flOw turns 10 (?!)

Some nostalgic musings

Life could be simple

How on earth is it possible that it’s already been 10 years since thatgamecompany’s debut title, flOw? February 22, 2007, when the idea of a downloadable game was considered the forefront of distribution innovation, and when “indie” was virtually synonymous with “unplayed” or “unknown.”

The real story began a full year+ earlier, January 2006, when Jenova Chen (then a Master’s student at USC, where I was also attending) reached out to me seeking a composer for his thesis project. I didn’t know what to expect, but I never expected it’d be flOw (or, as he contemplated calling it, Darwin’s Island!). The concept of a meditative-yet-dynamic game was baffling to me. Who makes games that try to inspire relaxation and reflection??? In hindsight, it’s a little peculiar to me how readily I dove in despite having truly no idea what he was trying to achieve. Plus, coming from a pretty “classical” background, the simultaneous notion of electronic music AND highly interactive music was terrifying. I had no fucking clue what I was doing, and I’d also never played a game anything like this. Yet somehow, we made this:

You can still play it! Go here http://intihuatani.usc.edu/cloud/flowing/

Some months later (after this little thing managed to garner hundreds of thousands of players, which to this day I can’t understand in a pre-YouTube, pre-[ubiquitous]Facebook, era), Sony approached us to turn it into a full-on PS3 title, for release in 2007. We somehow did it. If it wasn’t my first real composer job, it was certainly the biggest I’d had, and I was still somehow finishing classes at USC simultaneously. I didn’t sleep for about 8 months straight and it seems like a miracle I managed to deliver the score and graduate just a few months later.

No seriously, I have no idea how I pulled that off. The memories are gone and on the face of it, it seems impossible.

The massive leap from Flash to PS3

Shortly after release, I attended my first-ever Game Developer’s Conference (skipping school for a week in order to go), which has since become an annual tradition for me akin to a spiritual retreat. It was (as most peoples’ first GDC is) totally overwhelming, but one moment was particularly surreal. I remember seeing listed on the calendar a talk about dynamic, interactive music systems, and wanting to go because flOw had revealed how much I had to learn on the subject. I was late, and walked in to find this slide on the projector:

THEY WERE LITERALLY TALKING ABOUT FLOW!!! I had no clue how to react to that (beyond super awkwardly taking this photo from the back of the room). It remains hard to believe that it had anything to teach anyone, considering how poorly I myself understood it. The next day Jenova and thatgamecompany’s cofounder Kellee Santiago gave a talk called “Classroom to the Console: The Autobiography of flOw,” and invited me to join them (and TGC’s John Edwards). This was probably the first time I’d ever spoken publicly about my work, and certainly the first time at GDC.

Babies!
thatgamecompany, 2007 + a very, very lucky composer

The entire week is now one of the most cherished, overstimulated and nostalgia-laden memories I have. The partnership that began then obviously sewed the seeds for Journey and other games, and also some lifelong, mighty friendships (with a recent local apex, attending and giving a toast at Jenova’s wedding in Norway this past August).

The fact that it’s been 10 years since this adventure began has really gotten me thinking. Because I had a blurry transition from student work to professional work, I’ve always struggled to peg a date to the “official” start of my career, but this seems like a good symbolic one. So with my career being now 10 years old, here are some thoughts that occur to me:

  1. This one’s obvious, but time fucking flies. In tandem with some of the difficulties I’ve faced the last couple years, looking back at decade-long memories really does serve as a reminder to cherish everything, even the blunders (thoughts like this always remind me of this short but beautiful ST moment).
  2. Just dive in. Above I mentioned that, after Jenova first showed me the prototype to flOw, I had no idea what it was or how to do it, but I just said yes. Only later did I really appreciate how important a decision that was, and decide to turn it into a mantra. We so easily tell ourselves reasons why we shouldn’t do X or Y, how they won’t work out or how the risk isn’t worth it, etc etc etc. I’m lucky that life showed me how narrow-sighted that is, and it’s been a non-stop rollercoaster ever since. I’m pretty confident that in this case, correlation = causation.
  3. I have amazing colleagues in this industry. A unique experience happened at GDC one year later: flOw was nominated for a bunch of awards, including for its music. I lost all of them, mainly to Garry Schyman for his absolutely industry-elevating score to Bioshock. I was in such awe of that game and score, that being nominated with it felt like someone had made a mistake, but it was especially noteworthy how GOOD it felt to lose. Feeling inspired by the people you stand alongside, versus those up-on-a-pillar, demigod heroes (like Beethoven or some other non-mortal), is magnificently powerful. My colleagues drive me to be better and a significant part of my motivation today is in hoping to offer to the same to them.
  4. Who we create with drives what we create. Again, this seems obvious but I really underestimated how much my development as a composer / person would be influenced by my friendship and collaboration with thatgamecompany. I don’t look at art or music remotely the same way now. I have, at least I think, a vastly deeper appreciation and far wider view, and I don’t see where I could’ve gotten that perspective if not from them. And that’s skipping how much those relationships have meant to me. In short, there’s no such thing as a mere “gig.” Every project and interaction constantly, actively, rewrites our DNA.

I know those 4 points above aren’t Earth-shattering revealtations to anyone but I don’t know how or if I’d have ever learned them directly another way; in that visceral, lived way, which courses much more deeply into us than simply being told.

Thank you Jenova, Nick, Kellee, John, and Martin, plus everyone at Sony (Chuck, Monty, Paul) for giving me that crucial first step onto a path that utterly defines everything about who I am now. I can only hope that the next 10 years sufficiently live up to the dream you helped manifest into reality.

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