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Postmortem: The Chinese Room's Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
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Postmortem: The Chinese Room's Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs

May 23, 2014 Article Start Page 1 of 7 Next

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs was born out of an ethos shared by Swedish indie & Amnesia franchise creator Frictional Games (FG) and British independent developer The Chinese Room (TCR) towards game design and what games as a medium are capable of doing. This focuses on the creation of games that prioritize immersion, emotion, and the affective experience of the player, combined with a powerful, thought provoking and well-told story.

The game [YouTube trailer] was originally pitched as a short two-to-three hour experience entitled We are the Pig, although this initial design went through numerous changes and expansions during its development. This led to the development time extending from the initially intended 12 months up to 24 months. While the game length increased beyond the original design, some sections still unfortunately did not make their way into the final release such as the Boiler and Fattening levels.

TCR came to this development with prior experience developing games such as Korsakovia and Dear Esther that provided a number of lessons to inform the development of Pigs. FG of course had experience from their previous successful horror titles. This project was however the first time that either company had collaborated with another company on a project and this would have very noticeable consequences throughout the development process.

Pigs has released to predominantly strong critical praise, but has clearly proven to be a divisive title amongst players. The game has demonstrated success in a number of areas, however the game and the development process itself were not without their problems. In discussing both the game's successes along with these problems, this postmortem aims to provide a comprehensive overview of what was an enjoyable if sometimes arduous development.

Concept artwork for the cut Boiler level.

What Went Right

1. Creative Freedom

FG took a very hands-off approach during early development, allowing a high degree of creative freedom amongst the TCR team. FG must be commended for their willingness and openness towards experimentation with an established intellectual property such as Amnesia. Such experimentation with established formulas is something that arguably should be encouraged more across the industry in order to keep pushing at the boundaries of the established design spaces that we currently operate within.

This invitation to experiment meant that in terms of both gameplay and story, time was spent during early development throwing around a lot of different ideas for plot, puzzle scenarios, game mechanisms, enemy designs and enemy encounter scenarios. These ideas ranged from small adjustments to the established Amnesia formula through to more radical and complete departures from it. Some of the ideas that came out of this process had potential for very interesting gameplay, such as enemies that would only appear clearly in the peripheral vision of the player, and a procedurally generated three-dimensional electrified maze, similar to Vincenzo Natali's film Cube.

Early concept artwork attempting to define the appearance of different pig creatures.

While technical limitations of the HPL2 engine prevented the inclusion of the more complex ideas, a number of less technically demanding ones, encouraged by this creative freedom, did make their way into the final game. The intention from the outset was to develop a game that players could not play simply by relying on their experience with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. This was critical in giving players a new experience, and the freedom to experiment provided a catalyst for creating such an experience. The last thing TCR wanted to do was give players "just more of the same" gameplay established in FG's previous titles. While certainly some players would have been happy with this, it was not what TCR wanted to make, and furthermore was not what FG wanted TCR to make. The aim was to bring a fresh approach to the established Amnesia gameplay.

Of course in following a critical success such as The Dark Descent, it would be both naive and a severe disservice to the established fan base to not consider how a sequel may draw on the most successful elements of the original. Ripping out the heart of what makes Amnesia, Amnesia, was not the aim; it was more about structuring a new, but horrific body around an established skeleton. This also applies to linking the game to the overarching franchise mythos. Again, FG did not require there to be any notable link between the games in terms of narrative, but TCR felt that a complete departure from the mythos would risk alienating many of the established Amnesia fans. Indeed, early media releases that prompted a deluge of theories around the game's plot and characters demonstrated the level of investment the fan base had in the established lore, with forum threads spanning over 500 separate pages analyzing the minutiae of the released material on the game.

The response of the community to these early media releases was instrumental in fueling further creativity during the game's development, as a number of forum posts discussed ideas or different plot interpretations that had not been considered. While of course not all of those posts formed the basis of something that made it into the final released game, a small selection was worked into the fabric of the established game and plot where appropriate. Hopefully, some players may recognize small features within the game that they had previously postulated about!

