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Dear Dan. Talking with Dan Pinchbeck. Part 3


(original photo here)

And original post on my blog here.

And a week after, hereís a new part of my talk with Dan Pinchbeck, the creative director of thechineseroom. This time, weíre going to talk a bit more about the two new projects of the studio, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and Everybodyís Gone to the Rapture, but not without talking about his influences and his undying love for STALKER and Metro.

In the third part of the talk specifically, we discuss the importance of music, sound design and voice acting for games, the importance of narrative and characters over the plot, the reasons why Amnesia was a scary game and why Danielís character was the best part of Amnesia story.

Klarden: Right, so before I start with other things, have you seen this topic on the steam forum?

Dan Pinchbeck: Hmm, noÖ Wow, I have no idea, actually. :D Thereís stuff in the game, which Robís put in, and I donít know about it. When I was looking at the betas and stuff like that, I was just constantly: I didnít know that was there, itís really cool! So, Iíll ask Rob.

I guess this is the illustration of some philosophical questions asked in Dear Esther.

Yeah, thereís definitely a deep significance in that Cthulhu and ice cream cones. It relates to the story of Dear Esther, yeah.

A bit of a general question, but something really important to me personally: how important is music to you in your life? Does it influence your ideas, including the game design?

Massively. I used to work in a music venue, promote some bands and stuff like that. Itís completely central. And Jess and I are married, and sheís a composerÖ And it definitely influences the choices we make professionally. And we worked on a few things before we started making games. And Iíve always felt that what she aims at musically, type of music she does and type of writing I doÖ They just fit really naturally.

And I think that music in gamesÖ Audio in general, but music in particular, is incredibly underexplored in terms of how powerful it is in user experience. And itís so cheap, compared to the other aspects of the game development. I remember playing Mass Effect and the music is really big and cinematic, but I think they did synth strings on it. On a game that big they didnít use the real strings. And it makes such a big difference, to the warmth of the sound, to how human it sounds. It really grounds you in the world. And I was really shocked they didnít break from synthesizer for that.

So I think itís central. Every bit as important as visuals. But maybe itís kinda harder to talk about music, unless youíre someone who knows music really well, if youíre a musician or a composer. And a lot of people I know, who work in sound with games, do get this frustration, like: this stuff is so important, but itís difficult toÖ explain. Like you can say: there is this number of polygons. But with music itís different.

I think it was last year that I interviewed Bobby Prince, the Doom composer, and he was talking about doing the game composition during the early 90s, where theyíd have to write the software first of all. And because the file sizes were supposed to be small, they were going through a track and literally lifting out a note at a time. Cause each note would be worth like 5k, and they were trying to crunch it down within.
But in modern games itís so important. But it also has to be working below the radar, I think. In terms of steering an emotional response for the player. This is what I liked in STALKER ó most of the ambient tracks are brilliantly put together. Because theyíre not necessarily in your face, but constantly adjusting the mood. So yeah, itís central to everything we do. And central for me personally.

I remember first understanding the importance of music to the game atmosphere, when I played the first Silent Hill. Yamaoka created something that was completely unexpected. That music was constantlyÖ ęgrindingĽ your nerves.

And we watched on the original Amnesia, when working on Pigs. And the sound design there is just soÖ I mean, theyíre doing so much with audio. If you put a weaker soundtrack on the game, and youíll completely rip the spine out of it in terms of experience, and particularly in terms of fear. Itís just so really well put together. I think itís conceived of as not something which is there because musicís ought to be there. But itís an integral game design tool. And, I think, thatís why it worked really really well. Itís the same kind of attitude that we have to writing, we have to music. No, this is a game design tool, itís not something thatís just there because itís ought to be there. It has to earn its place, have a functional effect on a player. And thatís how, I think, you create a good soundtrack. By thinking in these terms.

Like in LIMBO there was almost no soundtrack, but those industrial sounds were creating something like a soundtrack which added something to the experience.

Did you have something playing in your head, when you were writing Esther, before Jessica wrote the soundtrack?

