The Chinese Room: Balancing fun with terror in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Dan Pinchbeck and Jessica Curry share dark thoughts; how they write horror, prompt emotions - and why they won't let the player off the hook
The way we enjoy games can be a curious thing to examine. Whilst it's obvious why we might revel in the throwaway power-fantasy of the super-soldier, action hero or steely-nerved racing driver, it's not so clear why we'd want to spend hours hunched in front of a flickering screen, experiencing genuinely uncomfortable feelings of fear, helplessness, claustrophobia or sadness. It's like the rollercoaster vs. the ghost train, and I've always had an aversion to grown men dressed as goblins. I don't enjoy horror films either, but the buckets of blood and viscera have never been the problem. It's the anticipation, the suspense, the frustration which follows watching a hapless imbecile stumbling blithely to their doom. Horror games I've always oddly enjoyed - maybe because it's okay when I'm the hapless imbecile.
It's a distinction which I ponder as I chat to The Chinese Room's co-founder and writer Dan Pinchbeck about a shared S.T.A.L.K.E.R. obsession. We're both deep into yet another playthrough when we speak, each running one of the myriad mods which have so extended the series' lifespan. We both know all three games in the series inside out, but GSC's Chernobyl shooters continue to fascinate us both. They're not fun, as such, and I don't fully understand why I like them so much. They're grim and bleak, full of blasted moors and foetid basements, dark rooms and invisible hazards. They're frightening, in places, but largely they're unrelentingly desolate - not unlike the Chinese Room's first commercial release, Dear Esther.
That game, originally a free, Source-based mod which has now topped a million sales, has earned the Brighton studio a reputation for the miserable and macabre, so there's an odd sense of disconnection as the chirpy Pinchbeck draws the basement curtains on a sun-drenched July day and leaves me to play the opening section of his newest work.
What I'm left with is Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, a sequel to Frictional's The Dark Descent. It's a dark, suspenseful Victorian adventure which combines elements of body horror and the supernatural with the relative mundanity of man's inhumanity to man.
Like Esther, the opening of the game is all about bringing simmering tension gradually to the boil, letting the player's imagination fill in the gaps with monsters and peril, without actually overtly threatening them at all. Unlike Esther, however, those shadows and dark corners quickly coalesce into much more tangible dangers. It's classic horror narrative stuff, but expertly executed. I ask Pinchbeck how he finds the balance between build-up and pay off.
"It's partly looking at that model and realising that the moments of running and hiding are the actual release," the ex-academic reveals. "They're the bits where you breathe out." We're sat in the only air-conditioned office in the team's area of the shared building - the room where the other founding partner, Jessica Curry, composes the games' music. She's sat at a vast electric organ strewn with sheet music, but reassures me that I'm keeping them from nothing more pressing than paperwork. "I think that's where a lot of horror games go wrong," Pinchbeck continues. "They think that these are the bits where you actually start holding your breath. What Dark Descent did so well was understand that actually when you see a monster you're almost relieved that there actually is something there.
"I think when you look at it like that you realise that you're not actually using monsters to scare the player, you're using them to change gear to enable you to ratchet it back up again. When I was an academic I read a book on the philosophy of horror and the difference between horror and terror. Usually, when we're talking about horror, we're actually talking about terror, which is just using any means to scare you. Horror is a much slower, much more disturbing thing. What we wanted for the balance of our game is that the player should always be thinking 'I desperately want to go forwards, but I desperately don't, too.' Playing with the balance between those two states is important."
"Usually, when we're talking about horror, we're actually talking about terror, which is just using any means to scare you. Horror is a much slower, much more disturbing thing"
That ethos definitely pervades the section of the game I've just enjoyed, calling to mind the opening act of Gone Home rather than anything more openly gruesome. I don't hit the frantic payoff in my brief playthrough, but trailers reveal that there are plenty of cold sweat moments to balance out the build-up. Key to that balance is Pinchbeck's narrative, which eschews clumsy exposition for drip-fed eeriness.
"It's not just because you're playing a game that you want to go forwards, you're drawn in by the story, but with every step you're going 'I don't want to do this,'" Pinchbeck explains. "Not just because there might be a monster around the corner, but because the gradual unfolding of what's going on is becoming increasing horrible. You feel like you don't actually want to uncover what it all means. I think Lovecraft really got that in his fiction - you read his stories and there's all this stuff floating around at the edges of the vision and actually you don't really want to find out for certain. That's a really powerful place to be, in terms of storytelling.
"In terms of writing, we kind of work from the basis of 'go as far as you think is acceptable, then go even further.' Then we'll go back and find the right point. As we went along, if any member of the team said, 'sorry, I feel really uncomfortable with that,' that was the boundary. But, find that point of uncomfortableness within the team and work backwards from that, rather than constantly worry if it's a bit much.
