Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen possess the souls of poets. The young video game developers stand decidedly against the mainstream industry — artistic auteurs, the avant garde for a new wave in a still-immature entertainment medium.
“Imagine Hollywood without any action films, any superhero films, any special effects films — everything is just deep social reflective films,” Chen explained. “We want all the colors in the spectrum. The reason we work on the games we work on is because we felt the spectrum is kind of biased toward one or two types of colors.”
Santiago and Chen are president and creative director, respectively, of thatgamecompany, a design studio they founded in 2006 while students in the School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media MFA program. After Cloud, the beautiful free-form online game they created as students, caught the attention of Sony Computer Entertainment, Santiago and Chen garnered a lucrative three-game contract with the PlayStation Network — the fruits of which so far have been flOw (2007) and this year’s Flower.
For such a lucrative contract to come to students in a program that was itself barely two years old was an enormous surprise for both students and faculty.
“To have students from school validated by a publisher the size of Sony Computer Entertainment was incredible and certainly, as a startup, it was an awesome opportunity because it allowed us to experiment and to fail and to learn from that process without worrying about where the next project was going to be,” Santiago said.
For 30-year-old Santiago and 28-year-old Chen, the entire experience has been a whirlwind. The young developers were thrown headfirst into their own business, but said they were prepared and encouraged by interactive media business classes they took while in the School of Cinematic Arts. Of course, Santiago, Chen and the other employees of thatgamecompany faced the same tribulations as any young startup.
“When we first started out the company, a lot of our process was learning how to make good stuff, how to make a better game,” Chen said of the company’s early trials. “Early on we did a lot of crunches. We were passionate. We wanted the game to be good so…”
“…We were stupid.,” interjected Santiago. “We scheduled really poorly. We thought we were immortal,” she said, laughing at the memories of their early days.
Since flOw shipped in 2007, the staff at thatgamecompany has steadily grown from four to 10 members, and Santiago and Chen now find themselves facing new challenges as a business.
“Now we’re shifting to how to build a good company culture, how to keep everybody happy while being efficient,” Chen said.
A significant piece of the success of the games created at thatgamecompany is their experimentation with narrative, something which Santiago and Chen credit to their experiences at the School of Cinematic Arts.
“We had a visual communication class, screenwriting class, a production class and a critical studies class and they ask us to analyze film in terms of story structure, character development, emotional arcs. I felt that became very useful when we create a different experience in another medium. A game has everything that film has, but there’s more, there’s the interactivity, so from that perspective I see video games as a natural extension of the ever-growing mixed media,” Chen explained.
Although Santiago and Chen are standard-bearers of the games-as-art revolution, they are entirely unpretentious about the innovation of their games compared to blockbusters such as Halo 3.
“Our goal as a company is to bring variety to video games, but we don’t think any of the current video games should be excluded or killed off, and we play all types of games in the office,” Santiago explained. “But with those games, what I think is interesting is that even when you look at the sales of Halo 3 and compare it to the sales of Monopoly, it pales in comparison, so although those games are hitting huge audiences, they’re only hitting a fraction of the potential audience that’s out there.”
“It would be totally fine if Halo 3 continues to make money,” added Chen. “That just means more people are playing games.”
While Santiago and Chen, who work out of a Sony Computer Entertainment office with Pentagon-level security in Santa Monica, are mum on their next project — which is still in the beginning phases of development — they suggest that their M.O. will continue to be the artistic and narrative innovation that has defined their products so far.
“We’ve been trying to design — and I think you can see it in Flower — games that ask the audience to bring part of themselves to the experience to add to it, to really use that aspect of games that defines them, which is that they’re kind of open ended: they depend on interactivity, they depend on someone else to become alive,” Santiago said.
Chen continued, saying, “So while trying to entertain the grown-up games you know we felt we shouldn’t rely on the M-rated content which is violence and sexuality, we wanted to make games that are healthy for anyone to play…”
“…and relevant to their live,” Santiago concluded.