Yeah, I had some of earlier work of hers. There was a piece that she had written which was aboutÖ about 30 minutes long. And when the environments were getting built I felt, that the tone was there for the game, long before we knew anything about the story or anything like that. We not only built with the music playing, but also laced that music in the environment quite early on. I was kinda going: I think this music here, or section here that she had prewritten would fit and thatís the kind of emotion we want here. We used that as a build tool all the way. And one of the pieces which we used, when we started building the cave section was a very very very early version of Always, which is in game anyway. And itís been prewritten, but then she rewrote and remastered it for the actual in-game piece. But when it was in the caves, it felt like the caves and that piece of musicÖ there was no way of pulling them apart. So, itís one part of the soundtrack which pre-existed the game.

And weíre doing it with Pigs now, where sheís been writing pieces based on some concepts weíve written, then weíre using it in the early builds of the levels, and then readjust those as we go through. And Sam Justice, the audio designerÖ his ambient loops and lot of the noises and effects go in there incredibly early. And I think it really helps us in terms ofÖ the art and design teams just can go: yes, thatís the mood, thatís the feel we want the player to go through at this point. Rather than going: well, we have an area, now we have to sculpt the soundtrack around it.

How important, do you think, was Nigelís work for the success of Dear Esther?

Completely essential. The story with the voiceovers is that originally we usedÖ Well, when the environment was just being built and wasnít readyÖ This is on a mod level, so you can imagine how crude it was :). So we brought a guy to do a kind of a placeholder. And he came into the studio, and did what seemed like a really good performance. Like a radio drama, it was really really good. And then we put it in the game and it was just terrible. Because, heíd kinda put an emotional intensity into it that wouldíve worked really well on radio, but seemed completely melodramatic when it was in game. And I was really gutted because of it, cause I really liked it at first, but then it was just: Öit doesnít work. So we knew that we had to find a different voice. And it was apparent, that the tone of the voice would make a really big difference. Not just the ability to act, but also the quality of the voice. And Jess and I spent about 3 days on the casting websites, listening to different actor voice reels. And then we hit Nigelís, played it for about 30 seconds, then looked at each other and just said: thatís him, thatís whoís doing the game! And he was fantastic. I think, heís seen the script only the day before, and he walked into the studio, did the entire script at the run and then we went back through and did two alternate versions of the voice cues, raising the emotional intensity, lowering the emotional intensity. And I think we actually ended up using his first take on pretty much all the voiceovers in the entire game. He just completely nailed it straight off. And when we brought him back for the new bits in the commercial version, there were things which were written in there, which, I thinkÖ Once he really brought that character to life and I had to get back to writing, I almost though that I know the character better now, when he made the voiceover for him. And i think, Dear Esther is, in a way, four peopleís work: Robís amazing work, Jessí amazing work, i guess, my writing, and Nigelís voiceover. I think, if any one of those things would be falling below in quality it wouldnít have worked. His voice is what pulls players through most of the time. And players really invest in him. And he was amazing at communicating the emotions in a very subdued way. Even though the script is quite emotional, particularly in the end. And, I think, it is what makes it work on the emotional end of it.

Yeah, he sounds natural. Like he is the character.

And weíve been working with other voice actors since, and Iíve never had to do as little work as I had to do with Nigel. He just got it. A total professional. I hope he does more games, I think, heís really good at it. His voice sounds good in games.

But youíre not working with him on Pigs or Rapture?

No, I think we need a space before we work with him again. Because, it was so central, what he does to Esther, so if we used him in either of these games, people would just be: itís the Dear Esther voice man.

Yeah, kind of typecasting.

But without a doubt, I would want to work with him on another game. Just got to wait a bit of time before we do it again. Because, heís fantastic.

I recently noticed that with most games I love, itís more about the narration, the characters and the setting, then the story. If you look at the story itself of most games, itís not very good. Even the Silent Hill 2, which is usually getting the ębestest story evarĽ kind of thing, is not that good as a story. The topics and themes are great, the setting is unforgettable, and characters are amazing, but the story itself ó not so much. And it was similar with Amnesia ó i donít really remember all the bits of the story there. I remember the characters, their voices and how the story was presented to me. So, how do you think, is the narrative, the characters and other tools which present the story for the player are more important than the story itself in videogames?

Jessí mom used to write for soap operas and dramas for television and radio. And she always said that, if you start from the plot, you end up with a weaker story. You need to start with characters and have good memorable characters, characters that feel real. And then, you place them in situations and the story naturally emerges from that. And itís far more important to have that, than it is to say ęthis is whatís happening in the worldĽ. And I think that really holds true to games as well. Because youíve got player in the middle and the player is thinking about what heís doing, and theyíre more likely to remember their path than the plot particularly.

