Pietro Righi Riva

Pietro Righi Riva: studio director of Santa Ragione

At the end of 2023, I played two games in quick succession that had a huge impact on me: Mediterranea Inferno (you can find my review here) and Saturnalia. Shortly afterwards, I discovered the trailer for HORSES, an experimental horror game scheduled for release in 2024. What do these 3 games have in common? They were all co-produced by an Italian studio called Santa Ragione. So it was with its co-founder and director that I was able to talk for a long time, going back over the history of the studio, Saturnalia, and discussing the video game industry in Italy.

Key art of Saturnalia
Key art of Saturnalia

Thank you Pietro for giving us the opportunity to do this interview. First of all, could you introduce yourself and tell us about the birth of Santa Ragione?

I’m Pietro Righi Riva, co-founder and director of Studio Santa Ragione, a small game development company established in Milan in 2010. I founded the company with my long-time friend and colleague Nicolò Tedeschi. Our academic backgrounds were non-technical at the time. I was pursuing a degree in communication design. Nicolò was studying sculpture.

We met through our shared passion for online gaming. Although lacking technical expertise, we formed a group of university friends and developed our first game, a board game called Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space. This game was picked up by a small, emerging Italian publisher called Cranio Creations, which led us to set up our own company to sign it. Initially, we explored the world of video games through a B2B (business-to-business) experience, creating a game about book publishing called The Duskjacket for the Mondadori Foundation, a major book publisher with its own stores. They were looking for a video game celebrating the art of book publishing.

This first project inspired us to take the plunge into video games. Our first commercial game, Fotonica, a first-person racing game, grew out of our choice of the most accessible gameplay available to us, given our lack of programming skills. Although the first version of the game was rudimentary, with a default first-person controller from Unity (editor’s note: the game’s engine), we invested our efforts in visual design to give it a unique aesthetic. Fotonica was a modest success, but it was enough to convince us that we could make a career of game development.


We then created the first Mirror Moon demo, during a Game Jam in 2012. This demo was well received and led to our access to Steam as a publishing platform. Steam, at the time, restricted access only to developers who had received invitations. Our inclusion marked a turning point, allowing us to realize that we could actually sell our games. Since then, we’ve continued to create larger, more experimental and complex games right up to the present day.

We discovered your studio with Lorenzo EYEGUYS’ games, Milky Way Prince and Mediterranea Inferno, which are far from being your first published games. What was the transition like from game director to publisher?

In fact, it wasn’t so much a change as an expansion of our activities. We continue to be involved as designers in new games and create our own projects. However, over the last 14 years, we’ve accumulated a set of skills that we generally use sporadically. Publishing a game involves many technical and bureaucratic tasks, such as setting up a save system, ensuring controller compatibility, creating screenshots, trailers, preparing pages on various online stores, as well as negotiating with platforms.

We realized that these skills could be put to good use on other projects we liked. So we adopted an unconventional approach, seeing ourselves more as a co-production company than a traditional publisher. Our role is to select games that often cannot be finalized by their original creators, usually because they lack technical skills.

Mediterranea Inferno, a game with an artistic direction as unique as its message
Mediterranea Inferno, a game with an artistic direction as unique as its message

We don’t co-produce intensively, aiming for one project a year, or even every two years. Once the game has been signed, we mobilize our resources in terms of programming, artists and editors. We work on structuring the script, make adjustments for better English comprehension, collaborate closely with the creators to stay true to their original vision while making the game more accessible. Unlike a traditional publisher, our aim is not to manage marketing, influencers or the community, given our small size. Eventually, we plan to collaborate with larger publishers to reach a wider audience, while maintaining our involvement in the final stages of production. As the market becomes increasingly competitive, this strategy could give our projects greater visibility.

As for translation, we handle this part in-house, working with individual translators for different languages. This ensures continuity of style and jargon, particularly suited to our type of production, which focuses on narrative games. This approach allows us to maintain a direct connection with the creators and ensure that the translation is faithful to the spirit of the game. I’m delighted that our approach has worked so well so far, and we’ll continue with the same philosophy for future projects.

You also publish games from festivals such as the Milano Game Festival. These include compilations of short, often experimental games, to showcase certain creators. Where does this desire to showcase games from these festivals come from?

We initiated this in 2016, and again in 2022, in collaboration with the Triennale Museum, the Milan Design Museum. They regularly organize exhibitions related to design, design culture and contemporary art. Every three years, they organize a vast international exhibition with international guests and pavilions, transforming the city into an artistic showcase for several months.

