Interview: Dan Pinchbeck, designer, and Jessica Curry, composer
Writer and designer Dan Pinchbeck and composer Jessica Curry head up a small team in Brighton that punches well above its weight. The Chinese Room makes games that look like the work of hundreds and exhibit an uncommon symbiosis between story and music – a product, no doubt, of the married couple’s close working relationship. Here, we risk spoilers to delve deeper into the creation process and meaning behind the game.
While you’ve handed players the choice over how much of the game they see, are you comfortable that some might choose to ignore large parts of the story?
Dan Pinchbeck Yes, because the alternative would be forcing them down pipes. That was the trade-off. If we want people to find everything, if that’s important, then you have to start herding them. And then it’s not an open-world, nonlinear drama – you’ve lost that part of it. What’s really interesting is that as soon as you say, ‘We’re not going to hurt people and it’s going to be OK if people miss stuff,’ it’s actually weirdly liberating. At that point you’re not saying it’s critically important for the player to discover 75 or 85 per cent of the story, you’re saying what’s really important is this is a really engaging world to be in and the world supports however you want to go through it – not just the story but all the aspects of the design, the audio and the music.
The campsite is a wonderful evocation of British holidays, but your placement of the main road that passes it practically dares players to skip it.
DP The campsite is an interesting one, because it doesn’t necessarily progress the main story. But it quite significantly changes your understanding of some of the characters. Even though you essentially get the same fragments of story, if you don’t camp you’re probably going to have a very different take on the events at this stage. And that’s really interesting to me as well. You can either play through one kind of game, or you can play it as six distinct episodes. It really works as a TV miniseries, each episode focusing more strongly on a particular character. If you take any one of those episodes out, you’ll still get the gist of the whole story, but it’s about your understanding of that character and their relationship to everyone else.
How challenging was the writing aspect?
DP It’s been really interesting. Particularly with the central characters of Stephen and Kate, who have an incredibly mixed response from players. I genuinely believe it’s about which scenes you’ve found, and that’s so exciting as a designer and a writer – that all it takes is that one scene. Take Wendy: she’s either a horrible old racist or she’s quite a kind-hearted person and it’s not anything to do with skin colour that makes her react the way she does. To be able to completely change the way you feel about a character just on the basis of whether or not you’ve discovered a scene is excitement. That’s games. That’s what you can’t do with other stuff. Jessica Curry It goes back to the power of the domestic. It’s so under-explored in so many videogames. Rapture works really well because it tells human stories on a small-scale level. That’s what I want to experience in the books I read, the films I watch – they’re the things I enjoy experiencing, and that’s why I really like Rapture. It has very human, intimate moments we can relate to. We can put ourselves into those scenes.
What moments particularly stand out for you?
DP One of my favourite scenes in the game is where Stephen’s trying start his car and he’s just sitting there screaming at it. There’s something about that which really works. You kind of go, ‘Actually, that’s the kind of thing that would happen, isn’t it?’ The world is ending and all you’re trying to do is get to your bunker and your bloody car won’t start. It’s something which is really ordinary and quite boring, but actually under those circumstances it’s literally the worst thing that can happen at that moment. Like Jess said, it’s about the domestic. Life isn’t about super mutants and these huge events, it’s about getting to the shops, or worrying about whether your mum’s all right.
The game wouldn’t have the same impact without the colloquial dialogue that permeates it, but were you ever worried that could limit the game’s appeal?
JC I think if you set something in a certain place you have to be true to it. We’ve had times where we put something into the game that wasn’t the right thing – such as the wrong kind of telephone – and immediately your brain goes, ‘I don’t believe it any more.’
Rapture is beautiful, but that fidelity makes reused assets stand out a little more. Does that bother you?
JC We have to be realistic: five artists made this game, three of them straight out of university. We’re a team of fewer than ten people, so there will be compromises. DP The other thing there is, we bumped up against the size of the texture memory available. It’s one big level, and normally you get more diversity by breaking [a game] up into smaller levels, then you can load it [as required]. There are always instances where it would be lovely if we had just one more cup, one more building or one more car, but obviously when it’s one giant world you don’t have any loading screens, and you’ve just got a finite amount of stuff you can crowbar into it.
“It really works as a TV miniseries, each episode focusing more strongly on a particular character”