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

May 23, 2014 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 7 Next
 

As for the game's mechanical core, the removal of the sanity meter was a primary aim from the outset. TCR recognized the likely controversy of this, but felt that 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. The aim was to create a game that was inherently horrifying, and thus did not require a meter or gauge to tell the player to be scared. However, throughout a long period of the game's development (approximately the first 6-7 months), and as per the game's original design document, the sanity system was to be replaced by an "Infection" system.

Early version of the infection system demonstrating visual overlays and minor perspective distortion (May 2012 Build).

The infection system would serve some of the same purposes of the sanity system, providing visual and auditory distortions and hallucinations as the infection level increased. This would escalate to Mandus having to stop, retch and/or vomit as the player moved through the game environments. Enemies attacked the player through infectious damage rather than the physical damage that is present in the final game, and players were able to heal themselves through the use of the decontamination chambers in the game. However, this system would be more abstracted than the sanity system, removing the requirement for a gauge-based representation to track "infection level." Instead the player would be able to approximate the level of infection through the visual and auditory cues provided during gameplay. The linking of this mechanic to the attacks of the enemy agents and to the lack of cleanliness in the Victorian London setting was intended to blend the mechanical workings of the game to the setting and plot in a more integrated way.

As development continued however it was clear that the system simply was not integrating well into the rest of the game, and felt too much like a "mechanic" for the sake of being a "mechanic." The infection-based attacks from enemies for example, felt weak and unthreatening at best and downright confusing at worst. Similarly, environmental infection events, however they were framed, could not shake the feeling of players walking through luminous green toxic waste in any number of classic shooters. After many attempts at integrating the system more convincingly into the game, the decision was taken to remove it. This removal, while certainly not trivial, allowed much more focus to be paid to the core essence of the game -- the story, and the environments through which it is told.

The removal of the sanity system was an important aspect of producing the game that TCR wanted to produce, and has been predominantly successful in doing so, as reflected in the writing of a number of critics that have praised its absence. While it may have been possible to continue with the infection system and build it into the game in a manner that felt more integrated, the decision to remove it allowed more attention to be given to other aspects of the game. The result is a game that is almost certainly more cohesive across its story, world and gameplay and thus is stronger as a whole. Without the level of trust and freedom provided by FG a change as critical as removing one of the core systems would have likely caused more serious concerns and delays in the development, especially as the system was such a key component of the originally pitched game.

2. Development Tools

The HPL2 engine is certainly not without its quirks, and a long time was spent during early development working out appropriate asset pipelines and the most efficient ways of implementing different features. However despite this once the tools were fully understood by the team, it was clear that their combination was capable of creating excellent products.

For a small development team particularly, it was important that everyone should be able to make use of the most critical tools, such as the level editor and be able to understand and make changes where necessary within the level scripts. The level editor provided this functionality, and with some bespoke adjustments made by TCR's programmer it was possible to customize the editor to TCR's preferred methods of working. The accessibility of the source code for the toolset meant such changes could be completed with little or no assistance from FG, which meant minimal delays during development for tool-based problems.

Similarly, the accessibility of the AngelScript-based API used for writing the game's level scripts meant that basic events could be implemented or adjusted by multiple team members rather than relying solely on the scripter. Early in development, a number of portable sections of script were produced, fully commented, that could be dropped in to any level and then adjusted as necessary by relevant team members. This was particularly useful as a means of enabling the sound team to work independently with portable scripts for systems such as randomized environmental sounds, ambient soundtrack switching and music integration.

HPL2 also already contained a number of useful debugging tools. While not being comparable to more established game engines for obvious reasons, the included features were targeted specifically at the rapid creation and testing of Amnesia style gameplay and worked very well. Once more TCR were able to implement their own additional debugging features, such as in-game dynamic prop placement to speed up the process of placing small objects accurately in the environment by doing so during run-time, as well as the ability to view the separated contents of the G-Buffer used during the process of color grading the game. The flexibility of the tools and debugging options provided a solid foundation upon which to develop the game.

3. Development Team and Communication

The core development team's ability to work well together with minimal man-management required was one of the most obvious successes of the development, and without doubt influenced the quality and cohesiveness of the final product. Multiple members of the team had previously worked together on past projects such as the Half-Life 2 mod Off Limits, which meant there was an established rapport between them. It was then very simple for the more junior staff to find their own suitable fit within the team.

Viewing G-Buffer contents in-game (Diffuse Colour, Z-Buffer and Surface Normal).

The combination of experienced staff and fresh graduate staff provided a catalyst to a number of useful if sometimes rather heated debates about the best way of implementing a particular feature, of lighting a particular area or of scripting a particular enemy encounter. Those with more industry experience of course had more existing knowledge that they could draw upon, but the lesser experienced of the team were often able to bring different ideas to the table as well. Ultimately the combination proved highly productive, even if in some circumstances these discussions took a little longer than needed.

These discussions could not have been achieved however without ensuring communication between the team was simple, reliable and fast. Throughout development, the entire team was working remotely with staff working from the UK in Portsmouth, Brighton, London, and Winchester, along with others in Belgium and FG based in Sweden. Communication was carried out primarily through Skype, with email used when paper trails were necessary. The majority of communication occurred in this Skype "virtual office" however and it proved successful. Such a setup has evident drawbacks over a normal co-located office setup, such as not being able to simply turn to a colleague's screen and explain something, instead having to draw elaborate diagrams (often in Paint) to try and explain the functionality of a particular puzzle or the sequence of events in an area. However, given the limitations the team had to work with, the communication methods were fit for purpose and served the development of the game well -- as well as generating a number of excellent pieces of programmer-art and stick-man diagrams to boot.


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Comments


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: http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf

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!


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