But I think the problem in videogames is, that quite often to justify the length of the singleplayer campaign, which has reduced and itís a good thing, developers try to constantly reinvent and twist the plot. And it ends up with the plot that is more difficult to remember and much weaker, because youíre going: I didnít need that extra twists, I didnít need those things to make sense. And the best videogame stories are the ones which have very simple plot structures. Because youíre concentrating so much on what youíre doing, what it means to you, that if they start saying: and than this, and then this, and then thisÖ Youíll just go: enough story, itís just too much. And you wouldnít accept it in a film. Like those films where it keeps twisting, than twisting back on itself, and then twisting back on itself again and by the end of it, youíre just like: ugh, just tell the fucking story!

I think we should just chill out about what story is, and just say ó story is there as a functional gameplay device. To conduct and steer and manipulate the playerís experience. And if itís not doing that, thereís no point in it being there. Unless youíre writing some kind of an MMO and players expect a ton of lore and backstory, or in Skyrim, where people want huge chunks of information. But in games like, say, Crysis 2 ó it has far too much story than it needed. Because it was basically: youíre running around ruinedNew Yorkshooting squid-aliens. And thatís what I really like about Doom, and what id did with RAGE as well is that it goes: yeah, youíre driving around, itís Mad Max, youíre shooting things in the face with a shotgun. If you donít need a story ó donít have a story. If thatís enough, then youíre fine.

And this is what I loved about Silent Hill, is that it made no sense at all. And they went like: oh, you donít want to understand it, itís so weird, youíre mad. And it was really inspirational to me. Like that worst ending I mentioned last time. You just have absolutely no idea what happened, but itís really powerful and it stays with you. And you remember it because of that. So I donít think that you have to have a plot, that makes absolute sense, and lots of complexity in it. That often makes the game weaker, rather than stronger.

I think the only series, which could pull this off right, was Legacy of Kain series.

Oh, I love Legacy of Kain.

But I think that was partially because of what an amazing job Amy Hennig did with the script. Which also shows now, when sheís working on Uncharted series. But most games with very complex stories and lots of characters and time manipulation or whatever become boring eventually. Even Rockstar made games, like GTA seriesÖ halfway through the game i donít remember most characters. Iím just driving around in a car and suddenly someone calls mu character to go and hang out somewhere, and Iím just: who the fuck are you?

Yeah, we kinda went from the crisis of story in the games, to like: we must have the story itís really important! Yes, it is important and can be a powerful tool. But saying ęitís critically importantĽ? Itís as critically important as having 3D in the movies. It doesnít make a good movie great and doesnít make a shit movie good. Itís just there, because someone thought itís ought to be there, and someone invested in it. If you canít pinpoint a proper functional reason why this should be here at this point ó it shouldnít be there. I find Skyrim a bit like that. Iím just: I donít care about any of you.

And itís what i loved in the original Half-Life. It has, pretty much, no characters in it. Just Freeman, just you, and you concentrate on that. And in HL2 they just went: weíve got Alyx, weíve got Kleiner, weíve got Breen and weíve got Eli, and thatís pretty much it. And itís a small amount of characters, but enough for people to invest in them. And Valve made, so you spent time with them and start caring about them. And theyíre very well written. Theyíve invested in characters much more than in plot. The plot in Half-Life 2 is the same old shit, but the reason why it works is because you really care about the characters, whichíre in it. And it means something. Because itís peopleís reactions to a plot.

I also loved how they constantly try to subtly remind you of who the character is, and what his purpose is in the game. If you havenít played Half-Life for a bit, you see those characters doing their things or placed in environments, which constantly remind you of who they are.

Yeah, Valve always invest in characters. They understand that the characters are far more important than the plot in games. And usually the games with weaker stories donít have memorable characters in them. And thatís why itís hard to remember them. In films as well, youíre kinda experience the plot through the characters. And if they have a good characterization in films, you forgive them a lot of other stuff. Because youíre invested in it.

You just want to see cool characters do cool stuff, most of the time.


