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The Chinese Room's melancholy and refreshing Rapture Exclusive
The Chinese Room's melancholy and refreshing  Rapture
July 2, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

July 2, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
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    7 comments
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Exclusive



I've been staying in London on and off over the past year or so, and I've become acquainted with the English color palette: Skies of pale slate and rose, wan sunlight. The land is blonde and green, and its flowers are elegant, mute: pollen-dust of bright yellow, blossoms of white lace.

There is a particular shade of blue -- royal -- that people often paint their doors or garages, and there is the siren-red of phone boxes. I live on a heath, and often red city buses pass against the backdrop of silvereen clouds, seas of blanched waving grasses, the graphite line of a steeple in the distance.

I came to Brighton in the south of the country to visit The Chinese Room, house of thoughtful, atmospheric games like Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. To get there I walk from the train station down a steep hill, alongside sand-colored stone walls drenched in ivy. At the peak of the hill I can see the English countryside in the distance, a green patchwork quilt swelling from amid ruddy shingled rooftops.

The studio's currently working on Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, a first-person exploration game for PlayStation 4 somewhat in the vein of their previous work -- "It's an open-world, story-driven game, taking the trajectory of Dear Esther and Machine for Pigs and trying to do something new," says Dan Pinchbeck, the studio's creative director. "We're really interested in looking at the unique properties of storytelling in games."

I'm about to see a demo, and the screen currently shows me one of those distinctively English skies, a field of gently-nodding wildflowers, humble fenceposts. We're surrounded by ambient sound and tiny motes of color and light, and somewhere in the distance a phone is ringing. I've seen those flowers before, I say. Goldenrod? Marigold?

"Cow parsley," director Jessica Curry tells me. She chose all the game's wildlife. It was important that they all be native plants.



Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is set in Shropshire, in 1984. "The 1980s were really interesting -- pre-mobile, pre-internet, one of the last times when the world was still remote," Pinchbeck reflects. "It's coming up on the tail end of the Cold War, there's eco-paranoia in these little remote communities. In these little, remote communities, you can have all of these apocalyptic visions -- we really wanted to play with a sense of being very, very English, and with how normal people might cope."

English people seem interested in defining Englishness. It's almost like a cultural norm everyone agrees upon. I can define being English when I pull a friend from here into a conversation and I begin to compliment him profusely and he looks like I've struck him. Or when everyone crowds onto a rush hour tube, feining stern interest in their commuter newspaper so that no one else trying to enter the train might brush up against their bodies. It's a line of black umbrellas, sighing in unison at the morose announcement of a train delay.

The team's been inspired by the essence of the British wartime spirit, as well as the work of science fiction writers like John Christopher -- his 1958 novel The Death of Grass follows a civil servant and his engineer friend, crossing the countryside as a mysterious virus destroys all the grass. "Cozy, catastrophe fiction," Pinchbeck explains. "'Oh, that's terrible -- let's put a cup of tea on.' There's a quiet acceptance."

"I think we always associate 'heroism' with America," Curry adds.

"As long as we keep saying 'everything's normal,' everything's normal," Pinchbeck continues. "That's a very English thing as well, so that felt like a very interesting thing to play with."

The sound of the phonebox ringing off-screen creates an uneasy sense of home in an empty world, I think. Classic "post-apocalyptic" video games are about ash piles, nuclear mutants. The post-apocalyptic vision that's been laid out by the likes of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Fallout 3 has been perfectly established, Pinchbeck says, and there is little more to add. Further, his favorite part of these tragic brown-and-gray landscapes are their character vignettes: What he most remembers about 4A Games' Metro 2033 is a scene of a girl and her father fishing in irradiated water, and she asks him if they can catch fish -- and if they can catch cancer.

"Could you make a game from those small moments," Pinchbeck poses. "And is that actually a more interesting apocalypse? What if we took a remote valley in the 1980s, and we effectively 'scatter' story into the world and let the player loose in it?"

"It's about trusting the player, isn't it," Curry adds. She says she finds the overt signposting of many modern games unpleasant, and sees the cult success of Dear Esther as proof people want to take on less heavy-handed, more complex stories -- and that there is no divide between supposed 'high' and 'low' art. "We've had as many emails from teenage boys as we have from the 'games intelligensia,' because [Dear Esther] was a human story," she says.

Pinchbeck grew up in Sheffield during the 1980s. By the time he was 11 years old, the children at his school heard about threats of nuclear action. "The 'world was going to end,'" he recalls. "It was really frightening. But part of the remit was to scare an entire generation of children, so they'd never put their finger on the button. The idea the world was going to end wasn't this abstract thing. Post-Cold War anxiety reared its head and AIDS was emerging, so it was -- 'if we don't get nuked we're going to die of this disease that no one understands in any way, shape or form.' And because it was pre-internet, you had to rely on a very small number of sources for information."

