Right, all the fish comes through there and it’s this sort of Mecca of all these different things and platters with fish and people moving things around and it goes on seemingly endlessly … So we got there, I didn’t really know any Japanese, none of us really had phones yet, and so our teachers were being very careful with us telling us to essentially make sure that we kept our bearings … we actually chose this shrine as our destination point, to say meet back here … so you can get on that bus so it can bring us back to the hotel … wide eyed we went into this fish market and it was so incredible and such a wildly different experience than anything we’d had before, and the fact that we’re in a new country on the other side of the world, we sort of lost ourselves in it …
Yeah I know, that be back at this time but by the way here’s one of the coolest things you’ve ever seen …
Right, exactly and so in that moment, in that experience we just fell into it and we lost all track of time … somebody checked their watch and it became clear that we had like a few minutes to be back at the shrine and we had no idea where we were … there was a chance that this bus was going to take off and we’re lost and we don’t have a phone so we can’t communicate with the professors …
Fortunately I’d taken a photograph of the shrine and I pulled out my camera and I loaded it up on the window display and I just shouted, and the only word of Japanese I knew which was “Sumimasen” which means excuse me into this sea of people, and there was this older woman speaking to men in a fishing truck and I see her, she looks over at me, she can see that I’m panic stricken, she looks back at the man driving the truck, she bows to him and she runs over and I point at the picture of the shrine on the display and I sort of throw up my hands as if to say “where is this?” … she nods and she grabs my hand and just starts running and we ran seemingly further than we probably did … we’re just running with this lady and sure enough she brings us to this shrine just as the bus is about to depart. We hop on the bus and she sort of bows and waves and disappears into a sea of people never to be seen again.
And so that experience sort of had all these factors that … stayed with me, in particular the communication without words but also the stakes involved … the fact that it wasn’t forced upon us but it was just a natural result of this scenario that we were in, and so in that talk I break down that experience and all the factors that lead into it being an amazing experience, and then how can we take those factors and construct an interactive experience or a game that uses those, and that’s ultimately what became Way and a lot of those similar ideas also exist in Journey.
Right, and these are games Way and Journey that are focused largely around kind of diving into the core of how it is we communicate, and in many ways what it means to communicate and how much connection we can develop even behind the wall of anonymity and through only our outward actions, right?
That’s a good description of it. Way in particular uses puppetry mechanic where you’re waving limbs and nodding your head and pointing and this and that to communicate things that you can see in the world that the other can’t, and in Journey … the communication is less acute but it’s more about if you’re encountering something wonderful out in the environment or an experience out in the world in the company of a stranger will you feel connected to them? … there is more moving and jumping and particularly in the bird calls you have these chirps that you can do, and I think through that it’s surprising to see just how much personality players can exude to the point that when I was even developing it you could tell one player apart from another, even though the affordances were quite limited.
And so I guess for those that don’t know, Journey is in some ways as much a solo emotionally impactful experience … you start the game as this wanderer in the dessert who’s goal is really to get to this mountain in the far flung distance and that’s all you know at the time … and slowly as you progress through the game you gain some new abilities that allow you to really understand why you’re in this world …
But the twist really is that as you play in different sequences in the game you’d see a wanderer that looks just like you drop in beside you, and many … playing it at the same time as me didn’t even realise ’til the very end of the game that the people dropped in beside you were not artificially intelligent computer programmed characters … but they’re other real people on a similar path in their own game, correct?
Yeah, that’s correct and it’s really interesting, whether or not should we tell you … that you’re playing with a real person or not, because certainly when its an AI there you might feel differently towards them, but … we often found that in generally most cases everyone would care for this other, even if they thought they were an AI.
To this day I still have a message thread sitting in my Playstation network inbox from a player in Brazil. It’s a stilted conversation where we valiantly try to make our way through some pleasantries asking one another what games we like, and what it’s like to live where we do. And yet it’s one of my most treasured gaming memories. This is because we had just finished playing Journey together, each one helping the other brave the dangers of one of the games final sequences, the traversal of a deep snow field at the top of the game’s mountain. I couldn’t help but wonder if Chris had heard similar stories from other players. His answer was profound …
There are certainly plenty of those and then players that have stayed in touch beyond that, there’s actually an entire … website called Journey Stories … where people are constantly posting like “I met you in the dunes”, like “you did this for me”, “I really felt this connection between us” …
But in particular I think the stories that stick out for me are the ones in which the game served as a sort of grieving process or a way to push beyond some hardship players had had in their own lives … a number of players in particular who had recently experienced a death in their own lives and to have this non-verbal other sort of come beside them and walk alongside them, players were able to project identity and persona on to that other because there are no words, and if that other is being helpful and a guide …
For example there was this one girl, her father had passed away and had a long terrible bout with cancer, and recently after his passing she had played Journey and was able to feel like she got like another walk with him, independent of the truth of that really the experience of it giving a calming effect for her and feeling like she could … remember the goodness that they had together is something really great and something we didn’t necessarily expect.
