The Chinese Room have been at the forefront of interactive story-telling in gaming in recent years, and apocalyptic adventure Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture proved to be their latest success.
Writer and studio co-founder Dan Pinchbeck spoke to Mark Butler about the risk they took, that infamous ‘walking simulator’ label, and why the firm’s next game is likely to be quite the departure.
Five years ago, if you’d have proclaimed that one of the most anticipated PlayStation releases of 2015 would be a slow-burning exploration game set in a deserted Shropshire village, populated only by floating glowing orbs that initiate fractures of intriguing backstory when chased down, people would think you were mad.
And yet Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, the latest creation from interactive narrative specialists The Chinese Room – in collaboration with Sony Santa Monica – was such an anticipated release this year. And a highly impactful one, too.
Several months after it topped the PlayStation Store’s sales charts and landed to general praise, writer and Chinese Room co-founder Dan Pinchbeck is in reflective mood: delighted at its reception, and relieved that a bit of a gamble paid off.
“It was quite a risky game in a lot of ways,” he muses. “Even for a first-person exploration game it was pushing hard. They tend to be 90 minutes and very linear, whereas this was a six to seven hour open-world version.
“It was the first time a game like this had come out on console. And there was a big question over that. We believed people would respond, but it was a leap of faith.
“To have it received as well as it was was fantastic.”
There’s a lot to admire about ‘Rapture’, as Pinchbeck refers to it.
Its captivating gameworld, realistically detailed and truthful; its engaging and outlandish narrative, spinning sci-fi audaciousness with heartbreaking, down-to-earth personal stories; and director and composer Jessica Curry’s beautiful, poignant music, surely some of the finest ever conceived in the gaming medium.
For Pinchbeck, it is the desire to spin atmospheric, story-led experiences, such as their previous breakout hit Dear Esther, which defines The Chinese Room as a company.
“We love stories, and everything we do comes from an idea for a story we want to tell. This was no exception.
“Our games often start out much more mechanically complicated than they end up, but a lot of mechanics get in the way of the story.
“Originally the ’tilt’ mechanic in Rapture was like a puzzle, and it frustrated the people playtesting the game. We want to remove barriers to the story.”
There’s also a genuine burning desire to push boundaries and test the possibilities of what the video game medium can be.
The lack of puzzles and gameplay mechanics in The Chinese Room’s games and – some argue – the general lack of challenge they provide, has led some to question whether they can even be considered games at all.
But Pinchbeck is keen to look at the widest possible opportunities for diverse and original experiences, in defiance of mere labels. The 42-year-old likens his ideals to the ‘golden age’ of bedroom programming back in the 1980s, where creativity was wild and unrestrained.
“I grew up on games in the ’80s, with the ZX Spectrum and C64, when the spread and variety of games was huge.
“It was crazy. There was no distinction between mainstream and arthouse and experimental. They were all alongside each other on the shelf.
“I’ve never felt there should be a distinction. Games have always been driven by boundaries being pushed. For me it’s a very natural thing. You want to do something that challenges you.
“You always want to be part of a medium that is evolving rather than going backwards. A lot of indie developers have sprung up, and they’re asking ‘What kind of games do we want to make?’
“Game development started off as people in their bedrooms having crazy ideas and getting them out there. Now it’s the same thing again.”
The Chinese Room have been at the forefront of a new sub-genre of first-person, interactive story-telling dismissed by some as ‘walking simulators’.
But if you expect Pinchbeck to take offence at that term, you’re going to be disappointed.
“It’s better to claim it and use it in a positive way. I actually find the term quite funny. People who don’t like what you do will call it what they want.
“The label is also useful for people who already know they like these kinds of games. It helps them find other games that are similar.”
He also notes that the impact, reach and response of the gaming community suggests ‘walking simulators’ have a much larger fanbase than some would think, and that many ‘traditional’ gamers are embracing the possibility of something distinctive and original.
“What’s interesting is that when we first made Dear Esther as a mod, it launched directly into the hardcore FPS fans. I love FPS games. It was never meant to be a reaction or a critique. It was just a way of showing there’s a really interesting design space using FPS.
“The mod did so well, and we had serious shooter fans going around championing it. It’s just another thing you can do with this type of game.
“System Shock and Half-Life tell great stories. If you get rid of the shooting, you can then immerse people even more in the world.
“Games like Shadow Of The Colossus are just about being in this amazing gameworld, and people respond to that. Looking out over the landscape from the top of a mountain might be someone’s favourite moment from Skyrim.
“It’s not a surprise to me that this kind of game has found an audience, because they play on the same things that immerses and captivates people in a lot of games.”
There’s a certain irony in the fact that Pinchbeck’s own personal gaming tastes lie far from the kind of experiences he himself creates.
“I usually play games for fun, and don’t want to be challenged. I have a very busy life, and just like to go home and shoot zombies!”, he admits with a laugh.
But the truth is that The Chinese Room do not see themselves as a one-trick pony, aligned to only one kind of game, and are determined to keep on pushing themselves to try new and ambitious things.
“We feel like we’ve done the ‘walking simulator’ now,” explains Pinchbeck. “We’re ready to do something different. We’re being really ‘gamey’ in terms of what we’re looking at, at the moment.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever been in this position. We were making Machine For Pigs right up until pre-production on Rapture, but we’ve now had two months where we’ve been like: ‘Right, what do we want to do next?’ It’s amazing,
“There are three projects we’re looking at. We’re playing around with VR too.
“One game we’re working on is called Total Dark. I can’t say very much at the moment, but it’s quite a deviation for us. It’s very gameplay-focused. It’s an opportunity to have a bit of fun and make something that isn’t story driven and first person.
“We’ll hopefully be announcing it fully in Quarter One next year.”
Looking back on Rapture, despite it being one of the success stories of the year, Pinchbeck is happy to admit that, while generally very pleased with the launch, not everything went according to plan.
“When the game came out there were issues with the sprint function. It was a poor decision made after play-testing. I made a bad call and didn’t stick to my guns.
“It was a shame, because we had people criticising the game as ‘too slow’. Ironically, we didn’t get much stick from players, but a lot of critics complained. I don’t know whether that’s to do with expectations.
“We have a very supportive fanbase, and they’re willing to be honest with us.
“The biggest lesson I learned from Rapture was that we could have been more communicative with fans up to the launch. That relationship with our fanbase is vital, being open and sharing information, and having conversations about it.”
That said, when all is said and done, it’s that risk-taking desire that rears up again at the end of our conversation.
“Is it better to have some people not like your game but some people love it, or everybody to just go ‘it was alright’?” asks Pinchbeck.
“We made another Marmite game. And I love that.”
Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture is out now