Pinchbeck particularly remembers a hurricane in 1987 that hit a small village and cut off most of the south coast.

"When you think about 'the end of the world,' the village is the world, in a way," Curry says.

The naturalism, then, of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture's vital, soft vintage world is to bring the focus onto the village, onto the lives of the people who lived in it and how they related to one another: "It was really important to have a world that supported small, intimate moments, that didn't scream for attention," explains Pinchbeck. "It's not about an intellectual puzzle; it's about a sense of being."

"That phone has been ringing for a long time," Curry interjects gently. Pinchbeck responds immediately, going to answer it.

A muted voice addresses the player across analog static; a golden phenomenon stretches and spills onto the screen, a sort of electromagnetic contrail.

"These phenomena are AI driven, they represent characters in the world, and they form relationships with you," Pinchbeck says.

I say, "so that's a person?"

"Maybe, maybe not," he replies. "Sort of," Curry says.

Rapture's stories live where there's any device that can carry a signal, or among location-based triggers. Sometimes you tilt the DualShock controller as if fiddling with an old rabbit-eared antenna, trying to find just the right signal. All of the signals are to tie into Rapture's central mystery, the pair say. At present, this phenomenon drifts past us gently, echoes of a lost conversation following it down the road.

"I could follow them down the road listening to their conversation as long as I want," says Pinchbeck. "The biggest thing, for us, is encouraging a sense of discovery. You don't want to feel like you're just killing time waiting, listening to a conversation."

In addition to jointly heading the studio with Dan, sharing the financial and strategic decisions, Curry writes the game's music and oversees all the audio conceptually. Their audio lead, Adam Hay, has made a dynamic system that combines procedurally-generated ambient sound along with music that Curry has composed. "You never get loops," she says.

Pinchbeck writes the script: "It's about providing more opportunity, more options for storytelling," he says. "You're never just standing there listening."

We enter a farmhouse where every object has been meticulously referenced, researched, to bring Shropshire in the 1980s to brilliant life, with all its wooden nicks and varnished flowers. When we find another undulating, golden phenomena in the farmhouse bedroom, the world changes around us as we watch -- someone flees, cries, the house has been affected by what we've seen, instantly. Different people will experience different things in this game, follow different storylines, piece them together differently.

It'll all make sense in the greater context of the game, they say. The more excited the pair get, the more they finish one another's sentences.

"Scenes that are really evocative," Pinchbeck endeavors, "but not... not--"

"Overt," Curry supplies.

"Thank you," Pinchbeck nods.

***

Everybody's Gone to the Rapture entered pre-production last February, and production launched in August. It's the Chinese Room's first time working with a team of this size -- about 12 or 13 staffers all told, including remote workers. It's a new experience for the studio, but it's already taking the opportunity to try to establish what kind of workplace it is and how people will treat one another.

"We've been lucky," Pinchbeck says. "We think we should hire good people and treat them well. We think it's better to have a small, passionate team that's looked-after and feels invested in the game's quality. You can have a team twice our size and not have that level of quality."

Over 470 people applied to be an environment artist for The Chinese Room, but Curry says they narrowed it down not just to people who were looking for a job, but for people who wanted to work with them, on Rapture in particular. Visual effects artist James Watt was hired when, asked about what games inspired him, replied that he was instead inspired by life and the real world -- a philosophy not of imitating other games, but of imitating the world.

"We don't just want to use traditional game aesthetics 'because it's a game,'" Curry explains. "And that's not saying we consider other art forms 'more highly,' but people who play games also all watch films, read books, listen to music, and we think it's important something doesn't just look and sound like a game for the sake of it. For me, the music isn't going to sound like other game soundtracks -- I really wanted a classic English pastoral sound, not from a 'game genre.'"

"I just take it as a given that if you design games, you probably play a lot of them, so it's about the vocabulary outside that," Pinchbeck adds.

Curry studied English literature at university, and then did three years of film school and studied screen music. Games hadn't been on her radar until she met Pinchbeck.

"You were already working as a sound installation artist," he interjects. "You were already working a lot with space and sound, and inherently narratively-driven stuff," he adds.

This synthesis they have, this ability to speak on behalf of one another -- I realize there's another concept that's 'English', and it's that it's frowned upon for an individual to talk him or herself up. This pair has a natural tendency to talk one another up, sparing each other from the cultural awkwardness, but making sure none of one another's details will be left out of the interview.

