Postmortem: The Chinese Room's Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
May 23, 2014 Page 1 of 7
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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