Dan Pinchbeck – The Chinese Room
After spending a number of years studying games in an academic setting, Dr. Dan Pinchbeck designed Dear Esther, an unconventional story-driven game, and released it to critical and financial success. Since then, his small development team has expanded drastically and is now working on two larger titles: Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. While Dr. Pinchbeck is known for his experimental titles, he has a deep appreciation for mainstream games as well. His academic background has given him a unique perspective which sets him apart from many other designers in the commercial space. Though he is currently inundated with work, Dr. Pinchbeck found the time to write some fantastic answers to our questions.
This interview was originally published on 5/18/12
There aren’t many games which attempt to evoke negative emotions like sadness and fear. Why is that? What are the unique challenges of making a game which explores these emotions?
I think fear is quite a common one, although it tends to be more about panic and terror than a slow burning horror. The biggest issue with a slower fear, or sadness, is that they are quite slow emotions. I think emotions tend to work at different speeds, and some require more space and emptiness to really work. Sadness, for example, you can’t feel if you are being constantly stimulated, or are trying to perform lots of actions, which means you need more quiet, down-time in a game to let it develop. Historically, games have often kept pacing really up, or used any quieter moments to ramp up tension. But those downtime moments also work with more subtle emotions. I guess they are more risky in a way, as it’s much easier to give someone an adrenaline rush, or scare the hell out of them than to guarantee they are going to relate to the content to the extent they feel actually, properly sad. And if it doesn’t work, it’s pretty hefty in terms of spoiling the experience. So maybe they are higher risk. That said, I do think plenty of more modern games are getting better and better at a more complex emotional range.
How does your background in the academic study of games help you with your current design challenges?
Mainly, doing the doctorate in FPS games bought a lot of time to really play a lot, and at a deep analytical level. I used about 35 games in the PhD, and played each one 3-4 times, plus looking at walkthroughs and a lot of associated material. You get to know the games really well with that much focused attention, and I can’t think of many other situations where you’d be able to do that. So in terms of story particularly, I was looking at how story is used to shape and control the player experience, and how it relates to other gameplay mechanics in orchestrating the player journey overall. That’s had a lot of impact on my thinking about different things we can try with games. But all of those are drawn from the history of FPS games in particular. I’ve said a couple of times recently, that Dear Esther is in many ways just a logical extension of the way story and design work together in DOOM, and I really believe that.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is set in 1899. Why is it important that it be set in this time period?
We wanted to move the IP on, give the player a very different world to be in. I’m obsessed with steampunk fiction at the moment, and love the whole alternative Victoriana thing. It just seems so perfect for games, in that you have a really iconic period, but you also have this fantastic scope to push things over the edge into a weird new space. It was a period of massive growth, progress, invention, but it’s also a really dark time, with this horrible social undercurrent supporting this apparent civilization. You had this extraordinary empire pushing the world forwards, but it was built on bodies, destruction and dehumanization. You had this period of amazing exploration, but at the same time a market for body parts from ‘savages’. It’s just perfect for horror.
What design elements are responsible for making Amnesia: The Dark Descent so terrifying? How will you build on those elements in A Machine for Pigs?
Amnesia really understands psychology; it gets inside the player’s head and really plays with them. There’s the obvious stuff like not being able to kill anything that is always going to make it terrifying, and the very natural fear of the dark, which works particularly well in games as you are always worried about what’s round the next corner. Then the world, the story is really disturbing and that makes a big contribution – and of course the audio is excellent. We’re keeping those core themes of course, but we’re making some changes to the gameplay to keep things fresh. I’m not going to go into detail about those, but what we’re building on in terms of our experience with Dear Esther is this complex emotional journey, having this really dark and disturbing undercurrent to what is going on. The focus on the psychology of the player and the protagonist remains central to the experience.
Tell us about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. How is it similar to The Chinese Room’s previous work and how is it different?
I see Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture as a kind of spiritual successor to Dear Esther, in that it’s purely story-driven, all about the immersion and emotion of the world. It’s going to be very different in that it’s fully non-linear and open-world. The central challenge is to allow the player complete freedom in exploring the world and uncovering the story but retaining a really strong dramatic arc for them. There are multiple characters in the game, so you get this very different take on the central events of the story, and there’s more focus for the player in exploring the world and interacting with objects to wring the story loose. And the world itself is much more responsive; it reacts to the player’s presence and events will fire by themselves so the player has a much more dynamic range of choice in terms of both actions and involvement.
What sort of gameplay can players expect in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture? Will this game have more interactive options than Dear Esther?
The really important thing for me in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is that the player feels really grounded in the world. Dear Esther is like a dream – you float through this strange and unreal space. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is much more real in that this feels like a real place, that real people lived and loved and died in. So there’s a greater sense of player agency to go along with that. We’re keeping a more traditional set of actions – jump, crouch, run – so the player has to actively go exploring to find things and make choices about that. You can also interact with objects and locations in different ways. Sometimes just by being in a certain place at a certain time things happen, other times you’ll have to directly interact with an object. And we have these six characters who respond to the player. The core idea behind it all is that the world and all it contains are responsive to the player in a number of different ways, and you have to actively engage with it to get the most from the game.
