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?
“We’re focused very much on how you shape, sculpt and steer the horror experience,” Pinchbeck explains. To thechineseroom, the player experience is absolutely central, and everything else – mechanics and level design included – is subordinate to that. Dear Esther showed thechineseroom how players could have a tremendously important emotional experience, with only a relatively small number of elements to interact with. “Dark Descent has a similar ethos,” says Pinchbeck, “It’s an incredibly simple game, but it understands psychology, the importance of that emotional journey.” Now thechineseroom would use its Dear Esther experience, and death, to terrify in Machine for Pigs.
“There’s no reason why we should reward players by giving them stuff”
In other games, you build up power as you go, collecting weapons, upgrades and abilities until you reach the point where your character is the most dangerous thing in the game. In Machine for Pigs, your power is minimal, and never increases. Lack of power was what Pinchbeck found so fascinating about Dark Descent, and he hopes it will make Machine for Pigs stand out. Your only reward for clever play is living another few precious minutes, to see what fresh hell awaits you around the corner. “There’s no reason why we should reward players by giving them stuff,” Pinchbeck says, not when keeping them on the edge of their seats is what they really want. In a way, he thinks, it’s not unlike being back in the arcades, where your measure of success was not how much equipment and abilities you could get. It was how long you could last before the inevitable death scene.
Pinchbeck’s hoping fans find Machine for Pigs terrifying on a moment-by moment basis, and horrifying in the longer term; story, he feels, is critical to that. The story, this time out, is all about Oswald Mandus, the rich industrialist and family man in whose shoes you’ll be walking. Pinchbeck plays coy; he doesn’t want to reveal more than he has to about Mandus, since his story is crucial to the effect Machine for Pigs will have on players. He hopes players will be able to emotionally identify with Mandus, because that’s when the horror really starts to sink in.
“He’s an older character,” Pinchbeck says, “much more influential and powerful, and he has a family.” His family will become extremely important; Mandus isn’t a loner, like Dark Descent‘s Daniel, and his relationship with his children will become key to understanding Mandus, and the horror that surrounds him. Your actions have ramifications and will affect other people, which will be critical in creating Machine for Pigs‘ scares. “I really believe that horror is horrifying because you empathise with the characters,” Pinchbeck says, a fact that has all the greater significance when you consider that Pinchbeck, like Mandus, is a father. You may not agree with what Mandus has done, Pinchbeck thinks, but you can understand why he did it.
Now thechineseroom has to relinquish its hold over Machine for Pigs; it’s Frictional’s baby, and Pinchbeck’s team has to get on with other things. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, thechineseroom’s spiritual successor to Dear Esther, needs work, and after that there will be other projects.
Things have changed in academia since Dr. Pinchbeck’s day; there are others, like Douglas Wilson of J.S. Joust, who make games to find answers. But Pinchbeck still remembers the frustration he endured with people – theorists who didn’t make games – making statements about the things games ‘obviously couldn’t do.’ Now he’s the one proving his case, with the games he creates. “It used to be kind of a joke,” he says, that he had pinned up over his desk, “‘A Game Can’t Do This’, and you wait five, four, three, two, one, and someone comes along and does it.” Dear Esther was the first time thechineseroom came along and did it, and A Machine for Pigs is his latest attempt to show that games can do This, and more than This, by putting the player’s experience at the heart of his design philosophy.
If Machine scares the pants off you while it’s doing This, so much the better.