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Interview:
Dan Pinchbeck

Company: The Chinese Room
Game: Dear Esther, Korsakovia and more...
More:
www.thechineseroom.co.uk  

Lewis Denby talks to the University of Portsmouth's senior lecturer about his research, his game design, and his new project Korsakovia...

Talking to Dan Pinchbeck is refreshing.  It's rare to find someone with such fiery passion, such unconditional love of this medium.  This is a man absolutely devoted to gaming, utterly committed to exploring its design theory.  He also simply adores playing videogames.  "I actually applauded at the end of Far Cry 2," he recounts.  "I love games, and I love it when they break the rules!"

Pinchbeck is a senior lecturer in Creative Technology at the University of Portsmouth.  On top of his teaching, he also studies new ways in which first-person videogame engines can be used to manipulate the responses of the player.  Brilliantly, he goes one step further than 'mere' research.  With his small team of developers in tow, he goes on to make the games.

Last summer, Pinchbeck and his team - under the guise of The Chinese Room - released a single-player mod for Half-Life 2.  Its name was Dear Esther, and its aim was to create an ambiguous, poignant narrative in a first-person game without any overt "gameplay".  The result is an astonishingly beautiful, haunting meander around a remote Hebridean island, and the story of the dying moments of a man who traveled to it.

I've been wanting to talk to Dan about Dear Esther for some time now, so it seemed a good place to start.  I mention that it's the only time a videogame has managed to genuinely upset me, and ask him why he thinks so few games tap into such emotions.  "This is one of the most interesting questions to me," he says.  "What emotions are games capable of supporting, and which ones can't they handle?  On the one hand, there's a real truth to the idea that some emotional reactions are difficult to get into a game, as they are extremely similar to the reactions that a player has just before they reach for the off button: frustration, despair, overwhelming rage, and so on.

"...I'd had these preconceptions about FPS gamers that were really out of line..."
- Dan Pinchbeck

"But when you look at it, there's actually been a real extending of emotional range in FPS games in the last few years.  Even in something as ham-fisted as Unreal Tournament III, you have this end where your sister dies in your arms and you've been betrayed and all your friends are dead and your planet has essentially been wiped clean in a genocidal invasion.  So I'm not sure Dear Esther is really that radical in terms of the types of emotions it provokes - though I'll admit I was surprised by the intensity it seemed to be provoking them in players.  What it doesn't have is gameplay, and maybe that gives those emotions time to breathe, because you're not having to think or act quickly, or consider what to do strategically.  Maybe that gives the sadness or eeriness of the situation time to fill your thoughts, as there's little else to dwell on."

In spite of its uncompromisingly niche appeal, Dear Esther has become one of the most highly regarded single-player experiences on the mod scene.  "It made me realise I'd had these preconceptions about FPS gamers, even being one myself, that were really out of line," he admits.  "Because it's so unlike anything else out there, I thought we'd be getting low downloads and and probably a fair bit of grief about the lack of traditional gameplay, the speed, the mood and particularly the lack of an obvious, linear story.  Some people have had a problem with that - we get the occasional "what the hell is this?" and "it's really boring" - but what's been amazing is that before I get the chance to respond, other people are jumping in and defending it.  It seems to have really touched a nerve with a lot of gamers, and I didn't see that coming.  Interestingly, I thought it would end up being showcased at digital art and digital storytelling events, and get little attention from gamers.  Actually, it's the opposite, which says a great deal about how sophisticated gamers are perceived as being and how sophisticated they actually are."

Pinchbeck considers why the response may have been so fantastic.  "I think I have to give a lot of credit to the team who built it: Jessica Curry's soundtrack is just amazing, as is Nigel Carrington's voice-over work.  Both are so integral to the overall feel of the mod.  The environment, in terms of how different it looks, really caught people as well.  My favourite part is the deep cave that's just covered in symbols and then again on the cliff faces - both are just so bizarre and almost upsetting, because I think it's there that you really get the clearest sense of this really disturbed mind at work.  So credit has to go to Josh Short, who did the original build, and Adam Griffith, who really optimised it and added some really great stuff.  The concept and script only go so far; it's a really integrated experience.  I'm working again with Adam on Korsakovia.  He's a really talented designer who is really intuitive in bringing my often quite random and convoluted ideas to life."