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Dane MacMahon
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I think with sequels you always have to keep in mind the perception of loss and change. Removing things like the sanity meter might make perfect sense for the game you wanted to make, but the consumer, the existing fan, will always feel like he lost something. They will ignore improvements and new gameplay paradigms if they think they were swindled out of something they had in the series previously.

Deus Ex: Invisible War was a decent game with decent review scores but it will always be known as the "horrible sequel to Deus Ex." Sequels are funny things. Taking on a sequel with the intent of changing a lot of what it was and removing features seems like asking for consumer anger.

Arthur Khvorostyanyy
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It is not the problem of sequel. You destroyed the core gameplay and didn't offer any other. If the game would be released without name Amnesia it anyway would be bad game.

James Margaris
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"The issues with the game's difficulty were compounded by the game's design too clearly telegraphing transitions between "enemy" areas and "non-enemy" areas."

Breaking down games into separate pillars that rarely overlap is a huge problem in modern game design. It's extremely common for games to have traversal, combat and puzzle sections that remain fairly distinct throughout the whole game, whereas in old games these things all happen at the same time using common verbs.

Tobias Horak
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"The system was fundamentally flawed as a means of telling the player they should now be scared, and approximately "how much" they should be scared."

A noble goal, however I fear that this shows a misunderstanding of why the sanity mechanic was useful. The sanity mechanic, above all else, generated fear through uncertainty. It forced players to look away, and only catch glimpses of the horrors in the game.

Replacing the original game's mechanic makes sense; a large portion of it was a direct extension of the character's fear of the dark. Doing so by adding some other resource to manage is to miss half of what made sanity so compelling. As the goal is likely to retain the same aesthetic, due to player expectations from a sequel, one should be looking for mechanics that can fulfill the core dynamics*. The original amnesia forced two dynamics onto the player in particular: the struggle of staying in the light for sanity retention (with the drawback of being more easily discovered), and disallowing the player to confront danger.

I feel AAMFP would have had much more success had it incorporated an ever-present something for the players to balance. Something to give the feeling of "I really shouldn't be doing this" that we all had playing the original.

My two cents on the "controversial" topic! ^^

*Paper about mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics:

Kevin Fishburne
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It seems based on the comments here that the fans have a much better understanding of what made the original successful than the developers. If that's generally true, it's something we developers should keep at the forefront when developing a sequel. Perhaps something like exit polls would be useful.

Dane MacMahon
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Browsing fan forums is a good way to distill exactly what made a game loved by it's biggest fans. If you're making an RPG sequel for example and aren't reading what the people at RPG Watch, RPG Codex and similar sites wrote about your first game you probably should be.

Alex Van de Weyer
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There's no doubt fans "think" they have a better understanding. Whether they do or not, or how much they should be pandered to, is a much more complicated subject I think. At one extreme, just delivering what fans think they want is both impossible, and potentially damaging to innovation and artistic intentions.

Dan Felder
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If game design was so easy that a game's fans can normally tell you exactly why a game is successful, to the point that they have a better understanding than the developers, then life would definitely be a lot easier.

I'm all for browsing fan forums, it's great feedback and utterly invaluable, but they're not experienced designers or developers. Their reactions are great to get, but their suggested solutions aren't quite as useful.

Dane MacMahon
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No one said to take fan reaction and plug it right into the code. If you're not listening to them though, I think you're making a mistake. A lot of developers think they know way better what people actually want and then watch their sequels plummet in public opinion.

Scott Lavigne
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You'd have to have something built into whatever distribution platform you're using (which is a big middle finger to DRM-free games, I guess) since most games end up never being finished. I imagine there are plenty of people who enjoy (and would buy the sequel to) many games but do not finish them. Of course, some games can't be finished either, so there's that.

Dan Felder
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It seems my extended comment clarifying things, as well as many other peoples' comments, has been deleted. I don't feel the urge to write another.

David Konkol
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So wait a minute.

At first you talk about one of the great things was the amount of freedom FG gave you, then later in the article, you talk about one of the cons was FG stepping on your creative freedom.

So which is it?

Anthony Stewart
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This article was great!