"There were a couple of things that didn't make it into the game, things where we felt we wouldn't actually feel comfortable putting our names to it. I think part of it is that it's like rubbernecking on the street, I think people are fascinated with the horrible. That's part of what games do - they're a safe place to play out stuff - aggression or terror or whatever."
It's an odd thing, to seek out these sorts of emotions for pleasure, to actively engage in the feelings of fear, anger or sadness. There's a catharsis to it, a release, but it can clearly be pushed too far. Finding the balance, between controlled enjoyment and outright fear or despondency, is key to success - like emotional homeopathy. It's not always an easy milestone to peg.
"Last week at Develop so many people were telling me that they never actually finished Dark Descent because it got too much - they got about half way through and didn't make it any further," says Curry. She's not concerned about the players of Pigs suffering the same fate, however. "I think the story leads people through. Dan is such a good story teller that even if you don't want to know, you've got to know because it's so unsatisfying not to get to the conclusion. It's a very intriguing journey."
Pinchbeck picks up the thread again, the two firing back and forth in a way which speaks volumes about the way they work together - something Curry later tells me is "quite an integrated process."
"It's quite an angry game I think, which is not a bad thing, I quite like that. It's like saying about Metro, I really like the fact they're trying to make a point here, but they're not doing it in a really didactic, serious game - in a 'sit down I'm going to lecture at you' kind of way, but they don't let you off the hook. I think that's really important for players, it's kind of like with BioShock Infinite. It does it a little bit where it goes 'a bit of politics, but don't worry' all the way through. 'A bit of racial tension? Don't have to deal with that' - if you're going to do it, do it, and say to your players no you don't get off the hook that easily. If you want to play this and enjoy it, you can enjoy everything but it's there, and we're not going to give you a pat, easy get-out-clause answer."
This tendency to put the player under genuine emotional pressure, to keep up that pressure in some form without relief, has quickly become the team's trademark. Esther deals in angst and mourning, in isolation and the madness of loss. Pigs seems to focus more on raw fear and physical vulnerability whilst shattering the thin veneer of humanity which disguises the beast within - a Heart of Darkness to Esther's bereavement hymn. Despite that more confrontational emotional stance, however, it's not an unsubtle game.
"The way in which we think about story is that the whole beginning, middle, end causality isn't the most important thing. It's not the most important thing in games story-telling. People want to be in believable, immersive worlds, they want to be able to construct those chains of plot and meaning - if you give them the tools to do so. If you don't obsess about having to tell the player everything, they'll do that.
"Historically you've always had narrative and gameplay - a bubble of narrative and a bubble of gameplay. Then there's the arguments about whether the gameplay you're doing constructs a narrative, all that guff. I think partially that's down to not thinking about yourself like a Hollywood script writer, but as someone who makes fiction. You have to use all the tools in front of you, whether they're physics or AI or script, it's all just tools to make the player think and feel.
"I see story as being gameplay, if you see it that way, it becomes a bit easier"
"When I was an academic I came across this concept of narrative units - if you give anyone a bunch of stuff, they will construct a narrative out of it. All you need to do is show someone a ladder on its side, a person on the floor and a spilled paint pot and they've already gone - 'oh, they were painting and fell off the ladder'. You haven't given them a story, you've just given them bits - pieces and images.
"But if those images are engaging enough and they stick, then that's actually where the focus should be, rather than giving the whole story. The man climbed the ladder to paint and fell is a boring story, because you haven't got any agency. If you're joining the dots yourself, you're already getting the sort of agency you need. So I see story as being gameplay, if you see it that way, it becomes a bit easier."
That storytelling is an oddly refreshing experience for the player. Esther, certainly, was a cleansing game despite its subject matter - the epitome of that cathartic balance. So does the team find themselves exorcising their demons with their work?
"It's really funny, part of me kind of goes, I guess, probably," says Pinchbeck with a characteristic shrug. "I started off working as an actor and I used to do open air theatre and we had this one thing we were doing and it was Henry IV part... whatever it was. There were two guys playing Hal and Hotspur, and the guy playing Hotspur was a massive method actor. He'd sit there and pray before he went on stage and you couldn't talk to him for ten minutes.
"And he'd be doing that at one end of the stage, and at the other side the guy playing Hal would be sitting there with a fag, just on the side of the stage and he'd go 'our turn? Right.' Go on and be just as good. I think I've never felt like I'm writing through something, or anything like that. I think, probably, I do have some fairly dark stuff going on somewhere that it comes from, and maybe it's good that it gets out.
"In the same way that I think play has this really amazing function socially and pure mindless escapism is really important. And I really have a problem with all the gamification stuff because I just think let play be play, please. You're pissed off at the end of the day and you come back and play Bulletstorm and go 'aaargh' and it kind of puts it out in a safe place.
