President and Co-Founder of thatgamecompany Kellee Santiago talks about the origins of thatgamecompany, creative expression in video games, the value of core games, and Journey, which is currently in development for PlayStation Network.
From Interactive Stage to Interactive Screen
Kellee Santiago comes at the games industry from a unique approach, theatre. After receiving a BFA from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, she went on to pursue an MFA in Interactive Media at the University of Southern California. Initially, she took the program because she thought it would give her a unique skill set on which she could build a career in creating original performance works. However, she quickly shifted her direction. “In our second semester we took a class on the history of play and game design throughout human history. I had always played games, but never made them. I was hooked,” comments Santiago.
During her time at USC, Santiago’s dream was realized when she got the opportunity to work with game designer Jenova Chen. Their company, thatgamecompany, was born out of a desire for innovation and creative expression in games. While working on Cloud (an action flight game where players manipulate clouds and weather), Chen and Santiago realized that they had similar ideals for the games industry. They wanted to create a company that innovated at every aspect of game development, from content to team structure to business model. “Our goal is to make video games that communicate different emotional experiences the current video games market is not offering,” Santiago emphasizes.
Charting Creative Territory
Santiago and Chen’s games have received notoriety and critical acclaim through venues such as the Independent Games Festival and Spike Video Game Awards. After Cloud was so well received, Santiago continued to pursue working with video games. Santiago shares: “There are very few rules about how to make game, so you can decide for yourself how you want to do it. I discovered that video games had so much uncharted territory when it came to creative expression through the medium, and that really enticed me.”
Santiago considers her games to be “core games,” ones that appeal not only to existing hardcore and casual gaming markets, but also to mature gamers and even non-gamers.
Chen and Santiago’s exploration further led to flOw for PlayStation 3, a game about piloting an aquatic organism through a biosphere and consuming other organisms. Flower, for the PlayStation Network, challenges players to pick flower petals and consider the environmental changes. Now, the pressure is on as they develop Journey for the PlayStation Network. The game will demand the player to set upon an unknown voyage with little but their own intuition to rely on.
Journey, an online adventure experience, was inspired by Chen’s “feeling that in the modern world where man has so much power, we have lost an integral aspect of the human experience—awe towards the unknown,” explains Santiago. In this sense, Journey also fits into the core game model. Santiago stresses that core games reach these new markets because they are easier and less time consuming, and yet possess emotionally rich and powerful gameplay.
While each project has brought different challenges and successes for Santiago and her team, on Journey she is working with their biggest team yet (a team of ten). “We are pushing ourselves as a company and as game makers,” Santiago remarks.
Santiago concludes: “Doing something no one has done before is our constant challenge. Despite our independent spirits, Jenova and I have a lot of respect for the wisdom of game developers who have been there before. Unfortunately, at a certain point, it always comes back to the fact that in some aspects we actually are the experts in what we do, which is terrifying!”
Santiago is working away on Journey and dreaming on the next of thatgamecompany’s creative expressions.