Korsakovia is The Chinese Room's new project.  Again taking the form of a free mod for Half-Life 2, it's centered around a specific research question: how will players respond to a complete lack of human or animal agents in an otherwise straightforward videogame?  It follows on from the theory of ambiguity behind Dear Esther, but attempts to pour it into the mould of a more traditional game.  "I wanted to try to retain the story and the really intense emotion of Esther, but try and combine it with more traditional gameplay: speed things up, add in agents, proper game mechanics," Dan explains.  "Now that we've established that the Esther model is one that is interesting and gamers are into it, it's the natural next step to try and see if we can move that closer to traditional FPS play."

"...you end up being hunted by weird streams of black smoke like the monster in 'Lost'..."
- Dan Pinchbeck

Korsokovia presents a world in which fact is indistinguishable from fiction, through the eyes of a sufferer of Korsakoff's Psychosis.  "It's a condition where you have both short- and long-term memory loss slicing up periods of lucidity," explains Pinchbeck, "and, on top of that, a completely diminished ability to tell reality from fantasy."  The Chinese Room recently posted a tantalisng taste of the story on the game's www.moddb.com profile page: a doctor's journal describing what seems to be an epidemic of the illness, beginning during the television broadcast of New Year's Eve celebrations.

"People who hated Dear Esther's open story are going to hate this too," Dan concedes, "because it's a similar case of undermining everything that is set up, throwing out these ideas about what could be happening, but never closing things off.  There will be less story than Dear Esther in terms of voiceovers and so on, but more high-intensity bursts of plot.  That's partially buying space for gameplay, partially because I've got a better grasp of using the environment as a storytelling device, and it's also playing around with different types of stories again."

Dan considers the theory behind his new project.  "I'd been thinking a lot about the way agents are represented in games, and what behaviour players expect from them.  So it seemed like an obvious and interesting question to ask what happens when you take away all of the cues, like anthropomorphic representation and obvious motivation, from an agent.  All our agents are simply particle effects, so you end up being hunted down by these weird streams of black smoke - looking a little bit like the monster in 'Lost' - that are emitting these really messed-up noises.  So you have a situation where not only do these things not look or sound like people, animals or monsters, you also have no idea why they are there or what they want."

Pinchbeck's current catalogue of projects spans a great many genres.  Conscientious Objector, a Doom 3 mod, replaces your high-powered firearms with a rubber-bullet gun, and forces you into non-lethal combat against a force of enemies controlled by an omniscient voice that aggressively hates you.  Antlion Soccer is just that: a "football" game involving firing those enormous Half-Life 2 baddies into a net.  Then there's Dear Esther, the "interactive" story.  Where does Korsakovia fit into this complex network of mechanics?

"What we're aiming for has a survival horror feel to it, rather than being too heavily combat-orientated," Dan says.  "It's much faster and more frenetic than Esther. It's still working around the core of exploring an environment, but there are a greater number of things to interact with.  That's going to mean some object manipulating, some platforming, some combat... although this is going to be quite limited.  I'm more interested in the player running away from agents than engaging them."

"...I wanted to balance research against creating proper gaming experiences..."
- Dan Pinchbeck

It sounds tense, panicky and unnerving, a nightmarish world presented to the avatar with little explanation of what's going on around him.  The threat is constant, and there's no room to breathe: "Unlike Esther, where nothing really happens and the environment is very sterile," Dan explains, "Korsakovia has an environment that is threatening, dark and confusing.  So it's not just exploring and working out what's going on.  It's more of a fight for survival, as well as answers."

It's rare for developers to take on risky projects such as Korsakovia.  Pinchbeck is fortunate in this respect.  Since The Chinese Room has, so far, only produced free mods, rather than commercial games, there's no financial risk to undertake.  But, moreover, these games fall under a mandate of academic research: he's sort of obliged to make them.  I wondered if this had heavily influenced his design decisions.

"Well, I've just finished a doctorate in first-person game content," Dan tells me, "and one of the things I was looking at was why you find the types of content you do.  Partially, you can write this off to marketing and sales, but I was increasingly convinced that there are optimum types of story, character, etcetera, that are best fits for gameplay.  That may sound obvious, but given that the boundaries are being pushed by commercial releases like Half-Life 2, BioShock and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it's an increasingly interesting question.  So I'm curious: what can you do with these types of games; how far can you push things?"