That’s really profound … When you work on a game like Journey and you get to see the experiences that you saw of people feeling like they’re getting this last moment with a loved one or making lasting connections, and it’s kind of validation of some of the design philosophies and goals you had. Do you feel in some ways like, I can’t make anything less than this now, as a designer … is there sort of a bar that gets set in your own head where you feel that everything you make after a Journey has to have the profundity of a Journey, does that dog you at all?
That doesn’t really … what I try to do is I try to have a thesis, a feeling, a thing that I’m trying to understand and communicate through game form and just be as true as I possibly can to that thing … In Journey that was, what does it mean to experience something awesome in the company of a stranger, in Way it was the realisation that I could understand communication without words and this idea of meeting in the middle and overcoming any sort of barriers that were set between you two …
The moment I stepped into the Finch family home, I was struck by how dotingly realised it was. How lived in it felt. A tennis ball swaying tenuously from a string tied to the garage roof, helping to ensure no one drove the car too far in. That kettle well used and still on the stove from a recently made cup of tea and the books, (the books!), filing up and spilling out of double stacked bookshelves, left open on the kitchen counter, piled up in every spare corner that would have them. It was perfect. Bathed in an afternoon glow that spilled in through the floor to ceiling windows … so it was only natural then talking to Chris that we dive deep on just how this magical place came to be.
For me up until that point I’d done some single player projects in graduate school prior to Way but really with Way and with Journey … my approach up until this point had been multi-player experiences where the consequences, the stakes, can be quite high … whether you choose to help or not help or to disregard them you know has a sense of urgency, it matters, and so with Edith Finch … it’s single player so that in itself was different to past things I’ve worked on …
We knew we wanted to create a game about the unknown … an example we used typically was looking up at the night sky and seeing it both as this beautiful thing but also feeling overwhelmed and feeling small and humbled by it, and how do you create a game about family and death and life … so there were a ton of challenges, we often didn’t really know, we held our finger to the wind and tried to listen to the game and listen to our own thoughts, but there was a lot of just going out into the dark, trying a thing, seeing where we stood and how it made us feel and then like circling back and trying something else, or in other cases just pounding on it hard enough until it sort of broke through and became resonant in some way … we approached it from all different angles.
When someone dies in the family they seal up their bedroom like a time capsule and they build another bedroom on top for the next person … so that kind of became a skeleton for at least how we understood the arc of the game to play out which was we’re going to be ascending this house.
Each layer of the house would naturally be a different generation for the family … all the way up to your room playing as Edith, you being the last Finch family member left alive, your room being at the very top, but that … is like a good outline or skeleton … but then we have to actually make this place feel lived in, we have to actually create these characters that feel real and have interesting interconnections between their lives … Who are these people? How did they die? What were their interests? …
I mean the house in so many ways … was arguably the second character. There are a lot of characters that you hear about in the game … the house itself is the one persistent entity that you are spending time with as you go through the game … was it more than just feeling lived in, was there any mandate on the part of the team to make that house have a sense of personality?
Absolutely, so the house is meant to feel like a real space like its soaked in time and so it was important for us if Edith is trying to understand her family members and who they were … her closest line … is through their physical belongings and rummaging through their spaces, so it was really important that each one of those characters left their mark on the house that would persist through time and reach Edith and speak to Edith. And so each one of the rooms we tried to make quite iconic, so each bedroom really feels like the space of a particular unique person, everything down to the books that they’re reading … you should be able to look at the books and the titles on the shelf and say who was this person … and then surrounded by their other things communicated who they were and how they spent their time …
With each one of these stories, you’re going to jump into the story and experience the final day of their life … it’s about taking that interactive experience of both that one moment, however fleeting, within the context of what you saw and experienced in the house and in the room and in the other stories of the other Finch family members and what you found in their rooms … so stirring that up into a big pot I think gives it a life and a verse that’s often hard to get at, and really its only possible when you spend four years of ten or fifteen people just hammering on this thing and there wasn’t a day that went by where we weren’t putting new things into the house.
I would often be working very rapidly in a sort of grey block where I’m basically architecting the house but also placing everything inside each of the rooms and where it should be, and thinking about how do you experience it, what is it saying next to you, how big is it, what colour, how visually appealing is it etc, and just filling these rooms with this environmental story telling, but all in very low polygon grey block form. And then the artists take that and they turn it into the realised thing … without that process I don’t think we would ever have been able to get the game done because we just needed to be piling in new things…
But it took a really long time for it to actually feel like a space, we really needed to come through with the layer of paint after layer of paint before it started to exude the qualities that we had always strived for.
Was it always books? … in some form everybody has that one book shelf that sits in their basement or the corner of their room from their childhood home piled with books that they read or their parents read … it’s such a deeply relatable thing to see these books as the scaffolding of the home. Was it always books as that kind of like glue in some ways or did that come late in the process?
