Journey into the Industry
“We got into it really through the love of games and the fact that we could make games we’re really passionate about,” says Dan Pinchbeck of The Chinese Room, the Brighton based game developers responsible for “Dear Esther”, “Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs” and upcoming “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture”.
While at university doing a PhD on using story to increase sense of presence in virtual reality, Pinchbeck realized that first-person games were a kind of mass-market virtual reality with integrated narratives. Citing theoretical academic questions about the relationship between story and mechanics in games, he took a grant to do some non-commercial mods. “The idea was, I would make them, stick them up online without calling them research projects, and see how people responded,” Pinchbeck explains.
One of those mods was Dear Esther, which he worked on with Jessica Curry, The Chinese Room’s esteemed composer. Dear Esther did quite well as a mod, causing Curry and Pinchbeck to work with Rob Briscoe to consider releasing the game commercially. “We really wanted to get the game out to a wider audience, and releasing the title commercially was the way to do it,” Pinchbeck says. He continues, “It did better than any of us ever expected. We thoroughly enjoyed working on Esther together, and felt as if we found a natural place where what we were interested in and the ways in which we worked fit together well.”
Following Esther’s release, Pinchbeck and co. struck a deal with Frictional Games to make A Machine for Pigs. “It was while we were working on Pigs that ideas for Rapture started to come about, and the company grew from those projects. It was always from a place going, we really love this stuff, we love to make it, and we have a company which makes that possible.”
“The fact that this medium allows us to do that is fantastic! Ours is a medium that supports it’s own innovation. The fact that we can go direct to people to say that we’ve had this idea and if they like it they can buy it enables you to make more ideas. The industry gets a lot of comments about how business oriented it can be but there’s also strength in that. It’s just about people supporting innovation.”
“I was playing a lot of open world games where you have this non-linear environment, but the quests are actually very linear when you get into them,” Pinchbeck explains. “What I find really interesting about those worlds, which is true for all game worlds, is that the background narrative is quite compelling.
“It’s not necessarily the big plot thrust, it’s the stuff you just find which is really interesting. There’s a really captivating way of playing with non-linear narratives and having something that is simply saying ‘This is just about discovery of the story and the space,’ rather than pushing you from point to point throughout the story.”
“Jess and I were talking about who you are in most games, and it always comes back to this inevitable need for you to be a very clear hero or heroine figure,” Pinchbeck says. After watching Threads, a British TV series about a nuclear attack on Sheffield, Pinchbeck and Curry came to the conclusion that, faced with such a situation, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
“We’d just be the normal people; and there’s a really interesting story in that. It’s a story that’s not about big scale: save the world heroics. Rather, it’s just about people’s moments of little heroism and their connection with each other. Those are really the things which make life what it is. A story that looked at just a bunch of ordinary people reacting to the end of the world seemed like an interesting, compelling story to tell.”
A British Apocalypse
Pinchbeck is a long time fan of 60’s and 70’s British science fiction; people like John Windon, John Christopher and JG Ballard. He is also a huge fan of Stalker and Metro, two games with distinct, unique apocalyptic voices. However, he noticed that there wasn’t an English voice on what an English apocalypse would look like.
“What I love about Stalker and Metro is this sense that they are not generic worlds, they have a feel of the place they came from. That’s something we really wanted to explore,” he explains.
“It also gave us the opportunity to move away from a very destroyed, gray and brown post-apocalyptic landscape. Games like The Last of Us and Enslaved: Journey to the West do that quite well; that sentiment that life goes on even at the end of the world. This felt like an interesting place to start exploring visually as well as in terms of tone and emotion.”
“Having this counter play between big dramatic events and very intimate character studies and then this classically English landscape felt like a fascinating concept to explore.”
“One of the biggest challenges from a design point of view in making these types of games is how to engage the player with the environment when you don’t have the mechanics to keep things busy,” Pinchbeck explains.
He cites Bastion as an example of a game which created an amazing, intricate place and filling it with action, because of this feeling that if you don’t fill it with action, the player will speed through it. Otherwise, he says, the player will finish the game in 20 minutes and it would be an epic disaster.
“I think we wanted this game to make it feel as if you were discovering a story rather than being told a story. Having a sense of authenticity to the world and the characters; we want you to really feel like you know the people in this particular space and that the small details and clues would continue to contribute to this profile of the people and the story in your head.”
“It was never a game we wanted to make which said, ‘You need to know this so here it is on a billboard in front of you,’ We want you to discover a prop in a room and have that prop suddenly unlock a whole chain of associations and understandings in your head about that character.”
“I think one of the things I’ve always been interested in with games is that the game which is in the system is the game which is in your head. We want to focus on the game in your head. Rather than a mechanics driven puzzle, the mystery of the game is about how you’re assembling your understanding of what you’ve seen and discovered in your head.”
One of the most powerful aspects of game design is the player’s imagination. Unlocking the player’s imagination means creating ambiguity and creating things that are enigmatic. Player’s will start to make connections and fill in the gaps with their imagination, and feel as if they are a part of the story.
