She Got Game

21 June 2012 | 11:06 am | Baz McAlister

Kellee Santiago strives to elicit uncommon emotional responses in gamers, the LA-based designer tells Baz McAlister ahead of ACMI’S interactive video game exhibition Game Masters.

This winter, the Australian Centre For The Moving Image becomes a temple to leading local and international video game designers when Game Masters opens, with 125 playable games from all eras to tinker with. The exhibition will showcase some of the work of more than 30 extraordinary game designers, among whom are Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen, co-founders of Los Angeles-based thatgamecompany.

The company is fresh from having launched their third game, Journey, when Front Row catches up with Santiago, who explains the premise of the distinctive-looking PlayStation Network game. “In Journey you play a traveller,” Santiago explains. “You wake up in the desert and your goal is to get to a mountaintop, but the experience of the game is about finding out who you are, what happened and what your purpose is in this world. Along the way you can meet another traveller, another person who is online – but there's no PlayStation Network ID, no voice chat. All you know about that other person is they're on the journey too. You can choose to travel with them or walk away.”

When the pair of University Of Southern California graduates began work on Journey – the follow-up to their previous games Flow and Flower – they knew they wanted to make an online title. “Jenova [Chen] had had this idea for a while about an experience when you're on a hero's journey and the emphasis is on exploration and experience; on sharing this journey with another person,” Santiago explains. “There's no combat and you're going to feel very small in relation to the world around you so when you happen upon that other person, we were interested in the dynamic it could create. Most online games are about fighting one another, or joining forces to fight someone else.”

Santiago says Chen was very focused on creating a game that would produce a very specific emotional response in the player. “All games elicit some emotional response,” she says, “but we really aimed to focus on uncommon ones, to see if they were possible. I play all sorts of games; I want to get to a point where I can come home and say, 'What sort of game am I in the mood for?' and there will be a game about that.”

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Santiago grew up with a software developer father and, along with her brother, played games from an early age – video games and board games alike. However, she majored in theatre at university. “I didn't think of game design as a career until late,” she ponders, “but I think my background in theatre and the fact I grew up playing games shaped my approach as far as understanding what's great about games and being open to seeing games as an expressive medium.”

As a keen gamer, it seems prudent to get Santiago's take on recommendations from the current crop of games available. “I just tore through Fez [on Xbox Live Arcade] and my husband and I have just started playing the Lara Croft [And The Guardian Of Light] co-operative game,” she says.

Santiago recently parted ways with thatgamecompany, but says she will be continuing her work alongside new kinds of developers and new voices in games.  “I don't think my general trajectory has shifted a lot. I'm a gamer who enjoys more meditative experiences, and I'll be seeking out more of those.”

Game Masters will run from Thursday 28 June to Sunday 28 October at ACMI.