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You're at the Heart of A Machine For Pigs

Adam Gauntlett | 2 Jul 2013 20:30
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Dan Pinchbeck and thechineseroom team are very busy at the moment, but Pinchbeck says that's a nice problem to have. I'm speaking to him shortly after his trip to the States for GDC 2013, by way of a quick trip to Disneyland; he and his partner Jessica Curry - his partner in thechineseroom as well as in life - both spoke at the Conference, and wanted a brief holiday for themselves and their nine year old, before returning to Brighton, and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. Not that there's that much left for thechineseroom to do, he tells me; Frictional Games now has the lion's share of the work, on the sequel to its cult horror game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

thechineseroom scripted it, Frictional loved it, but both realized that there wasn't a hope in hell that what they had in mind would fit into the small scale they had planned.

"[Frictional] put a hell of a lot of trust in us," he says, "It's not often that studios let other studios loose on their babies." But luck was on thechineseroom's side. Frictional wanted to do something with Amnesia but just could not afford the time, and thechineseroom was willing to help out with a small mod. Except that it wasn't going to be small, as Frictional and thechineseroom soon discovered. There wasn't a eureka moment, when the two companies realized what could be achieved with a larger game. What happened was, thechineseroom scripted it, Frictional loved it, but both realized that there wasn't a hope in hell that what they had in mind would fit into the small scale they had planned. So they enlarged the scope of the project. Which was all for the good, as Jessica had already put together a significant portion of the soundtrack, and the art team had created many of the necessary assets. "What they had put together was so good," Pinchbeck tells me, "it really helped make the case, that the extra bit of time investment made sense."

Dr. Dan Pinchbeck is used to making cases to more unforgiving partners than the folks at Frictional. He's a Portsmouth University lecturer, who got a bit sick of dry as dust debates over what games could and could not do. Time and again, Pinchbeck would be faced with academics, positively declaring that games could not possibly [fill in the blank]. Even though academics were often proved wrong by game developers, Pinchbeck found himself rehashing those old arguments again and again. Narrative was a sore point; if a game was purely narrative, would players accept it? Academia was convinced that players wouldn't accept such a thing. "So we made Dear Esther," Pinchbeck laughs, the haunting, story-driven Half Life 2 mod that made thechineseroom's reputation - plus its money back, in the first eight hours of sales - and which allowed it to become a truly commercial enterprise. It was Esther that led to Pinchbeck and Frictional's designers meeting at GDC Europe, at a time when Frictional was scouting around for someone to help it with its Amnesia problem. "Frictional's take is, release it when it's done," says Dan, a philosophy that may have sprung from the fact that both Frictional and thechineseroom are independent studios. "Frictional's very careful about its IP, obviously" Pinchbeck chuckles, "but this collaboration has been surprisingly smooth!"

There were going to be changes to some of Amnesia's core mechanics. The problem that faced thechineseroom was, how was it to make a sequel to Dark Descent without just rehashing Dark Descent? Among other things, tinderboxes and oil are gone; there's no trace left of the survival element, in this horror title. Survival wasn't what Pinchbeck's team saw as the core element, the thing that made Amnesia so unique. "People were saying lack of tinderboxes wasn't a problem," Pinchbeck remembers, "because you wanted to be in the dark most of the time." They wanted to be immersed in the Amnesia kind of scary, and if resources weren't necessary to that core experience, then out thechineseroom threw them. But if resources weren't central to the enjoyment of Amnesia, what was?

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