He continues.  "All of the mods are tied to research questions, and we were initially funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council to build them.  So we were expected to produce results that would contribute to the development of knowledge in the field," he says.  "But the important thing for me was to balance this against them being proper gaming experiences, not just experiments.  If you want to get a really ecologically sound sense of how of how players react to experimental games, you can't compromise the playing experience."

It's true that Dan seems just as driven by his inexorable passion for first-person gaming as he is by his line of work.  "Working out what is possible with this genre is what drives me, really," he tells me.  "It's developing rapidly at the moment, and there are some really exciting titles out there that are expanding the normal narratives that have historically been present in FPS titles - like BioShock, Far Cry 2, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. ... Then you have the emphasis Valve are placing on the emotional relationships with agents in the Half-Life series.  We have NPCs dying, avatars sacrificing themselves, philosophical ideas about utopia and commerce, collective consciousness and critiques of the politics of technology being tackled in major titles.  And none of these are compromising gameplay.  For an academic working with this genre, that really throws down the gauntlet.  But we're in a position where we're not under the pressure of industry, and we have this great opportunity to take big risks and push out in totally experimental, non-commercial directions."

"...FPS games getting more interested in deeper, more complex experiences..."
- Dan Pinchbeck

The indies and the modders are thriving at the moment, unquestionably, and there's a truly commendable scene of visionary games designers who, for the first time since the early, bedroom-coded days of the medium, have a real outlet for their talent.  "This rise of indie gaming and modding just has to be celebrated, period," says Dan.  "Traditionally, there's been this complaint that there isn't the equivalent of an independent cinema movement or avant-garde in games, and that's an increasingly difficult viewpoint to uphold, which is fantastic."  But, always measured, he's again quick to defend the big guys.  "Major studios deserve credit for making the tools available for this to happen, and for supporting the communities.  As for their own releases, well, we're sliding into a big economic pile-up right now, and the publishers are under a lot of pressure.  There are very, very good small studios going under.  Publishers are playing it safe and, although it's disappointing, on a business level you have to appreciate they're trying to survive, just like everyone else."

Astoundingly positive and commendably optimistic about our geeky little world, Dan ponders the current climate.  "Look at the major FPS titles of the last couple of years.  S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is phenomenally inventive, even if they bottled it and watered it down for a wider audience with Clear SkyMirror's Edge could be much, much better, but at least it got made, and strove for a different type of experience and an amazing visual concept.  Far Cry 2: that's a real fusion of traditional FPS play with a quite different type of story and environment.  Blacksite is a bloody awful game, but it's a developer and publisher wearing their politics right on their sleeve, unashamedly.  BioShock as an example of a high-brow shooter?"

The interview draws to a close.  I'm fascinated by Pinchbeck's take on the medium, refreshed by his overwhelming love he shows towards his projects and the work of others.  He concludes, "I think FPS games are changing, getting more interested in deeper, more complex experiences, and that's a really good sign that developers are either challenging the preconceptions of what they can and cannot do, or finding great solutions to the problems of having great gameplay alongside these types of experiences.  So yeah, you've got your games where great initial concepts are watered down, or ones that were just mediocre to begin with.  But that's always going to be the case.  And in terms of franchises, well, Chronicles of Riddick is one of the best shooters of recent years."

Perhaps we are too quick to criticise certain mainstream titles.  We've certainly come a long way since the shooters of old; reams of monsters plastered on our screens with little desire for engaging and emotive contexts.  Perhaps he's right that we need to learn to accept mediocrity in certain areas, and focus on the brilliant titles that surround the dull ones.

"For every Timeshift," Dan smiles, "you get a Portal."

Contents
Issue 4

Podcast

Editor's Note

The Special Report
A silly video! Hooray!

The Evolution of Horror
A look back at the genre's history

16-Bit Boy
Do our minds corrupt the most innocent games?

Is it 'Game Over' for survival horror?
Where's the genre heading?

The Angry Gamer
Are games programmed to cheat?

Listen to your Elders!
Lessons from the FPS grandfathers

Interview:
Vince D. Weller
What makes a good RPG?

Interview: Dan Pinchbeck
How far can we push FPS boundaries?

First Impressions: Resident Evil 5
Rekindling the spirit?

Reviews:

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin
Multi

Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason
PC

The Last Remnant
Multi

The Path
PC

Big Bang Mini
DS

NecroVisioN
PC

Syberia
DS

Spelunky (Game of the Month)
PC

ShellShock 2: Blood Trials
Multi

Hotel Giant 2
PC