We chatted with Dan Pinchbeck, creative director for thechineseroom, about the studio's next two titles, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. He talks about what we can expect from both games, what's changed this time around, and how far the developer has come since Dear Esther.
GameZone: What's your role at the company?
Dan Pinchbeck: I'm Creative Director for both games, which basically translates as Writer, Producer, Lead Designer.
GZ: Let’s start with Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture — described as the natural follow-up to Dear Esther. In what ways, and how is it similar/different?
DP: It's a pure story game, like Esther, so it's driven by exploration of both a world and a fiction. This takes prominence over traditional goal or skill-based gameplay. The big difference is that it's open-world, so it's much more non-linear than Esther. You have a single, very large environment, and the choice of how you explore it is completely up to you and has a real impact on the way the story gets delivered and what versions of events you might find. The world is also much more dynamic than Esther's island — it responds to you, your actions, and your explorations, and that affects the narrative delivery, as well. So you're much more grounded in the world for this game. Your actions have a real impact.
GZ: The game is based around six characters. Why six, and can you tell us about their roles?
DP: That's one of those organic decisions that actually hard to answer! Six fitted the world and the story quite naturally. Once we had the basic scale-testing done, Andrew (Crawshawm our game designer) and I spent a lot of time in the world, getting a sense of scale, travel-times, etc. I started writing concept fiction around this as well, and we ended up with six characters. They are represented in the world, so you can interact with them, but not in a traditional NPC sense, and they also have their own journeys, which you can be part of or not. You'll have to make choices about whom you engage with, and that will limit your choices in other directions. It's still pretty early. We're still working through the options here. But they are actively part of the storytelling experience — not absent like the characters in Esther.
GZ: You’re working with CryEngine 3, whereas Dear Esther used Source, correct? What possibilities has the engine opened up for you, and what was the transition like from one to the other?
DP: Oh, we're big fans of CryEngine — and Crytek have been fantastically supportive. Basically, when I was doing early work on the game, I checked out a lot of engines, and CE3 was the only one that really gave us everything we needed, particularly in the relationship between how big the game world is and the level of presentational finish I wanted the game to achieve. I've wanted to use CryEngine since the first Far Cry game. It's really powerful and open — you can do huge amounts with scripting before you get anywhere near the code, which is brilliant. It's a new art team on Rapture — Ian Maude and Dan Cordell — so they've come at the engine completely fresh and are doing amazing things with it.
GZ: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is set in a post-apocalyptic, open world. Can you describe it more for us? How open-world are we talking?
DP: Completely open. It's one giant environment. I was in it yesterday doing some more writing, and it keeps taking me aback at just how bloody big it is. That's a great challenge for a writer — there's so much time and space to fill with content. It's set in rural England, so expect rolling hills, farmland, a lake, a river bed, a railway line, and station. Under normal circumstances, a sleepy, peaceful little village nestled away in obscurity out in the countryside. Only something catastrophic has occurred. Or is occurring. Or is about to happen.
GZ: Will there be voice-acting in the game, or is it text-based?
DP: Oh yeah, there will be voice-acting. Getting top quality voice-work is really important to me. But we're heavily investing in environmental storytelling, as well. And music will be central to the experience, of course. Jessica Curry, who composed Dear Esther, is co-director of thechineseroom, so music is always at the core of what we do. The early soundtrack for Rapture is sounding brilliant. And it's all dynamically generated according to your explorations and the history of what you've done, without descending into naff ambient muzak. Which is testament to Jess's skill as a composer.
GZ: What can players expect, gameplay-wise?
DP: It's first-person exploration, but this time you have much more impact on the world and options for exploring. So you get the standard set of FPS controls now — jump, sprint, crawl. You can interact with objects and will be expected to engage with objects and characters to push the story forward. And the world is responding to you all the time.
GZ: Let’s talk about Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. First off, that opening quote: "This world is a machine. A machine for pigs. Fit only for the slaughtering of pigs." What does it mean, and where did it come from?
DP: That comes from my sick, sick head. It just popped in and had to be used. I'm not telling you what it means. You can worry about that yourself.
GZ: You’re collaborating with Frictional Games, who started the very popular, very scary Amnesia series. How did you become involved with the sequel?
DP: So Frictional are working on a new game but wanted to get another Amnesia out and didn't have time to do it, so they were looking for a studio to take it on. We know each other anyway, mutual fans, and we just got talking. It cemented over a few beers at GDCE last year, and we got cracking. Frictional are executive producers for the project, and we're making the game. It's a lot of fun.
GZ: Are you still aiming for a Halloween release?
DP: No, it's just slid back to early 2013. The quality of the game is the absolute first, last, and always with this development, and we felt it could do with a few more months' work to make sure that's really going to happen.
GZ: A Machine for Pigs isn’t a direct sequel — but it does take place in the universe, 60 years or so later. What’s changed?
DP: We're in the thick of Victoriana — empire, invention, social revolution, spiritualism. Rampant industrialization along with the attendant issues of dehumanization, poverty, disease, racism. It's right at the turn of the century, so there's that panic of what's coming next, and then there are these powerful industrialists pushing society forward, without any real thought to consequences. A really exciting but very dark age. So the central question for us is how does the universe of Amnesia fit within that brave new world.
GZ: Who is Oswald Mandus, exactly?
DP: He's a wealthy industrialist who made his fortune in the livestock industry but suffered a horrendous family tragedy and has been struck down with a terrible disease while exploring the ruins of the Aztecs and Maya in Mesoamerica. He wakes up from disturbing dreams at the start of the game and begins to try and piece his life back together, to understand what has happened to him.
GZ: You’ve said before that the game will be true to its predecessor, only pushed in new and interesting directions. What’s this new vision like, and does that extend to story, gameplay — everything? Can you talk at all about what’s in store?
DP: The central thing about Amnesia: The Dark Descent is that the player's experience is at the core. It takes precedence of mechanics, over more formal gameplay features as such. So we're preserving that emotional journey — that rollercoaster of fear, awe, desperation, loneliness, sadness, disgust, and terror. There are some changes of course, to keep things fresh, but it will very much feel like an Amnesia game. But what we're hoping for is a very different experience at the same time. I'm not going to say anymore about that yet, though …
GZ: How has working on these two games been a growing and learning experience for you and the studio?
DP: Oh yeah, if you are not growing and learning with every title then you're getting something very wrong. I'd hate to be churning out the same thing over and over. It was really important for us to make a clear break from Esther, do some different things. I'd hate to be pigeonholed.
GZ: What are you excited for players to discover?
DP: That Esther was just the start. We've got a whole lot more on the way.
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