“Our approach to using our environment to tell a story was this idea of: ‘Never tell but always offer things.’ Events, objects and details help the process of creating the story. Using the pieces which we supply as the game rather than saying, ‘Here’s out story and you have to fit into it and there’s really only one way of doing that. This is your story.”
In many ways, this is not a new method of telling a story. Recall Suarez and Siddons from System Shock 2 who were just trying to find each other throughout the game. That was compelling because it wasn’t a major part of the storyline. These are characters that the player can identify with.
“Using the environment in storytelling was based on this idea of trying not to be heavy handed, trying to create this space for the player to come in and say ‘What does this stuff I’m experiencing mean and how does it make me feel?’ To just lace the environment with things that inspire the player to face and create their own story behind it.”
A Lack of Linearity
There are six core areas in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, with the story of one main character at the center of each. However, each area will also house the stories of other characters as well.
“What’s cool is that it’s a game that can be played like a TV miniseries,” says Pinchbeck. “The entire experience is about six hours long, and playing it in six one-hour blocks will give the player quite a complete experience.”
“We have a timeline for when things happen in the story of the game. As you go through the game, you do get to say ‘Okay, well that person was there, and then they went there and then they went there.’ I think a great deal of it is that if you trust that the players are smart and that they’ll do the work and that they want to do the work you can relax about some of the other stuff.”
“We’re not making a game for everyone, and that’s okay. We’re making a game that some people will love and other people won’t love. We don’t have to make this a game for everybody. That’s one of the amazing strengths about where the games industry is at the moment. There are huge blockbuster games which have a very broad appeal but there’s also room for smaller games for more tailored audiences.”
“The people we see as being our players accept that they will not necessarily understand everything from the get-go ad that they do have to invest themselves into trying to wrap these things up. If you start from that position, of ‘We know what happens to Jeremy but we don’t show you everything that happens to Jeremy’, we can show you compelling fragments to help you understand who Jeremy is and what he’d doing. Those spaces can then be filled by player imagination.”
“This enables you to do something a bit more non-linear because you’re not saying, ‘If you want to progress to point B you have to understand or complete point A.’ It’s no necessary for everything to be laid out explicitly for you in a linear order. Again, I think people are smart, and going by that, it is our job to engage them and inspire them to want to care.”
Due to this non-linearity, players can encounter certain characters at different point than other players, thus dynamically affecting their perception of those characters. “There are certainly some characters that depending on what you find and how you interpret that, you can change the way you see their morality as a person and how you judge them quite radically,” Pinchbeck explains.
“That’s one of the most interesting things about writing the story for Rapture is going, well, it’s just like in life: the things you don’t know about a person could profoundly affect your view of them. That’s a really interesting thing to do in a game. It was a bit of a reaction to being very exhausted of games which were black and white in terms of morality. ‘You take choice A and you get +3 good, you take choice B and you get +3 evil.’”
“Choices that are black and white will inevitably lead to characters that are black and white. I’m a huge, huge Far Cry fan, but Far Cry 4 got on my nerves at the end because no matter what you do, what choice you make, it’s always either good or bad. The ability to create something more about the moral ambiguity and moral gray areas felt like an interesting thing to do.”
“There’s one character in particular that really divides people, regardless of what they’ve come across. It’s a great thing to be able to say that half the people who play the game feel one way about a character and the other half of the people feel equally strongly in a very different direction.”
“I think because it’s just about a story; those characters serve no purpose other than to be in the story and let you care about the story. They don’t have to do anything else – they have no functional dimension. That grants us the freedom to let those characters be more complex.”
Too many times, game characters hit a branching point which forces them to behave one of two ways. As soon as something needs to happen in the story in the name of progression, the narrative has to be mangled down and characters’ personalities have to be changed entirely in order to accommodate to the narrative.
“You never want the player to go, ‘That’s not a choice I would have made,’ or worse, ‘That’s not a choice I feel this character would have made,’” Pinchbeck says. “I remember the first time I played Mass Effect, I did so as a renegade with this figure of Han Solo in my mind. At the end, I remember going, ‘I’ve invested so much time and emotion in building this character in my head and you’re now telling me I’m someone I had no concept I was being.’ That’s a jarring feeling.”
“In Rapture, we’re never going to make definitive statements about those people. That’s entirely up to the player to provide.”
A Handcrafted Apocalypse
Games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter make use of an advanced process called photogrammetry – the process of inputting real photos into a software, resulting in a directly replicated 3D model of those photos. This creates uber-realistic worlds; worlds begging exploration and attention to detail.
While Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has phenomenal visuals, the entire world is handcrafted, thanks in no small part to an incredibly talented and dedicated art team.
“We didn’t want to create a photo-realistic world, we wanted something broadly realistic but it’s actually not an England that every actually existed, it’s the storybook picture postcard England” says Pinchbeck. “We wanted to keep that sense of dream0like quality to the space that gives you this feeling that it’s set at the end of the world. It should be very recognizable very emotionally compelling, while retaining that quite, unique feel.”