When you were fully invested in the academic study of games, you developed experimental games to aid research. Now you’re a commercial developer – A Machine for Pigs is funded by Frictional. Do you feel your designs are now constrained by monetary concerns? Have you had to change your approach for fear of not delivering on investments?
Weirdly, not so much. The great thing is that with Dear Esther, we followed that path laid down by research, but we still made a successful commercial game. Alongside that, I’m a hardcore gamer, so there was never any agenda about changing games or challenging them, just us looking to do something a little different, explore a different area of design. So I guess the biggest difference is that I want to be pretty sure what we are doing is going to work, to be successful. It’s not like Korsakovia, where there were some really experimental angles and I really didn’t know if they would come off or not. We have to obviously keep an eye on the business side of things – we’ve got quite a few people working for us and I take looking after them really seriously – but that’s just professionalism, right? But we’re in the lucky position where we can say “trust us, we know what we’re doing and we can deliver” and back that up with Dear Esther. You always have to make sure you deliver – there are gamers at the end of the process who deserve a good product. What we’ve learned more than anything is how to professionalize the process and that can only help final output quality, so it hasn’t involved any radical changes to our approach or ethos.
What is the relationship like between academics who study games and commercial developers? Is there a good dialogue between these communities?
Historically not, but this may be changing. I’m a bit out of the academic scene and have been for nearly a year whilst we’re working to get these games made, so I’m probably not in the best position to comment. I think academia is still largely irrelevant to game development, partially because it’s so focused and partially because it’s not really very accessible in terms of complexity, language etc. And academia doesn’t necessarily have to relate to industrial development, any more than academic studies of literature have to relate to the actual business of writing and publishing books. So on one hand that’s fine, although I do still think more academics should be involved in game production as I think it keeps the theory honest. You should always ground academic work in pragmatics, and have the pragmatics of game development always present when you are thinking about games in an academic way. My instinct is that it’s piecemeal – some developers and some academics have good relationships, and lots of developers I know think very deeply about the medium and their work. But formally, still, it’s not really happening, although I’m not sure that’s a problem. Working now as a developer, I don’t feel any particular need to engage with academia – it’s more one-sided than that. I think academics should be close to industry because it grounds study better.
Your doctorate is a massive text titled “Story as a function of gameplay in First Person Shooters and an analysis of FPS diegetic content 1998-2007″. Summarize what questions you wanted to address with this work and what your findings were.
The thesis was split into two parts really. The first is an argument that story can be seen as gameplay, rather than something different or antagonistic. The basis to this is that all gameplay is about creating a player experience, whether it’s puzzles, shooting, etc, and story, just like physics is one of the design tools used to steer this experience. So you respond differently to the presented game if it’s delivered with different story – Portal 2 would be a very different experience if the characters, the dialogue, the visual storytelling and presented world were all deadly serious for example – and once you see it like that, it’s obvious story is just another gameplay mechanic really. Then the second part was a fairly exhaustive analysis of contemporary FPS game story devices– NPCs, worlds, plot structures. The idea there was that we were missing baseline data to theorize about games from (we still are, for the most part). It struck me that to really talk about FPS game stories, we needed to know things like how many NPCs they use, what the NPCs do, what characters they have, those kinds of things. And this combined with the first part is required to demonstrate how all of these story aspects of these devices served a purpose as a game design tool in shaping the player’s experience.
Dear Esther has a unique story. It’s very nebulous. Describe the process of writing Dear Esther. What made it challenging? How different has the writing process been for A Machine for Pigs and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture?
I don’t really find writing that challenging to be honest – I guess because I’m designing as well, so I always have both elements in my head at once. I’ll have a pretty good idea of the central concept, the core arc, the basis of characters, but no writing will happen often until the actual game – the world is developing. Then I keep writing, responding to that. Dear Esther only actually got written out when most of the rest of the work was done. I think it all came out in a rush over about 3 days. Then the challenge was making this fit the world when we started recording voice-overs and figuring timings. It’s a bit different for the new games – I wrote a more complete narrative for A Machine for Pigs as part of the original design docs that Frictional OK’d, and lots of little pieces of concept fiction trying to describe the tone and architectures of some of the key environments. Then there’s a loose script right now, and placeholder voices – i.e. me, which is really embarrassing when you are trying to playtest and all you can think is “god, I’m nasal” – but they change a lot as we shift the levels around. The final script won’t be done until the game is near finished and I know exactly what will fit where, and where we can be using environment to tell the story rather than voice. Rapture is similar – there are bits of concept writing done for each character, but mainly it’s been me and the team working up this world around a core idea and then seeing what story fits that best, what the best way to tell it is. It’s a very integrated process.