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More than money, gaming needs its ‘Snow White’ moment, says indie star Jenova Chen

“Today, when we say, ‘Oh we work in games,’ they respond, ‘I heard you guys make a lot of money right? How much money do you make?” Chen said. “They assume it’s just all about that. But you don’t ask a film director how much money they make. You don’t ask a novelist. You only ask casino runners.”

Sky: Children of the Light, by Chen’s thatgamecompany, finally makes its way to the Android platform today. Released last year for iPhones, it won Apple’s iPhone Game of the Year and SXSW’s Mobile Game of the Year. The game is still planned for PC, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. All versions are expected to have cross play and be compatible with each other.

As a University of Southern California student, Chen launched thatgamecompany as a contracted Sony PlayStation developer. It launched three critically-acclaimed PlayStation 3 titles (Flow, Flower, and Journey), lauded for their simplicity, accessibility and a diligent focus on expressing human emotion. Sky is the first title to break free from the PlayStation garden, and the studio’s first mobile game.

It’s also Chen’s most technically impressive game, and his first dedicated multiplayer offering. As a child of light, you’re meant to return stars to their constellations while exploring seven dream worlds. There are no enemies, only other players who are there to help you, and you to help them. Much of the game is spent simply walking, jumping and flying through beautiful heavenly worlds.

In a thatgamecompany first, and a nod to the “live service” model that’s keeping many games afloat, Sky offers rotating character customization options, a big draw for more casual players. It’s all in service to make his games, and gaming, more accessible to as many people as possible.

It’s not that Chen isn’t worried about money. He needs it to make games. But he believes financial success comes once the “games as art” conversation finally hits the mainstream. For years, gaming critics have wondered about the medium’s “Citizen Kane.” Chen looks to Snow White for inspiration.

Before 1937′s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” animation was considered low-brow entertainment, mostly made up of slapstick comedy with superdeformed animal screwball characters like Bugs Bunny. When Disney finally released “Snow White,” animation was finally accepted as an artform by multiple generations.

Most of the world are gamers, however a big chunk of them still engage with “time wasting” mobile games. Meanwhile, mature, narrative-driven games like God of War, The Last of Us and Red Dead Redemption rival and often surpass writing found in Hollywood. But, Chen argues, the industry missed a step, and those games still have a limited audience. God of War, for all its compelling themes of fatherhood and inherited toxic masculinity, is not a story to be shared with the whole family.

“Enthusiasts already consider gaming as art, that’s not the battle this industry has to fight,” said Chen in an interview with The Washington Post. “The battle now is, can we make people who are already interacting with some time wasters to have a try on something that’s not too intimidating with a heartfelt experience? That they themselves and their family can relate to?”

Chen’s metric of success is how the medium moves toward universal acceptance. Once the medium achieves that, publishers and investors can finally fund more diverse and passionate storytellers and developers. “That’s what the industry needs to grow,” Chen said.

Snow White started a snowball effect in animation. And in the 90s, computer animations faced, and overcame, a similar hurdle with the release of Pixar’s “Toy Story.”

“I remember how everyone, including Disney, was like CGI is just a fad, like flying golden text for commercials, that’s not art,” Chen said. “Until ‘Toy Story,’ and then the whole family can enjoy it and have something to talk about. That grew that industry.”

In Launcher’s beginner’s guide to gaming, Sky and Journey were selected as accessible titles for anyone new to gaming. Both games provide pressure-free 3D environments to acclimate new players to movement.

More than eight million people already play Sky: Children of the Light on their iPhones. For Chen, he finds the most hope in letters he gets about the game’s multi-generational appeal, and its troll-free social system. He designed the game so anyone can adopt and form their own identities, like a grandmother who recently wrote to him about reconnecting with her grandchildren through the game.

“In the world of Sky, no one is judging you based on your status, the fact that you are a 67-year-old single woman or anyone,” Chen said. ” You can still form trust and connections through play. You treat each other as individual human beings.

Chen talked about learning to “take off his artist’s hat.” His games have always focused on singular human emotions, performed through character design, music and player expression. Journey was created to evoke a feeling of smallness in an unforgiving universe, and finding hope and light in the routines and paths we create for ourselves in life. With Sky, he knew he needed to do more to let players in.

“Among artists, we say commercial art is like art with sugar on top, so it’s easy for the mass audience to digest,” Chen said. “This is a project I want the family to embrace.”

Chen says that’s why Sky’s musical compositions are child-like lullabies, a step away from Journey’s sweeping, orchestral compositions of Austin Wintory. Not everything needs to be scored like an epic. And not every game needs to be a 100-hour-long Homerian tale. While massive, open-world games are rewarding, you have to play and grind through dozens of hours to experience the tale and see it to its finish. Games need to respect our time before we decide to waste time on them.

“In order for games to be relevant to more adults, we’ve got to be as efficient as the theater, as the soccer game, as the concert,” Chen said.

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