The Sounds of the Apocalypse
As a music buff and a musician, here’s a controversial statement, a game’s music is more important to me than it’s gameplay. If a game doesn’t have a soundtrack I can listen to on the train to work, it’s not for me. Music is especially important in first-person exploration and discovery games, such as Rapture.
“We’ve got quite a complicated audio system in the game,” Pinchbeck begins. “What we wanted to do is based on two things. One was to have a music system which felt responsive and dynamic without compromising the cinematic and emotional depth of the tracks.”
“The other things we wanted was a really strong relationship between audio and music design so the two would flow into each other. We’ve got ambient sounds, and a procedural audio system which is generating musical ambiences drawn from, and tuned to, the music tracks.”
“On top of that, we have distinct music which is set up in two ways. There’s music which is triggered by exploration, which is composed in cellular layers. Depending on what’s going on you will get different mixes of that; it may pull piano and voice from a particular piece of music, or piano and harp, or piano, voice and harp. That invokes a sense of change. Then you have the more classic cinematic stuff.”
“The other brilliant thing which Jess has done, which is an incredible achievement, is that the central six characters all have their own theme. In musical terms, this is called a ‘leitmotif’. It’s used to underscore relationships and things like that. In Pigs, Jess said she always wanted the music to act as a character of its own. She said there were pieces she considered the representation of Mandus’s dead wife. That would be her voice in the game.”
“Jess said very much during Rapture, ‘I don’t want to write a game soundtrack. I want to write classical music.’ The best game soundtracks are on that level. There is still a lot of snobbery around game music, but composers such as Austin Wintory, Jess, Marty O’Donnell and many more are turning that snobbery on it’s head.”
“It was a real thing of saying, ‘I want to produce a piece that we can accompany and sat that our industry can produce stuff which stands shoulder to shoulder with film or even classical composition.’ There was no reason not to aim for those targets, and I think Jess has certainly achieved that, and then some!”
The Voices of the Apocalypse
The Chinese Room recently named the game’s cast, who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the very best TV, film and radio dramatic actors.
“Interestingly, our Santa Monica producers absolutely do not want us to name the parts that the actors and actresses are playing,” Pinchbeck explains. “One of the ways which their represented is with glowing figures, and we had this saying of, ‘When you read a book and you’ve got this character in your head and the book is turned into a film and the actor doesn’t represent the character in your head, it takes ages to get over that.’”
“We didn’t want to start saying, ‘So and so played so and so.’ Then when you listen to that character, you’d have the actor’s face in your mind and it’s less opportunity for you to invent who that person is and what they look like, which is a really important aspect to the game.”
“We shot Rapture over three weeks last year. The first week we rehearsed as if it were a TV or theatre production, just moving in the space, acting out scenes, really pushing for naturalism. We’ve found in our games that when you put people in the booth and they do a recording, it all sounds great but you put it into the game and it ups the emotional ante of what they’re doing.”
“We worked very hard with our voice director to push everything down. Just people talking. That’s what we wanted in this. They really got that; these are exceptional actors who produced extraordinary performances.”
“Again, what we’re trying to communicate here is a little moment, it’s often these moments that speak to us most clearly. They’re the moments we have which really capture a sense of intimacy. You can be in a scene and hear two people start talking and begin to feel uncomfortable, that you shouldn’t be watching this, shouldn’t be hearing this.”
“Some of my favorite moments in game narrative are incidental bits of story and acting. They’re not coming from a functional point of view. The players can really hear it when it’s not natural: ‘You have to go over there and do that.’ People don’t talk like that. Things like that often prevent emotional connectivity. ‘Hang on, I’ve got to listen to this part – I’m getting told some functional information about what I ought to do.’”
“That kind of functional aspect of character development can be really detrimental to storytelling – but those sideline, vignette moments are free from that. They don’t have to give you anything other than world and story information. That’s why they often resonate much more strongly; they’re serving their own purpose rather than being used as a tool for progression.”
The Heart and Soul of PlayStation
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is being published by Sony Santa Monica, PlayStation’s team in sunny LA responsible for God of War, Journey, The Order: 1886 and many other renown titles.
“Working with PlayStation has been fantastic!” Pinchbeck exclaims. “This industry is filled with horror stories of working with publishers, but we’ve been extremely lucky.”
“They have a really strong creative investment in the game; they really care and want the game to be as good as it can be. They trust us. I think if you talk with anyone who’s working with Sony in Santa Monica they’ll come back with that answer. We’re consistently amazed with how good the relationship is and how respectful Santa Monica are and how supportive they are. We’re incredibly lucky to be working with people who believe in the title and believe in us. We have a genuinely creative relationship and dialogue with this studio. Absolutely fantastic!”
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture releases Tuesday, August 11 on the PlayStation Store. I have a feeling it will be something special.