Interview: Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany (Journey)

Thatgamecompany are the toast of the town, re-defining gaming and setting new benchmarks yet again as the studio launched their third title Journey on the PlayStation Network last month.

The studio has already experienced successes with flOw and Flower, however their latest work is the thing of dreams. Journey surpasses its predecessors soaring so high with its mystical scarf; it has earned the coveted title of fastest selling PSN game of all time. Not an easy feat for an indie developer who dared to be different.

Thatgamecompany was co-founded by Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago more than half a decade ago and happily for Martin and I, Kellee Santiago has taken time out of her packed schedule to talk with us about the PlayStation Network exclusive Journey, as well as answer a few questions on video game development.

Interview thatgamecompany Kellee Santiago Journey
The game Journey is like nothing I’ve ever played before, how did the concept for the game first come about?

Kellee: Our games often start with a question, or an idea for an experiment. With flOw, we wanted to give players control over the game’s level of difficulty, to see if it changed their experience of challenge. In Flower, we made the environment the central character of the experience, instead of just the background, to try and create a new feelings within our players.

With Journey, we asked ourselves: What is the typical experience of online play – and how can we change it?

Martin: Following on from the first question, as Journey is so unique, I had a hard time while playing; trying to figure out what the games’ roots are. Where do you draw your inspiration from? Did the games you play while growing up contribute in any way?

Kellee: The games I played don’t really factor in as inspiration for TGC games because they are so unique and different in the kind of content they explore. I get my inspiration from anthropology, psychology, and folks games mainly.

Hangie: Having fulfilled the contract with Sony Computer Entertainment to produce three downloadable titles for the PlayStation Network, what are your plans for the future of thatgamecompany?

Kellee: We were really focused on making sure Journey was as great as it could be, all the way to the end. Everyone is taking a bit of a breather at the moment, which is nice, as we can just enjoy all of the wonderful feedback we’ve been getting from players.

Interview thatgamecompany Kellee Santiago Journey
You are an advocate of the position that video games are art. Do you believe, given your prominent role in the indie community, that there is enough of a driving force within the industry to sustain the focus on artistic innovation and creativity?

Kellee: Man, I hope so.

Hangie: Jenova and yourself are inspirational role models for budding developers who are trying to break it into the video games industry. Do you have any suggestions, advice or pearls of wisdom on how they can also achieve critical success like thatgamecompany?

Kellee: Make games, however you can. Pick small ideas that you can finish in a day or a week. Then start picking ideas that are both small and personal to you. What are you passionate about? What do you have to say? Putting these things into your games will make them stand out.

Martin: On a less serious note, have you ever come across anyone who didn’t like Flower, Journey or any of the previous titles?

Kellee: Yes! Which is fine. I don’t think our types of games should be the only type of game out there, and they aren’t for everybody! I just want to see more variety in the kinds of games are out there.

Interview thatgamecompany Kellee Santiago Journey
Journey has just recently become the fastest selling title in PSN history. Did you ever imagine that Journey would be so well received? What are your feelings on achieving such an amazing accomplishment?

Kellee: I am so proud of Journey. I was proud of it before it was actually released, because in the end, it did everything we wanted that game to do. We really put ourselves out on a limb, and so it is extremely validating to have such an incredible response to the game. I really hope the commercial success will make it easier for other developers to make games that are different. I hope we’ve showed that gamers aren’t just one kind of person, and that we like wide range of experiences and emotions in games.

Hangie: Apart from the gameplay and visual styling, the soundtrack for Journey has been talked about; with many gamers moved emotionally by the hauntingly beautiful score crafted by Austin Wintory. Was there much input in regards to the compilation, or was Austin Wintory given free rein to make music as he saw fit?

Kellee: The music is as integral to our design process as art or engineering. Austin was a team member from the very beginning, and the creation of the score was a collaborative process. He would be inspired by a design concept, but then the team would be just as equally inspired by his music. In fact, this is probably most evident in the final level of the game. We were struggling on how to end the experience. One night, in a flurry of inspiration, Austin cranked out a track that sounded pretty much like the level does today if you play straight through it. In the next week the team made the final level based on that piece of music – it was the inspiration they needed to make it happen!

Interview thatgamecompany Kellee Santiago Journey
Any closing comments you’d like to share with our readers?

Kellee: Thank you all so much for your tweets and emails – they really do mean so much to us, after three hard years of working on this game!

Find out what we thought about Journey via our review here. To learn more about thatgamecompany and their previous works, check out their official website. Congratulations goes to the team at thatgamecompany for their success with Journey and for producing titles that challenges the concept and conventions of the video game medium.

A big thank you to Kellee Santiago for answering our questions, especially with recent news of her departure from thatgamecompany. We wish her all the best with future opportunities, endeavours and life in general. It sure is one hell of Journey!