Books were always going to be a big sort of visual set piece for the game. Our director’s a veracious reader and when we look at bookshelves when some of them are stacked just right, and others are flopping and sliding over … and they’re accumulating with knick-knacks … it starts to exude this interesting architecture …
Even for example photographs hanging on the wall, we never just have one. The Finch staircase, there’s floor to ceiling these different shaped photo frames, some oval, some square, some long, some large and it starts to take on a larger than life quality … and I think that’s when maybe even it becomes clear this family is unique and eccentric … There’s a lot of books, there’s a lot of everything.
And that’s life, right? … the cruft of living accumulates as you go on in years and there isn’t a uniformity to it … so much of what you take away from What Remains of Edith Finch is that you’ve just been through a life and many lives, and so it’s so great to see these experiences being created in the medium where what you take away from them is as much about the actual physical interactions of the button presses as it is about just being in the space.
Yeah and it came as a wild spiralling journey that we took and often we would do things even in the stories that would find their way back into the house … we kind of came at everything from all sorts of different angles, is it “who is this character and what they were about”, or “what’s a good idea for an interesting interaction that maybe we could tell a story” … there’s a whole abundance of things that went through that process and never made it out.
But in some cases it really just took a ton of time and energy and perseverance to sort of push through that and enforce things to work that seemingly did not want to be there or were far from achieving the feeling we hoped to have without spoiling it. The scene in the bath tub in particular, was very close to being cut … we were playing with fire and we really had to watch ourselves, and it was definitely a big learning process … I don’t know if I’ll ever make anything like Edith Finch, it was a marathon of a video game development.
On that marathon along the way and more broadly I guess just throughout your career … as you say now with the marathon 4+ year development of a game like What Remains of Edith Finch where you have to be dedicated to the process and to the end goal more so than any one individual idea or the ship will sink. Did you paddle with that early on, how did you become really comfortable with living in that space?
Edith Finch is a weird one in particular because there’s so many mechanics. Often with a lot of video games I think the process here would … take a single system and try to explore that … but the game isn’t really changing what it is from moment to moment like Edith Finch does. In that situation your pre-production is going more towards proving out that system, proving that it works, and then by the time you’re reaching production you can have like a sense for ok, this is sort of our bounds and this is where this needs to go.
Edith Finch … for quite some time never really reached that point because there was always a new system to be built, a new thing to try, a new experiment to be made and it wasn’t ’til much later in the development process where we could say, ok this is what it is, this is what a good story or interactive vignette feels like …
But because each of them are their own thing, they each have their own set of weird and strange problems, and so I would say … unless you’re doing some crazy wild sprawling thing … the hope would be to prove out what’s mechanically interesting about your game and the feelings and experiences that come naturally to that, and then everything else just kind of falls away and you need to just listen to what it wants to be and not try to force it.
It sounds a lot like making the Finch house was like living in the Finch house in some ways, because as you say there’s all these different stacked mechanics and experiences and gameplay styles …
Yeah, and fortunately we had a big enough team and a confident enough team that we could have different people of the team become spearheads and leaders of a particular story and which was also interesting because that meant that this particular character, this mechanic or whatever, felt maybe it added to its uniqueness because there was someone else that was really in charge of it. And so it gave it a little bit more of that person’s character, and so when you look at the whole house all of our identities and personalities and touches are spread all over that game …
I really do feel like I lived in the Finch house for four years you know, you kind of lose track of time … what’s also kind of wild and surprising is there are still times where I’ll go through it and I’ll notice a detail that I hadn’t picked up on … I think the fact that I’ve gone through it so many times and still find new things just speaks to me how much stuff we put into it.
Do you feel like good design and good game creation is tied almost inexorably to getting that close … do you feel like to create good games you have to almost live in the spaces of the games themselves as you create them, or is it possible to sort of engage in it more as a process and almost a discipline, or do you have to dig in and really make it part of your brain space?
So, for me personally its never just a discipline, I’m always sort of being overtaken by it, it becomes a sort of quest … it occupies my mind constantly, and its sort of exhausting. I just went from working on Edith Finch and shipping a video game, I’m now helping out on a couple other projects, friend’s things … the want was “oh I’ll go help my friends … and at least I’m not directing and therefore I’m sure I should be able to manage my time and my energy” but, no, it’s like the second you put a question to my mind, games are so sprawling and strange and have so many edge cases and weird happenstance and so just to understand them really, at least for me, requires intense amount of thinking and mental simulation of what is this going to feel like, what does this mean, and then also I hold the things I work on to a high standard … so it’s a constant intense deep dive into sort of living with this thing and trying to help it grow and then constantly being wrong!
That sounds amazing and wonderful and twisted and beautiful all at once I think and that it kind of encapsulates the process of design … where can people find more of your words, find more of your work, find you online…?
Thanks again to Ryan and Eli for allowing us to share this really insightful interview. You can hear the full episode on the Art & Craft podcast.
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