In 2016, they contacted us, interested in the world of video games. They suggested we create something that could be used as a promotional object for the exhibition. We suggested a virtual exhibition for the digital space, creating a fusion between the physical and digital worlds. They accepted the project and allocated us a budget. With these funds, we contacted several independent developers, both emerging and established, and commissioned small games from them. The creators retained the rights, and we brought these games together in an app published on PCs, tablets and phones.

The app featured a new game every two weeks for the duration of the Triennale. It was a virtual experience that complemented their major physical exhibitions. We repeated this approach in 2022 with new artists. That was essentially the concept of this project, creating games specifically for this collection. It aligns well with our artistic and experimental approach.

We contact the artists and explain the theme and the main subjects of the exhibition. They then have a certain freedom of interpretation. They then provide us with a one-page concept for their game, at which point we sign the commissioning contract. We only provide technical assistance, making sure that everything runs smoothly. We take care of the production of the main game, which hosts all the different mini-games. The developers work in Unity, in an environment we create to avoid script conflicts. We make sure that everything works together, but the creators are free to work on their own games. We provide technical support, such as managing the pause menu, implementing English and Italian translation, and other practical aspects. We work closely with the creators to preserve their artistic vision while making the games playable.

When it comes to finding new projects or artists, we’ve mainly used word-of-mouth so far. There’s a community of Italian developers who share our ideas, and we’ve also discovered projects at events in Milan, where developers present their prototypes. In addition, being involved in education, we are in contact with students and emerging talent. In the future, we plan to set up a page explaining our approach and the types of projects we’re looking for.

Can you tell us a little about independent game publishing in Italy? How does it work? Do you have any kind of state subsidies or events specializing in independent games?

Studios can benefit from a tax reduction of up to 25% of their budget. This is an initiative aimed at easing the tax burden on studios. There have also been attempts at real funding for games in the past. However, these initiatives have been criticized for unclear rules, favoring more of a “first come, first served” system. Some projects were funded without necessarily demonstrating substantial cultural or artistic value.

Access to networking opportunities seems limited, and the lack of collaboration between developers and of well-established communities may hinder the growth and maturity of the Italian industry. I believe there is a need for networking initiatives, including co-working spaces that not only provide shared office space, but also act as aggregation centers to facilitate the sharing of ideas and projects between studios. This aims to fill the gap in opportunities for developers to meet and collaborate in Italy.

How did the idea of developing Saturnalia come about? Why Sardinia?

The idea of developing Saturnalia was born after the creation of Wheels of Aurelia, our previous game. We were looking for a new project, and our process involves taking notes on various interactions and themes, creating a list of potential ideas for future games. These ideas might concern a setting, for example, or a small mechanic. When the time comes to create a new game, I use this list as a menu of options to choose from, looking for what works well together among the noted ideas.

At the time, Paolo and I were discussing two main ideas. The first centered on a generational conflict, exploring the collision between tradition and progress, highlighting the misuse of tradition to suppress change. This idea was to be reflected in the characters, each representing this conflict through a specific metaphor. The second idea involved a labyrinth, where players would be pursued by something, with the unique element of using matches to apprehend the labyrinth.

The unique atmosphere of Saturnalia
The unique atmosphere of Saturnalia

When the opportunity arose to submit a project to the Creative Europe program, we merged these two ideas to create a coherent game and narrative. The initial documentation laid the groundwork for the final game, detailing the characters’ motivations, their struggles, possible actions, and the game’s structure.

In choosing a location for this mix of ideas, we opted for Sardinia because of its isolation, a crucial element for any horror story in my opinion. What’s more, Sardinia offers a wealth of history and culture, which fits perfectly with our narrative of recurring themes throughout the story. The name Saturnalia itself refers to the festival of the changing of the seasons on December 21, symbolizing a thousand-year-old ritual, and we wanted a place where this story could not only be told, but also shown. By choosing Sardinia, we were able to capture the essence of a region where different architectures and structures seem to coexist today, yet have been built over millennia.

Playing Saturnalia, I’m getting some interesting vibes from some of my favorite games. But I’m curious to find out if that’s true and more. What were your references and influences during the development of the game?

