Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Reflections with thatgamecompany

by C.T. Hutt

Last year, we awarded Flower our Select [Button] game of the year award. Kellee Santiago, Co-Founder and President of thatgamecompany, was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about the process of independent game development, the role of the gaming medium in the world of art, and what went into making such an ambitious game.

PPTR: Flower contained some significant political themes. Do you believe that game developers have a responsibility to address social issues? If so, how do you balance that responsibility against your interest to succeed financially and draw in a wide audience? 

Kellee: We left Flower open to interpretation. We wanted an experience that was evocative enough to trigger an emotional response in the player, and open-ended enough to allow the player to bring their own backgrounds, political affiliations, memories, etc to the game. Part of the core experience of Flower is that interaction of the mind, which we find to be more valuable and meaningful to people, especially older gamers.

The only responsibility I think game developers have is to use their medium wisely. Interaction is a powerful medium, and it can be used to greatly improve the quality of life for many people. At TGC's offices, we often use the word "relevant" to describe an emotional goal for our projects. We strive to create video games that anyone can relate to and derive meaning and value. We respect our player's time and money and want to show that in everything we do.

PPTR: Your games include distinct visual and musical themes. Where do you look for your inspiration?

Kellee: Pretty much anywhere! We first choose a theme or emotion that we're after in the game, and everything is designed towards that - visuals, music, and gameplay mechanics. I think that's why the games end up feeling unique; when you start with "give the player a sense of personal 'flow'", then it allows the team to take inspiration from anywhere they see fit.

PPTR: How do you think that services like Playstation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, and WiiWare are affecting the independent games movement?

Kellee: PSN, XBLA, WiiWare and Steam are driving the independent games movement by allowing independent developers to bring their games straight to market without having to deal with the overhead of printing discs, shipping, negotiation deals with retail outlets like WalMart, etc.

PPTR: Many developers use combat as a vehicle to move their games forward, from your work it seems that you have avoided doing so. Why is that?

Kellee: Our goal with each of our games is to try something different in video games. Combat is well-covered territory, so we don't need to explore that.

PPTR: With Flower you chose to avoid an overt narrative. Tell us a little more about your storytelling style.

Kellee: Part of our storytelling style comes from a similar place that many of our decision come from - having to leverage our limited resources. None of us are professional storytellers nor have much experience in it, so why would we try and compete with games that hire extremely established writers? We have to find another way to do it that won't put us in direct competition with the pros. The other side of this coin is that we also aim to reach a wide audience across age, gender, and culture. One way to accomplish this goal through story is to choose themes that anyone can relate to - flow, nature, flying through clouds - and then leave space in the narrative for the player to bring their own experiences to the table. Sometimes, when you leave a work open to interpretation, more people feel like that work is very personal, because they are able to relate their lives more directly to it, rather than had you chosen a specific person to talk about with a specific way of speaking and a specific narrative.

PPTR: Would like to share with our readers what thatgamecompany is working on next?

Kellee: Unfortunately I can't say anything at the moment, other than we are working on our third PSN title with Sony Santa Monica, and I'm really excited to hopefully be able to share more about it later this year!

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