For me it is a completely emotional process and a way of dealing with those really dark things. Dan gives me a lot to work with in the dark canon"
"So I don't feel consciously like I'm writing through stuff. I think maybe it's there but it's not something that I'm particularly aware of and I think it is... the fiction is a device to get something from the player, so with Esther it came very very late, the original mod island was pretty much built, the music was pretty much done, and that defined the constraints of the fiction a lot. There was no kind of 'we're going to set a story on an island' it started off with 'we need a way of limiting the players' exploration, let's stick them on an island in the North Sea' and then we didn't have any money, we didn't really know what we were doing with source at that point, and we've either got to set this - if we're using Half Life 2 because that's where the mod community is - we either put it in an Eastern European city or a spaceship or some kind of open rural environment. Right, it's an island in the middle of the North sea, we can't afford any AI, we can't afford any animation, you're going to be on your own. And you kind of get boxed in to this space and I think going through that quite practical process kind of ends up weirdly defining the fiction as much as anything else."
"I feel completely differently to Dan, we've had this discussion a lot," Curry interjects. "If I don't write music I do feel I'd be certifiable and in an institution. All my friends call me Pollyanna because I'm just so cheerful and so positive and they're just like 'you have no darkness within you, you're always cheerful and it's fucking annoying' and I kind of look at myself and think they're probably right, but I do find it really difficult to engage with the darker things I think, in my conscious brain. And for me my music is so about dealing with those things. It sounds so pretentious now I'm saying it but it's absolutely how I cope with the world and deal with the darker things and I never write any happy music.
"Yeah, I think it's not conscious but it probably is there, I think there's a reason why I write dark things but I don't... I think coming from a background in theatre you get quite resistant to people going 'I have to suffer through this to make it real' and I don't think there is a direct relationship between your suffering in the process of your creation and the quality of what you make."
We chat for a while about the pressures of creating Pigs, drifting briefly onto the other project currently on the team's books - Everbody's Gone to the Rapture, more in the vein of Esther. It strikes me that, as a team which until fairly recently had Pinchbeck and Curry as its only permanent members, working on two games at once is massively ambitious. A glance passes between the two and for a moment I think I've hit upon a touchy subject, but they quickly dissolve back into the familiar laughter which punctuates the conversation.
"It wasn't intrinsically deliberate," says Pinchbeck with a sigh and a chuckle. "It basically came from the fact that we didn't know Dear Esther would sell anything. When the opportunity with Frictional came up, we were already very early on in our work on Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, which was getting prototyped through the university research project. We didn't think Esther was going to sell, we didn't really exist as a studio at this point. We had these two opportunities and we didn't really believe that either would last. So we sort of grabbed both and thought, 'it'll be OK. It'll work out, somehow.' So we ended up with a bunch of stuff happening at once.
"Once the Rapture prototyping finished we brought that team over for the duration of the development of Pigs. So we were really back to one game. When we sort of finished Pigs we moved them back, but there's been a sort of hangover from Pigs too. So it's been a bit of a mess. But it's really nice now that Pigs is basically limited to me just chatting to Jens (at Frictional) really.
"It's weird," adds Curry. "We get asked to do these talks on how we got to where we are - and it's just been a complete accident. We weren't a functioning games studio when we made Dear Esther. Dan had a full-time job, I was freelancing as a composer. Every day feels a bit like we're running slightly behind. I think that's probably true of a lot of people in our situation. There was no business plan because there was no business. We make mistakes every day, it's been a really stressful year. It's been amazing, too, I'm not being ungrateful - it's just really difficult to suddenly be business people, to be a studio, to be bosses. Looking at spreadsheets I barely understand.
"Every day feels a bit like we're running slightly behind. I think that's probably true of a lot of people in our situation. There was no business plan because there was no business"
"We're getting a project manager in September. We can't do it. Dan doesn't spend any time writing any more, I don't spend any time composing. Again, it's a situation I think a lot of people find themselves in. It's not something you're good at or particularly interested in, but the company needs running.
"I think that what we forgot was that Dear Esther took five years from inception, and suddenly we said we'd make a game for Frictional in a year. It wasn't realistic. We actually over-delivered on what they asked for because we got really enthusiastic. Again, I think that's a massively common mistake. I think we've learned so much every day, but it's so tiring."
"When we've been hiring for studio managers," says Pinchbeck, with the weary look of man who's been perusing more CVs than he'd ever hoped to. "The quality of the applicants has been terrifying - in terms of the people who wanted to work with us. Suddenly we had this rush, we were starstruck at the quality. We've had people with 25 years experience. People who were coming in were saying, 'we're going to build your business until you're turning over millions', stuff like that. We were thinking, we don't actually want to do that. But it's so seductive! If someone offers to make you millions you have to think, why?"
