Dear Esther from The Chinese Room is one of the forerunners of a style of game focused on environmental narrative and storytelling – games that convey a sense of mystery, exploration, and discovery on a player-personal level.
The Chinese Room has been working on its next game, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, which aims to evolve the storytelling ideas in Dear Esther. That means this new game has less corridors, more subtle storytelling, and more about allowing players to discover a story for themselves and letting the narrative unravel naturally. You walk alone through Rapture, seeing ghost-like figures and subtle environmental storytelling that clues players into what exactly happened.
The Chinese Room is doing this with a deft combination of audio, attention to detail, and knowing which design tools they should be using (and which they shouldn't be using) to convey the game’s experience.
In games like Dear Esther and Rapture, traditional game mechanics are few and far between. You’re walking, examining, exploring in Rapture’s world, unraveling a story.
“Mechanics are a tool to getting somewhere,” Pinchbeck says. “Once you know the kind of experience you want the player to have, that’s when you select the mechanics that will best fit that.
“This always happens with our games – we start off with more mechanics in there, then we work on it and test it, and realize those mechanics are just getting in the way. We really want this to be about the player and the story, and anything that gets in the way of that is kind of problematic.”
Even as someone who appreciates the work and skill that goes into modern-day shooters (he wrote a book about Doom), he says, “We, as a company, will never make a mechanic-heavy game. This is what we do, and people like it. We want as much emotion and immediacy as possible. You just don’t need a lot of that stuff [i.e., mechanics].”
The focus on player agency is a strong theme in The Chinese Room’s games. When it comes to player agency, Pinchbeck says, “I always come it from a philosophical standpoint. When I was as an academic, I was doing a lot of work on psychology. There’s an Italian neuroscientist called Antonio Damasio, and he developed this whole series in which he says we tend to want to split up intellect and emotion, when actually all thought is emotional thought.
“And that always really inspired me in terms of game design, that all game design is emotional game design. It’s about saying, ‘This [game] is an emotional experience first and foremost.’ If you are having an emotional experience with a game, you’ve got agency with it.”
Pinchbeck continues, “When I’ve got my ‘Halo face’ on, that slack-jawed ‘aaauuugh’ face, I’m not necessarily experiencing agency because I’m not particularly feeling or thinking about anything that’s going on.
“That’s our target: we don’t want anyone getting their Halo face playing our game. I love, adore Halo, don’t get me wrong, but what was really important, what we wanted to get towards, was a much stronger sense of the player thinking, 'What I did made this happen. I found the story, and I own my own experience.'”