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

May 23, 2014 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 7 Next
 

Lastly in this section it is necessary to mention the team's passion, and the belief in the story TCR were trying to tell. Such a statement may seem somewhat cliché, but that passion is a critical component in crafting a game that feels "complete." This passion especially applies to the political element of the story, which was a point of particular interest for the team. Having a singular vision for a game is important regardless of what game is being discussed, but for a game that rests on its ability to strike emotional as well as horrific chords with players, it is even more critical. That singular vision needs to include not only what must be happening on screen or being heard by the player at any given point, but also the emotional state the game is trying to instill in the player at any given point as well. Even with multiple staff changes during development on the art team and the sound team, that singular vision remained consistent. This again is testament to the excellent team rapport and communication, as new staff joining mid way through development were soon briefed and integrated into the team.

4. Environmental Storytelling

TCR's previous games make use of voiced narration and internal monologue as means of telling the player a story. Environment design has been important in these past titles to ensure the story is placed in rich, believable and cohesive worlds that provide context and a sense of place for the player. Storytelling through the environment itself can be seen in Dear Esther, and in Pigs the aim was to bring such environmental storytelling to the fore to a greater extent.

In a horror context, telling a story through the game world itself provides the potential for both greater poignancy as well as greater ambiguity. The poignancy is critical in creating an affective, emotional experience for the player. The game environment has far greater potential for this than a spoken or written dialogue describing that environment. For example, a single picture of the shoe room at Auschwitz, or of the lone protester facing up to a tank at Tiananmen, are far more arresting, far more powerful images than anything that could be described through words alone.

The poignancy of such environmental storytelling is important. However ambiguity is also a key part of this type of storytelling. Even the above examples offer levels of ambiguity despite seemingly portraying quite obvious events. Each pair of shoes at Auschwitz has an implied life story attached to them for example. The picture of the Tiananmen protestor poses questions regarding his thoughts and emotions at the time the picture was taken. It is these associated implications that assist in the creation of the emotionally affective aspects of a story. The image, or environment, is simply a cue to thought and to consideration, rather than an explicit, closed story. Makoto Shibata, director of the Project Zero (Fatal Frame) series discussed such an approach in an interview with The Guardian stating that it is not about simply showing scary things, but providing players with fragmented information through a variety of means that forces them to consider for themselves the horrific events of the game. Ultimately, that which occurs in the player's head will almost always form itself into something more disturbing and more horrific than anything the game could explicitly portray.

Sequences such as the Pig Nest in the Sewer level allow storytelling through the environment and characters alone, without revealing lots of explicit detail.

The script for Pigs was nevertheless initially very long and included a substantial amount of voiced internal monologue. It quickly became apparent that the amount of voiced storytelling was going to have to be reduced to prevent players listening to voiceovers for long periods. TCR had also initially underestimated the size of environments that would be necessary to allow such an amount of voiced storytelling to comfortably fit while still allowing the player to move around freely. While small sections of the voiced script were cut, much of it ended up being moved across to written notes that are found throughout the game, thus the overall script itself is largely unchanged from the original version in terms of its content.

These written notes however are intended to support the story suggested by the game world through the design and contents of the different environments that the player travels through. For example, the hidden corridors and rooms in the game's early levels are not explicitly explained by the game, although the script may allude to them at points. The player is left to determine their own interpretation of what they were used for. This same approach applies throughout the game, and it is rewarding to see many different interpretations of the game's overarching narrative, as well as specific objects or characters, appearing across discussion boards online. This individual interpretation was also the reasoning behind the removal of voice acting for the written notes. With a voice actor, it is much harder to leave ambiguity intact as emphasis and intonation will always suggest a "correct" interpretation. Suggesting such definitive interpretations of plot elements would have unraveled the image that the game builds up of Mandus' questionable mental state.

The ambiguity of the storytelling itself has achieved its aim of encouraging thought and extended discussion amongst players. In many cases TCR have achieved some powerful and emotional responses as well. The game's use of music and sound was pivotal in creating these emotional responses and has been cited in a number of critical and player reviews as one of the game's strongest components. Its quality is testament to the tireless work and attention to detail of the small audio team working on the game.

5. Streamlining Gameplay Experience

As previously mentioned, Pigs has clearly proven to be a divisive game amongst players. For many, the streamlining of the gameplay itself may well be more suited to the "What Went Wrong" section. However, for delivering the type of experience that TCR were aiming to deliver, streamlining the gameplay itself was important, and from this perspective the decisions made to achieve such streamlined gameplay were predominantly successful. The removal of the sanity system, and later the infection system, has already been discussed, as has the shift of voiced narrative to text-based narrative. However further mechanical alterations contributed to the streamlining of Pigs' gameplay.


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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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