Robin Hunicke believes games like Luna, about the adventures of a little red bird, can inspire empathy in players. (Image courtesy Funomena)

Game changer

Robin Hunicke, AB’95, designs video games for the soul.

In 2009 Robin Hunicke, AB’95, met with her friend and fellow game designer Jenova Chen to talk about Chen’s idea for a new game. Chen envisioned characters on a pilgrimage to a distant mountain.

For Hunicke, it felt a bit like fate. Just a few months earlier, she had taken a trip to Bhutan, where she ascended a 14,000- and then a 16,500-foot peak. The experience convinced her she needed to make a change. “I realized that I had been climbing the wrong mountain,” says Hunicke. She’d been working on major commercial games at Electronic Arts for years, and while she’d enjoyed projects like The Sims 2 and Boom Blox, “I really wanted to try actually making artistic games for a living.”

Chen’s meditative project was exactly the kind of thing she had in mind. She took the role of executive producer and helped assemble a small team. Together they developed Journey’s unusual system of collaboration: throughout the game, players spontaneously encounter one another and can travel toward the mountain together, communicating only through wordless song. Each wears a magic scarf that, when properly charged, allows them to fly; players can “recharge” their scarves by remaining close together.

When it came out in 2012, Journey broke sales records on the PlayStation Network and earned reviews that were not so much favorable as ecstatic. “Journey is a marvel, a hallucination of gameplay that feels as deep and immersive as the borderless desert where it begins. An abstract story of spiritual fulfillment that’s tinted with magic and suffused with almost ethereal beauty,” one reviewer wrote.

Journey takes only about two and a half hours to play, but developing the game took almost three years (“so it was a year an hour, if you think about it that way,” Hunicke says, “and that’s a lot of time”). Yet something important emerged from the laborious process: “We really wanted to create a canvas for you to project your thoughts and feelings onto,” she says. “And some of the best responses that we got to the game were from people that were able to use it as a way of projecting out traumatic narratives, grief, love.”

Journey’s collaborative elements proved especially powerful. Despite the constraints on communication between players, many described feelings of intense connection to their nameless partners. On a fan site, one player commented about helping a less experienced companion: “I happily showed her everything I could. She taught me to care for those I took under my wing, and it’s not something I’m going to forget.”

Today, four years after Journey’s remarkable success, Hunicke is the cofounder of her own small game company, Funomena, and is at work on several new games. She also teaches game design as an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and speaks regularly about the importance of diversity in the game industry. Despite some changes, the field remains predominantly white and male, according to the International Game Developers Association.

Hunicke’s path to game design was nearly thwarted by the devious Pitfall! (1982)—the first game she’d ever played—which at age seven she found “punishing and hard to know.” But she became enraptured with M.U.L.E. (1983), in which settlers compete for resources on a newly discovered planet. When she wasn’t playing the game, she spent her time devising new strategies to try out. At UChicago, she took her first computer programming class and devised her own humanities major focused on art, computer science, women’s studies, and storytelling. She was nearly done with a PhD in computer science at Northwestern when she left to work on The Sims 2: Open for Business expansion pack at Electronic Arts.

In her spare time, Hunicke continued to tinker with game ideas of her own. One of these ideas became the forthcoming Luna, which explores themes of regret and transformation through the adventures of a little red bird blown from its nest. Players help the bird return home by solving puzzles that unlock information about its past. Hunicke says the game was informed by her study of childhood trauma and its lifelong mental and emotional impact.

Years ago, this might have been seen as unusually dark subject matter for a video game. But today, many designers, especially those affiliated with the “deep games” movement, are interested in finding ways to explore the human condition through their work. Some deep games, such as the depression narrative Actual Sunlight (2013) and That Dragon, Cancer (2016), directly address topics like mental and physical illness. Others, like Luna, are more allegorical.

The growth of artistic games stems in part from technological advancement and new distribution platforms, according to Patrick Jagoda, who studies digital games as an associate professor in English and cinema and media studies at UChicago. In the 1990s and early 2000s, games could only be distributed in hard copy, and pressing discs at volume was too expensive for most small companies. Today online platforms like Steam and Xbox Live have eliminated that barrier by allowing people to download games directly to their consoles, making it easier for independent games to compete alongside shoot-’em-up blockbusters.

Because they’re naturally interactive, games offer artistic possibilities that novels or movies don’t. “A game doesn’t just allow you to imagine what it would be like to act,” says Jagoda. “It actually puts you in situations where you have to make choices and take actions.” Games offer “an opportunity to practice new habits, to alter attitudes, potentially to change one’s behaviors.”

Hunicke agrees, and she’s committed to developing games that help players in their lives. “Technology and entertainment have the capacity to help shift our approach to our feelings,” she says, “and help us be more open to them and honest about them in ways that reduce our chances of hurting ourselves or harming others.”

The same goes for the people making the games. For Hunicke, game design—and all design, really—is an exercise in empathy. “You’re literally building that world from scratch,” she says. “You need to think about, ‘What is the experience of the players going to be? How are they going to experience this as a system and as a reality?’”

In her classes, Hunicke reminds students that this empathetic and design-focused worldview has value for more than games. “Everything is being designed,” from where items are placed in the grocery store to our immigration system. And that means everything can be redesigned too. “We are all capable of imagining a better world.”