Right, soÖ itís been a month, I forgot what I wanted to askÖ -_- Oh, right! Last time we were talking about one of the reasons why Amnesia was so powerful, that Frictional used the lack of information about the game to play with the players. But, what do you think was the most important reason Amnesia is considered so scary?

Well, one of the reasons Amnesia is terrifyingÖ because you canít kill anything. I think you canít underplay that. If you see something and it sees you ó youíre dead. And once you establish that, itís just inherently very very frightening. Also thereís the thing that they didnít have repeat gameplay. So apart from knowing that you can hide in the cupboard, and that they can see your light, every time you get in a situation, you canít fall back on the same skills and tricks. And you donít know how to get through each situation. In most shooters, including survival horrors, things go like this: Iím going into a space, things are going to come at me, I will shot them, and then it will be safe for me to move on. And because you couldnít fall back on that idea in Amnesia, every time youíre going into a situation, youíre going: I donít know whatís gonna happen here. And thatís inherently frightening.

And itís very irregular in terms of the design. When youíre looking at the levels in the engine, and when you look at the original design documents, thereís no big deal about continuity, about how big the levels are, and what kind of rooms there are. Some of them are hubs, some of them are linear. And if you look at it from a kinda academic viewpoint, itís a real mess. But itís not a mess, itís very clever, because it means that you donít fall into predicting whatís going to be around the next corner, whatís gonna be in the next level. So it constantly undermines the playerís knowledge about whatís happening. You feel constantly on edge, because you can never know whatís going on. The light mechanic is very clever, but itís obvious for the player to get.

And I think, the gameís just designed well. For a lot of games, you might have a good concept behind them, but most great games have it implemented really well. Like Metro. Metro is a great game, because of how itís made, and the care and attention and balance. Itís a brilliant concept. But not that different from other post-apocalyptic concepts. But itís done really really well. Thatís much harder to quantify and pin down on a single good idea. And with Amnesia itís the same. They had a lot of focus, a lot of attention on sculpting the player experience. And making sure that player never gets too comfortable. I think the torture rooms level was really well. It shows all the limitations of the engine, and the fog looks a bit crappyÖ But suddenly youíre in a massive open space, and you kinda go: ok, everything Iíve learned up to this point is useless, thereís no way to hide. And itís terrifying. And itís like youíre starting the game all over again. Which is just crazy.

*Dan suddenly has to answer one of his team members. Apparently, one of their software licenses for Everybodyís gone to the Rapture didnít arrive in time, so they have to make up for the time lost.*

Alright, letís carry on :).

Not going into too much detail to not spoil surprises, are you using some of these and other concepts from the original Amnesia in A Machine for Pigs, or are you going for something completely different?

No, itís definitely an Amnesia game. And I think, what weíre trying to preserve is the type of the experience the player has. So, while weíre changing some of the mechanics and doing stuff that is very different in terms of the design, the really important thing about it is that peopleÖ will recognize it as an Amnesia game. And itís really important to protect that. Because Amnesia is done so well. Thereís no point in going: weíre doing a sequel, so we have to evolve and change everything. Thereís no point in changing things that are brilliant and work really really well. Itís about finding different ways of doing those things. Making a different experience, but retaining the essence of what the original game is.

For me the priorityÖ Itís kinda thinking: how can we make a slightly deeper and more complex story going on. There are bits of Amnesia, of the original story I kinda donít like. That it descends into a kinda more Lovecraftian thing, which is not as interesting as the stuff thatís going on in the first part of the game. And weíre trying to focus onÖ What in my opinion is the strongest part of Amnesia story is Danielís character. And the idea that you have this person, who has done those awful awful things and why has he done it. And for me that ęwhy has he done itĽ and him coming to terms of why has he done it is the most interesting part of Amnesia story. And Iím much less interested in Alexander, than Iím in Daniel. So, trying to find those kind of iconic characters and those kinds of relationships so people really care and really invest in the characters and the world is really important. And having that kind of emotional journey all the way through, so youíre never just playing the game. And I think that is staying true to Amnesia but trying to do it in a slightly different way.

What I really loved about Daniel in Amnesia is thatÖ In Penumbra series, you were playing a different character, who also was not just your avatar but was also kinda you. Yet in the end of the second game he does something, which you probably wouldnít do yourself and it completely breaks your connection to the character. And in Amnesia, Daniel still is a different character, but you decide how he comes in terms of his discoveries about his past, and, kinda, shape him. And they did different endings for this concept too. Are you also doing something like this? LikeÖ giving the player the ability to shape the character story?