"And what you want to be producing to make those millions," points out Jessica. "I don't want to sell our creative soul! I want to be making really good stuff otherwise I'd just hate it!"
That pursuit of craft over profit is a laudable one, but one which doesn't often survive too long in the face of mortgage realities and overhead bills. Does the hiring of the company's first non-creative staff members signify a change of ethos? Curry is quick to refute the suggestion.
"People were really aggressive with me at Develop last week. Saying 'I think you're really irresponsible that you don't want to scale up. I just think it's really incredible that you've got this opportunity, a name and a chance to run with it.' Not kidding, about ten people. They weren't trying to sell me anything - they just really believed that work for hire was the model.
"Most of the people who work for us are refugees from the industry for those very reasons."
"It's really... we were having this conversation last week because I went up to speak at the Edinburgh Games Symposium and it was about game music and someone did a talk, it was a game developer, and he said 'this is all the reasons we play games' and it was addiction, boredom, routine, blah blah blah, and this massive list, and fun wasn't on it.
"So I said 'hello, what about fun? Aren't games massive amounts of fun? And he said 'oh that's too complex to be broken down, it isn't really a valid word, we don't use that word in games academia.' So I said 'how is fun more complicated than addiction, which surely has to be massively complicated in terms of origins and everything?' And he just said 'well fun isn't a valid thing.'
"For us the wonderful thing is that it's a massively broad spectrum. I don't think just games like Dear Esther should exist, I think there's all things for all people and I just think it has been really narrow and it is expanding which is really positive, but I also think games are the most wonderful... they do it so well. It's a game, we play and I think play is so fundamental to what makes us human."
Given that I've just spent 45 minutes in the basement playing A Machine for Pigs, I'm a bit surprised to find the raw release of fun and enjoyment so close to the hearts of the creative team. Isn't there even a bit of them that thinks something has to be somehow challenging, gruelling even, to make it a worthwhile experience? Pinchbeck soon puts me straight.
"People were really aggressive with me, saying 'I think you're really irresponsible that you don't want to scale up"
"Just because I've got a dictionary on my shelf doesn't mean I can't enjoy a comic book, it's like... stupid. There's always, when people expand anything, then there's some people who get very threatened by it and it's hard. Like games threaten a lot of people who are non-gamers, some people are incredibly threatened by games so they make a lot of noise about them.
"It's really interesting from the writer's point of view: this big deal of 'we're going to get Hollywood writers in' and then a couple of games went 'we've got Hollywood writers' and they came out and everyone went ummmm...
"Bungie put out a job a few years ago for staff writers and I was on a writing email group and a few people were really up in arms about it because right on the top of the interview they'd gone 'if you think like you've got a novel in you, don't bother. If you want to write for TV, don't bother. If you want to write for film, don't bother. We only want you if you want to write for games and nothing but games.' And I was like 'yes!' Some writers were disgusted, but to me I think we feel like we're getting over a lot of that we've got to be as good as something else, we've got to worry about if we're as good as film. No we don't."
The pair chatter and flow tremendously naturally, nodding at each other almost constantly with a sort of short-hand, sentence-finishing back and forth which makes for a fascinating conversation and nightmarish transcription. It strikes, me quite suddenly, that this is the first interview I've ever conducted with a studio owned by the lead writer and composer. Is this the secret behind their unique perspectives?
"I think our inability to do stuff is important. I don't think it's as much that bring specialisms which are not often at the head of the project, I think the fact that - like I find code terrifying not exciting - means that we're not driven to pursue certain things within that. So we're not going 'we could do all this funky amazing stuff with this', because I kind of go urrrgh, as long as it works. So I think it's the combination between that and going 'we're really interested in this stuff and we're less good at that stuff, so that's not going to feature massively heavily in what we do.'
"And I think there's a personal taste thing in terms of games as well, particularly that I think the way a lot of indie companies make games, which is really understandable, is they go 'find a killer mechanic, iterate it to death' and I'm just not interested in that kind of thing. I don't find it intrinsically interesting to go 'oh now I can do this and now I can do this.'"
"We've been working together for a long time making stories in different mediums and every time, like we did a thing in Second Life and we did a sound walk and we did an installation for the Wellcome Trust and we always thought: this combination works but it isn't the right thing. It was only when we made Esther that we went 'we've found the place to combine our talents, that games felt like the medium for us'."
"I think in terms of Jess's music it was really, it felt like a real coming home. From the moment the music went into a game environment, we went 'that's where it belongs.'"
"It was like the littlest hobo until that point."
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is out on PC and Mac this Summer, published by Frictional Games.