How did you meet, I ask them, and there is this moment of incredible harmony when they make eye contact, the same bright, complicated expressions. And then they laugh.

Curry, it seems, was once commissioned by a well-meaning but deeply-disorganized art organization, and when she rang to complain about the organization issues, she reached Pinchbeck. "He was very charming and very articulate," she says.

"And then we met each other and got married and had a kid and started working together," Pinchbeck adds.

***

For a while the pair combined Pinchbeck's writing and Curry's music in all kinds of interactive experiences, from "sound walks" to the Royal Opera House's Second Life debut. But it was't until Pinchbeck began doing a PhD on first-person games that something seemed to click, and the couple realized they'd found the medium in which they were meant to collaborate.

Being married parents who work on a studio together is challenging at times, they say, but mostly works -- "it helps that we do different things and have very different perspectives," says Curry.

"By the time we're getting to nailing the script and the score down, we both know what's in each other's heads really well," Pinchbeck explains. "We work in parallel with each other, as a team, we're really--"

"--I'm really heart driven, really fiery, you're very analytical and don't take things personally."

Their collaborative relationship is to some degree an extension of the studio culture the pair consciously seek, they say. "If I write something stupid, anyone can say, 'this line stinks,'" Pinchbeck says. "When we talk about Rapture, the kernel of it is driven by Jess and I, but I'd be hard-pressed to separate out the rest of the work, like, 'this was us, this was someone else.' I love working like that."

"We're small, but -- I'm really proud of the games we have made, but the thing I'm most proud of is the type of studio we are," he adds. "We have stability, and we have sustainability, but we haven't done that at the expense of, of..."

Pinchbeck pauses thoughtfully, and decides: "I think 'cult of personality' is our worst enemy."

Curry and Pinchbeck are slightly worried people think they are 'boring,' but prefer that to an indie developer culture where industry and fans alike become more interested in the identity of 'celebrity' creators than in their work. Games culture has hungered for personality and for celebrity, perhaps in part as an antidote to the 'geek product' culture that's driven it for so long. Especially for indies, personality can become a strategy to compete for visibility in a challenging space.

"If you over-identify yourself with your game, you go down with that game," Pinchbeck reflects. "I've really felt for Phil Fish," he adds.

"I don't have to put this on the record," I intervene, suddenly protective. Last time when I wrote down what Jon Blow felt about his place in the 'indie community,' another site made an out-of-context pullquote story about it.

"It's okay," Pinchbeck says. "I think it's important to talk about. People interested in [Fez's] story wanted to talk about Phil 'going down in a messy blaze of glory. I wouldn't want to be in a situation where what we made was secondary to that story."

"We've got a ten year old. I'm not interested in being cool," Pinchbeck continues. "I'm interested in paying the mortgage and doing things I feel proud of. We're making something good, and we've behaved really well, and everyone here is happy, and it's good. We can look people here in the face and say, 'in six months' time, you have a job."

Valentine's day 2012: Pinchbeck and Curry in bed, watching the Steam sales for Dear Esther, cursing softly under their breath. "It had time to build an audience," he reflects. "When the [Source engine] mod came out in 2007, there was literally nothing like it, and I think the difference, then... I think it really stood out. It had proved its worth in the games sector before."

And when all the interrogators came, the ones who wanted to cast The Chinese Room as 'artsy indies' who had never made a 'real game,' there were hardcore FPS fans willing to stand up and say how long they'd been following the mod -- "they are not colonists, they are not tourists."

The team's strategy has been to invest in production values: If something looks and sounds beautiful, by the time onlookers had the chance to say, 'well, what is this all about, then,' they were already invited into the world, already had their jaws on the floor, taken away by the music and the visuals. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is a larger work than the studio has yet undertaken, however.

***

Senior VFX artist James Watt worked with Codemasters and Rebellion before coming to The Chinese Room. Slightly fatigued of making muzzle flashes, he says he's glad of the opportunity to work on other effects: "pollen and butterflies and other bits and pieces... I've been feeling my way through them to a certain extent," he says, emphasizing the influence of the real world, not video games, on his work. "I'm trying not to make anything that looks too much like anything else."

Junior environment artist Alex Grahame joined the team for her first job out of school. She'd been passionate about the studio's previous work, and from there a natural fit was discovered. "It's about creating authentic worlds with a lot of environmental storytelling, something totally different to what's out there currently," she says. "You can be truly creative, and still create plausible worlds."

"We're mainly looking at the real world rather than games," she agrees.

