Originally founded in 2007 as a research project at the University of Portsmouth, thechineseroom’s progression from designing experimental mods to fully-fledged development studio is testament both to the creative vision of the studio and to the potential universities offer for the gaming industry.
Dan Pinchbeck, the studio’s creative director and a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, is thankful for the support that the university has provided the studio. “Right up until 2011, thechineseroom really only existed as a university project, and we only came out during the summer of that year,” says Pinchbeck. He believes that such relationships have a role to play in the future of games development; “it’s really important to me that universities are actively involved in professional development if they are doing teaching and research for games.”
When asked about his move from digital art to videogames, Pinchbeck’s response is enlightening: “I left digital art because I was kind of frustrated about the lack of anything really interesting going on, and I still feel that. If you want to look at exciting, innovative and compelling media, don’t go to digital art, games are way ahead of the curve.”
Under Pinchbeck’s direction thechineseroom’s games have certainly been innovative. One example is their Half-Life 2 mod Korsakovia; a mod based around the experience of the psychological condition, Korsakoff’s Syndrome. The rationale behind this premise is indicative of thechineseroom’s approach to games: “It’s just absolutely terrifying and seemed like the perfect premise for a horror game. The idea you can’t remember anything, can’t make new memories, can’t differentiate between reality and fantasy, or have no understanding of your own personality. That’s just incredibly powerful, and lends itself so well to the kind of artificial realities games create almost by default.”
It is however, Dear Esther that has garnered the most recognition for the studio. It is an experimental first-person adventure, originated as a mod in 2008 before evolving into a full game released this year, its fragmented narrative continuing the studio’s commitment to innovation. Pinchbeck explains: “It was part of the research question behind the mod, to see how abstract and ambiguous and contradictory you could be. You don’t need things to make literal sense in most other media, and a lot of games for that matter, for the experience to be really powerful and deep. You don’t ask which paint splatter came first in a Jackson Pollack, you don’t demand causality in a Brian Eno work or a William Burrough’s story. It’s about the emotional journey, the atmosphere, the engagement.”
This novel approach has sparked a debate over what art form Dear Esther belongs to, and even what defines videogames as a medium. Though Pinchbeck is unconcerned by such debates: “It’s irrelevant to me whether Esther is one thing or another theoretically. Is it a good experience, do players respond to it, is it worthwhile – these are the important questions.”
Pinchbeck is similarly forthright about the decision to set the game on the Hebrides: “Actually, it was a completely pragmatic thing. I knew we needed a location that was completely isolated, so we could keep the player enclosed in a limited space, and a rural setting meant we could get away with less assets than a city. It could be desolate and sparse, so an island was a natural choice. Then I looked at the assets available within Half-Life 2 and when we started putting some test environments together, it reminded me a lot of the Hebrides.”
The jump from mod to game was something of an obstacle, and Pinchbeck admits that it was “pretty challenging on many fronts at once. Production-wise, professionalising everything, licensing, finances, legality … these were all pretty new to me and took a lot of work.” The work clearly paid off, as the artist Robert Briscoe won the award for ‘Excellence in Visual Arts’ at the 2012 Independent Games Festival for his work on Dear Esther.
Not ones to rest on their laurels, thechineseroom already have another two games currently in development. The first of which, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, looks set to further the studio’s experimental approach. Pinchbeck reveals: “It’s an open-world game that is story-driven like Esther, but very different in tone and structure. It’s based around six characters who exist in this world, and you can engage with them and the world however you want. At the back bone of it is a drama-management system to make sure whatever you do, whenever you do it, wherever you explore and the order you do it in, you always have a deep, engaging experience, which is very difficult to realise! The whole world is much less dreamlike than Esther, we really are focussing on you feeling embodied, being there. And it’s highly responsive – the world is very dynamic and reacts to your behaviour on many levels, near constantly.”
The second game is equally exciting, a sequel to Frictional Games’ terrifying Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Pinchbeck explains that they’re operating slightly different for the sequel: “Frictional Games have taken the role of executive producers. They are paying for the project, giving us tech support, and most importantly, they give us detailed feedback on the game as it develops.”
The game, entitled Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is “set 60 years later, so there’s a lot more technology, but very cool Victorian technology. It’s all new in terms of characters, story, etc. We’ve got some outside scenes in Victorian London, an amazing soundtrack by Jessica [Curry], and I think we’ve really upped the game in terms of art and environments. Oh, and it’s really, really scary.”
With one award-winning title under their belt, and another two releases on the horizon, thechineseroom are already looking like a developer to be reckoned with.
Dear Esther is available to buy now for PC and Mac on Steam, Desura, Onlive and at dear-esther.com