Yeah, I really liked what Amnesia did with Daniel story and I think itís one of those story design things, that havenít been used as often as they should be. Amnesia works in a very similar thing as BioShock in your relationship with your avatar. (good thing, Dan doesnít know I think BioShock is a boring game and does this concept really bad -_- ó Klarden) Which goes back to kinda similar but different thing in System Shock. But in both BioShock and Amnesia your character is not your character Daniel is a separate person, which you uncover and then comes the realisation that he is you. And in BioShock Jack is a separate character to the one you are playing. And itís so powerful as a design tool. Because you can control the personality of the player avatar but they still have the freedom to imagine who they are.

And that core idea of you discovering who you are and discovering what this world is ó itís essential to Amnesia. And, again, Pigs has got that. You are Mandus, but who Mandus is lost to you in the beginning and youíre uncovering that. And it is about how the player responds to who Mandus actually is and what he has done, and what he wants to do, and the choices they make around that. How this manifests in the game and how the story goes is, obviously, a closely guarded secret :). But it is that central idea of going: who are you?

When I first got to know Thomas and Jens from Frictional it was around the time we were making Korsakovia and they just started working on Amnesia. I think with Dear Esther and Korsakovia and Penumbra and Amnesia, we share that kind of interest in that kind of psychology of who you are and how powerful it is for players to try and figure it out. And itís weird, cause thereíre so many games with an amnesiac player character. And itís really important to game design. A really central thing if you haveÖ Trying to figure out the way for your avatar to not have to much local knowledge about the world. Because if you did, youíll be able to use that. Your character would just go: well, I wouldíve gone there, as if I live in this tower block, why wouldnít I know where the exit is? And a lot of games do that. Like with Halo ó Master Chief is literally chipped out of a freezer in the beginning of it and has no idea of whatís going on. System Shock ó you wake up after a coma and you have no idea of whatís going on. And itís a design tool, not a story tool. Itís like: how do we manage playersí expectations about the characterÖ And the Gordon Freeman thing. Valve just about got away with Freeman. Heís a world class theoretical physicist and heís kinda crowbaring down doors and things like that. And you think: wouldnít the first thing heíd do to go to the central computer complex and do some programming to resolve the situation?

Loved how Planescape: Torment played with the idea of amnesiac character. Like, you wake up from the dead in the morgue. You donít know anything and can be whomever you want. But, you can see or hear about what your past incarnations did. And if, for example, youíd want to go the Lawful Good character, you later learn of your past Lawful Good incarnation and see that he was kinda of an asshole. And youíre like: no, I donít want to be like that.

By the way, are you playing with the concept in Rapture too?

YeahÖ AndÖ The difference between the Rapture and Esther isÖ The main one, I think, is there are six characters in Rapture, which are actually represented in world. So itís not like inside your head. There is always that sense in Esther, that nothing of whatís happening is real, itís just in your head. And in Rapture, the world is absolutely real and youíre in it. And you need to be really embodied. And even though the world is strange and you still have that sense of it being unreal, itís important for Rapture to feel, that you really are in a real place where real things happen. So itís quite different to Esther in that way.

But itís still, yeahÖ I think, in everything we do, in everythingÖ I think itís just the problem that I canít write differently, rather than a particular skill for it :). But, ęwhatís missingĽ is what makes things interesting for me. What you donít know, what you canít find out, whatís really ambiguous, whatís lost. So I guess thisÖ obsession will be in Rapture as well.

And this parts will end on an awkward pause, I made, because I forgot the question. But next time I decide to fix it by asking a random question about the choice of CryEngine for Rapture, we will talk about the difficulties and benefits of making two games at once, Dan will say that he plans to play The Stanley Parable (oops, spoiler), I will tell about a game design idea Iíd love to see in games and weíll talk about the awesomeness of ęmeaninglessĽ assets and spaces in games, then Dan will have some things to say to Vostok Games on the recently announced Survarium, mention DayZ, and then go all out with admiration for STALKER.
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About Klardenone of us since 2:37 PM on 08.09.2009