Video game innovator to speak in RVA

With only seven years in the video game industry, RVA native Kellee Santiago has already made a name for herself (and ruffled the feathers of one notable film critic).

Kellee Santiago

Most people go their entire lives avoiding a public row with Roger Ebert. Kellee Santiago isn’t one of those people.

In 2009, Venezuelan-born, Richmond-raised Santiago gave a TED talk about video games as art. Ebert disagreed.

A full year after Santiago gave her talk, Ebert wrote that her belief was flawed. In his response, he affirmed what he had argued several years prior: “To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists, and composers.”

But some contend that Santiago herself, who will soon appear in Richmond for two separate events, has helped set a course for game developers to create video games as both entertainment and art.

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Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Santiago moved to Brandermill with her family not long after her birth. “I did play video games from an early age,” she said by phone from Los Angeles, where she now lives.

“My dad worked in software engineering as a business manager,” Santiago said. Not only did she grow up with a computer in the home, the computer “was something we were encouraged to interact with and use.”

After graduating from Clover Hill High School, Santiago moved to New York City to work in theater. She produced and managed original works, often tasked with seeing a play “from its beginning to its realization.” It was a process she enjoyed. Because some of the plays she worked on featured modern technological aspects, aspects which often flew over the heads of cast and crew, “I would end up taking over,” she said.

She became so taken with the creative exchange of technology and the arts that, at age 24, she moved to Los Angeles to earn a master’s degree in Interactive Media at USC.

“It really opened my awareness to the possibilities of play and games as a creative medium, a medium through which one can express themselves as an artist,” Santiago said. While in LA, she “met people who made games that I had played…I really felt a connection to that community.”

One person she felt connected to was fellow student Jenova Chen. “We both felt that we were becoming grown-up gamers…we wanted to see more variety in video games,” Santiago said. “And we felt that we weren’t alone.”

The pair collaborated with other students to create Cloud. In the game, players control a boy who flies through a fantasy world, manipulating clouds to solve puzzles. “It really caught on,” Santiago said. Less than a year after the online game premiered, users had downloaded it roughly 600,000 times.

In 2006, Santiago and Chen founded thatgamecompany to develop video games “that expressed different emotions, that maybe covered themes that were more subtle and nuanced, and had characters and ideas that a wider audience could relate to.”

The company soon signed a deal with Sony to create games to be distributed on the PlayStation Network. The first game distributed by Sony was FlOw (trailer below), in which players pilot an aquatic organism that travels through a surreal environment. It was the most downloaded game on the PlayStation Network in 2007, and earned award nominations.1

In 2008, the company released Flower, named Best Downloadable Game at the Game Developers Choice Awards. The company then followed with last year’s release of Journey, which earned a recent Grammy nomination for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, the first nomination for a video game in the history of the Grammy Awards.

Journey (trailer below) itself was an ambitious project, taking three years to develop. “You go on this belief,” Santiago said, “that if you put your heart and soul into this game, that it will reach the [player].” She said some who’ve played Journey, a game in which players explore a mysterious desert world, expressed that they were so moved by the gameplay that it produced a “sense of catharsis and personal relief.”

Santiago believes that video games can offer more than fleeting moments of entertainment. So much so, she gave a TEDxUSC talk in 2009 titled “Video Games are Art, So What’s Next?

“Most mediums of art began as unartistic modes of communication,” Santiago said in her talk. Yet cave paintings turned into Picassos and Monets. Video games, she reasoned, were not dissimilar in their artistic evolution.

She defined art as the “process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.” Video games, she said, are already doing this.

Some agree with her. Others don’t. One notable detractor is famed film critic Roger Ebert who, a year after Santiago’s TED talk, penned a thorough response dismissing it. Santiago later countered.

“I think it’s great to have a high-profile person such as Roger Ebert bring this discussion to light.” She added that she provided Ebert with a copy of Flower. “I never heard if he played it or not.”

In 2010, Santiago co-started Indie Fund to “help independent developers get and stay financially independent,” as well as advised an international festival of independent gamers, IndieCade.

Since leaving thatgamecompany in 2012, Santiago has worked to broaden the “possibilities of video games…and [expand] those possibilities through new business models and opportunities.” She said video games have not come close to peaking. “I still discover games on a regular basis that surprise and amaze me and touch me and move me.”

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She will soon return to Richmond to talk about video games in two separate events.

First, on Friday, January 25th at 6:30 PM, Santiago will take part in a Q/A at 804RVA to kick off the 48-hour Global Game Jam event organized by RVA Game Jams. After her talk, participants will join creators across the world to design games in the annual marathon event.

The following Monday, Santiago will speak at 7:00 PM at the University of Richmond’s Camp Concert Hall ahead of the Flow, Just Flow: Variations on a Theme exhibit running from January 29th to June 28th. The exhibit features contemporary art inspired by the psychological state of flow: one’s full focus in a given activity. Work from thatgamecompany will be featured in the exhibit.

When asked about the future of video games, Santiago predicts the digital distribution of games will continue to foster the industry. So will improved technology that will make creating games easier than before, which will mean “more people will be able to make games,” she said. She believes this diversification of creators will only increase the abundance–and artfulness–of future video games.

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Related

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Footnotes

  1. Downloadable Game of the Year at the 2008 Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences
    Interactive Achievement Awards, and for Best Innovation Award at the 2007 British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards. 

photo courtesy of Kellee Santiago

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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