Before submitting our project to Creative Europe, we decided to involve an art director right from the start of the process, even before the actual launch of the project. This was essential, because when presenting the documentation, we also had to detail our overall artistic approach. We chose to work with Marta Gabas, an art director specializing in film, television and theater. She recently worked on the film Ferrari. From the outset of our collaboration, two visual directions emerged. The first was inspired by the traditional play of light and color of Italian giallos, while the second was influenced by the expressionism of theater and cinema, particularly in terms of architecture and acting spaces. These inspirations were integrated into visual references and paintings that guided the concept artist and level designers led by Marta.

She also played a major role in the physical design of the game spaces, contributing to the realization of the majority of the levels in the game. Being a relative stranger to the world of video games, and not having much experience as a gamer, Marta designed spaces focused on narrative, without being limited by the usual conventions of game design. This challenge made for a unique gameplay experience, where the game had to adapt to the spaces she had created, rather than the other way around.


A fascinating example of this approach came when a new scene was needed, that of the hunter’s house, integrated into Claudia’s story. Rather than designing a new space, we used rooms and buildings already existing in the game, created by Marta before their precise use was decided. This led to a situation where we almost “bought” an existing building into our game, adapting the gameplay to spaces already designed, crafted and built by Marta before their precise role was defined in terms of game design. It was a unique experience where we had “too much space” in the game, but it added an intriguing dimension to our creative process.

With Saturnalia, we’re on a kind of roguelike, especially with this city that changes shape with each “game over”, but we’re also on your longest game to date.

As far as the city elements were concerned, from the outset we had two convictions as a team. Firstly, none of us really liked the traditional “game over” mechanic. Personally, when I’m playing a video game and I have to redo a section, unless the game is specifically designed around that idea, I’m not thrilled. For example, even in games like Resident Evil, where the fear of losing progress adds an interesting dimension, I’m not a fan of the process of redoing puzzles.

So we set out to create a scary game without resorting to the penalty of having to restart an entire game. So we introduced the loss of a sense of direction as a consequence of defeat. Players retain all their progress, but lose the crucial information they’ve accumulated about the city’s topography. This creates a lingering fear of death, as the loss is real, but does not require replaying entire sections.

Losing one's bearings is one of the main sources of anxiety in gaming.
Losing one’s bearings is one of the main sources of anxiety in gaming.

As far as the length of the game is concerned, our aim was to tell a complex story with a certain dignity towards the themes tackled, avoiding any rush. We had a strict rule from the outset: never have more than 150 characters on screen simultaneously. This led us to reduce the length of dialogues, descriptions and other elements to encourage reading rather than ignorance. At the same time, we created an interesting, diegetic puzzle structure, with riddles punctuating the game without trivializing the serious subjects we were talking about. We opted for puzzles that fit in harmoniously with the serious themes of the game, discarding abstract and playful elements.

Finally, the major challenge lay in the creature’s design, requiring a significant change in behavior throughout the game to keep encounters fresh, even after nine hours of play.

The sound component is truly brilliant in every detail, from screaming doors to rattling creatures. But the lullaby in the main menu is the most terrifying element. Can you tell us more about the development of sounds in Saturnalia? What about the lullaby and its origin?

The music and sound design were developed in collaboration with three different sound designers. Davide Pensato, an experienced Italian sound designer, focused on the creature’s sounds, such as clicks and rattles, using a library of ancient Sardinian instruments. These samples added a unique dimension to the creature’s sounds, based on traditional instruments from the region.

As for the lullaby on the main menu, its origin was quite spontaneous. I asked my father, a retired journalist and writing enthusiast, to create something for Saturnalia. During the first six months of work on the game, he composed this lullaby without us initially having a clear idea of its use in the game. During the voice recording sessions in London, actress Janet Fullerlove, who played the character of Tecla, discovered the poem and read it in a very captivating way.

The team was intrigued by the way she recited the poem, and we decided to include it in the game. The result was an eerie, whispered lullaby that found its way onto the title screen, accompanied by music constructed from recordings of Sardinian instruments. British sound designer Michael Manning played a major role in designing the game’s soundscapes, contributing to Saturnalia‘s immersive ambience.

What are your plans for the future? HORSES made quite an impression when its trailer was released.

We are working on two new prototypes for which we are currently seeking funding. It’s still too early to reveal specific details about these games, but the team is determined to maintain our tradition of adding more complex, ambitious and challenging dimensions to each new title we develop.

One of the prototypes under development looks to be even more complex and ambitious than Saturnalia, which is both frightening and exciting. We hope to be able to share more information about it before the end of the year. Looking at our catalog of games, you can see how each project has raised the bar, and we look forward to continuing this trend. Thank you very much, and I hope you’ll be as excited as we are about our future projects.

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