From Flower To Journey And Beyond: Kellee Santiago Of thatgamecompany

Kellee Santiago is president and co-founder of thatgamecompany, which released Journey last week. Its previous game, Flower, is a featured, playable game at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new exhibit The Art of Video Games, which opened this weekend.

Santiago was at the museum as one of the featured panellists at Friday’s festivities, and I had a chance to speak with her briefly about Flower, Journey and where thatgamecompany might go next.

Inclusivity, collaboration and lived experiences came across very strongly as themes that Santiago and thatgamecompany prefer to explore. When I asked her about Flower‘s presence in the Smithsonian’s exhibit, and its role at the forefront of the “games as art” debate, she answered:

I think it exceeded my expectations of what Flower could do. Our goal at thatgamecompany with all of our games is to create experiences that we think could be relevant and accessible to anyone, regardless of who you are or what your background is. And in that way that we view video games… a medium through which artists can communicate to audiences and to people in general, and when we set out to make Flower we didn’t necessarily set out to make a game that would be appropriate in a museum context or something that could be regarded highly in that sort of conversation about games as art. But through those other goals of viewing games as a communicative medium and wanting to communicate themes that anyone could relate to, and sort of the game we ended up with, as we pursued this idea of creating an experience that made you feel like you were in a giant field of flowers, and what that emotion is, I think we ended up with a video game that is easily accessible. People get it really quickly. You, I think, from the first few seconds really understand the emotion that Flower is going for. And so people feel invited into that experience, as opposed to feeling like they’re not getting it, or that they’re going to be quickly punished for not understanding how to navigate the space.

Immediately before the interview, I had been visiting the exhibit. While I was observing the playable demo stations, I saw an older woman walk up to the Flower display. She appeared to be somewhere around 70, and she wasn’t sure what to do with the PlayStation 3 controller. A museum volunteer showed her how to rotate it and I could see the exact moment on her face as she experienced the moment of “getting it” that Santiago described. She played happily for a moment before disappearing into the crowd.

The idea that anyone can play, and that games and their players should both be diverse, is clearly important to Santiago. She explained that games, in a sense, were being significantly limited by early success that had defined, seemingly in perpetuity, what kind of games are made and who is “supposed” to play them:

I think games have suffered for a while from early success, really, that they found this audience, this specific audience, that was very excited by the kind of content that was being made early on. And so as the industry grew, and the costs of making a game grew, there wasn’t a whole lot of movement away really from the understanding of who a gamer was and who was not a gamer. And I sort of approach game making fundamentally as any creative medium in that there’s really no assumption that this person is a gamer, this person’s not a gamer. I think someone who’s not a gamer is just someone who hasn’t found a game that they’ve liked yet, which is very possible because the range of experiences has been pretty limited in video games.

It’s said so often now, but the common metaphor is it’s as if film had been making action movies for the last hundred years, and you can imagine that then people would think they aren’t into film, they aren’t into movies, which isn’t true; it’s just that only one thing had been made.

The sky-rocketing popularity of mobile and social gaming seems to bear out Santiago’s observations, as games have reached into more and more platforms with seemingly unstoppable success. She confirmed that collaborative, connected spaces continue to be of interest to her and to the team, and indicated that thatgamecompany may well continue to head in that direction in the future.

We’ve found a lot of success on PlayStation Network because the audience there is very receptive to new types of experiences. They consistently list experimental games in their top five genres, so it’s been a great place to test out these crazy ideas we had when we graduated from grad school. But we do think about the possibilities of handheld, certainly mobile platforms, the way people are continuing to play more online, and more with each other online, and also more in different forms as well, taking games with you during the day, or different styles of play that are emerging as a result of the new technologies. Journey was our first online game but it definitely won’t be our last.

One of the reasons we wanted to make an online game for our third PlayStation Network game is because we were seeing this trend of more players playing online and playing together. And, at the same time, similar to our approach or ideas about video games as a medium, I think we saw sort of the same trends in online gaming as well, which is that only a limited range of types of play have been explored, and we’re curious to see what else is possible. We kind of started Journey by stripping away every conceit of a traditional online console game and saying, “OK, if we get rid of all these things, what’s an online game?” And that was the biggest risk or the biggest experiment of the game — to see if people were interested in it.

Ultimately, Santiago told me, the excitement of making games comes from the union of technological limitations, and the desire to create lingering and meaningful experiences.

One of the [Washington Post museum exhibit] critiques was on how much dialogue there was around the technology as opposed to I guess what he would consider more of the creative and artistic inspirations of the work. But that’s games! That’s what makes them so beautiful, in that way. It’s not sexy to talk about why we make decisions due to our constraints as a team or the constraints of the technology, but I think that is the artistic process of game development, when you incorporate all of those elements into your work so that it feels whole and complete — those to me are the best kind of game experiences.

Having since had the chance to play Journey (which Kotaku reviewer Kirk Hamilton loved), I can see what she means. And I look forward to seeing what melding of art and technology thatgamecompany comes up with next.

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