Audio designer Adam Hay has worked with Rare, Frontier and Travellers Tales, in professional development for some eight years and as an amateur much longer, he says. He's been experimenting with new technology to implement procedurally-generated ambient sound in Rapture. "It creates a really living, tactile feel to the world," he says. "One of the things I really enjoy doing is creating immersion, bringing a world to life, and creating that suspension of disbelief for people, to just lose yourself in that world."

"At night I walk around, sort of going, 'what does nighttime sound like? Not crickets,' he reflects. "A lot of it is listening, using your ears and comparing how things sound. It's a dark arcane art, really, sound design. A lot of it just comes down to how it feels."

Hay has been mining analog sounds, the "grimy, lo-fi deteriorated sound" of bands like Boards of Canada and Burial. "I'm into the idea of the world hanging on a fade," he reflects, "like it's on a faded tape. So I've been processing a lot of things: vinyl crackle and hum, that analog 80s vibe... moody, ambient soundscapes, and that's what I'm trying to bring in, marrying really detailed, realistic natural sounds with spooky and unreal ones, manipulated and warped sounds, an uneasy environment."

"I want to capture two things: One of them is that feeling of being out in a field in the middle of England, like you can walk anywhere -- it's that sense of adventure, as well as a tonal landscape that suggests something wrong, melancholic... and something beautiful as well. The feeling of being lonely can be quite beautiful, and quite creepy as well."

Environment artist Rich Court joined the team last September out of university. "We're trying to go for a painterly feel," he says. "We want everything to feel natural in there together, drawing from real life."

The team genuinely seems pleased to be working together, and to be using their abilities to bring elements of other art and real life into the project they're making. You can observe a certain gratitude in them, to be making a game that owes more to invention than to the history of video games in particular.

"We maintain our relationships," Hay says. "We have input on each other's work."

***

"We fight constant rearguard action against feature creep," Pinchbeck says. "You understand how easily big titles get bloated; it's so easy to grow. We've gone, 'stop growing,' and then we've gone, 'well, we could add this, and we could add that.'

Greater size risks a loss of intent, Curry says. But at the current moderate team size, she says, "we're all really invested in each other's lives, and everyone is working toward a common goal. We spend a certain amount of time with each team member, every day. One of us sits down in there with the guys and girls, and we're absolutely talking to them all the time. Those in-depth conversaitons make a really really strong creative vision."

But an over-large family can start to mean people lose touch, and personalities start to rub. Resisting that urge to grow larger is essential, she suggests.

"There's a kind of brutal reality to it as well, which is -- we burn a lot of money every month," Pinchbeck adds. "It's fine when the money comes in, but if the money stops -- all it takes is a couple months without money. We've been happy to stick with building capital gently: When we did the budget [for this game], we didn't think 'costs per month', we thought about 'weeks til firing if the money stops tomorrow.' And then, who gets fired first? Then, you start thinking about the studio in a different way. Firing people is fucking horrible, so you have a duty as a studio head to minimize those occurrences, and once of the ways you can do that is by not overstretching yourself."

The best way to budget is to accommodate a team that can build a long term relationship, that can share goals, and be invested in a project's duration, the pair suggest, rather than the classic studio model of staffing up to ship and then cutting heads later. "People ask me and Dan why our relationship works so well," says Curry, "and it's time. It's hours put in, it's arguments, it's plates thrown and tears spilt, and things fought for--"

"It's that intuition, of how the other person will think and behave," continues Pinchbeck, "and the longer you work together as a team --"

Curry picks up, fluidly: "-- there's a shorthand to communication, and we just get it. You kind of know when you put something in front of everyone, that someone is going to go 'no,' and it becomes what would James [Watt, VFX artist] think, what would Sindre [Gronvoll, lead artist] think --"

"The idea of losing someone who you've built up that kind of relationship with seems like madness, to me," finishes Pinchbeck. "When scale goes up, budget goes up, and the more of someone else's money you need to spend, the tighter the constraints, and the more likely it is you will lose creativity. The way the classic studio model works, the industry doesn't benefit from it, developers and players don't benefit from it. It's only studio heads, who don't give a shit about games, and only give a shit about making as much money as they can, who benefit from it. I think it's really good more companies are starting out. It's a really good place for the industry to be."

Curry and Pinchbeck didn't come from the 'game industry,' per se, and worked together for 18 months before hiring their first employee. Developers, they believe, have a natural instinct toward ethics on their own: "If you naturally said 'how are you going to do this', to most people, they would do what we do," Pinchbeck believes. "I don't think most people would say, 'we're going to scale up, and then bin people off and screw anything that moves, and then nobody gives a shit about our product'."

"99 percent of people working in the games industry [don't want that]... they're always proud of the work they did, they were very talented people working very hard to make something that was scuppered by the framework."


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