Dear Dan. Talking with Dan Pinchbeck. Part 1

Dan Pinchbeck talk with Klarden

(original photo here)

After wondering for a bit on why won’t a finally buy a webcam and start trying to interview different game developers I made the only right decision – bought a webcam and tried to interview a game developer. The first “victim” of my complete lack of knowledge on Skype talks was Dan Pinchbeck, creative director of thechineseroom, who has recently released their first commercial game – Dear Esther. Originally released as a source mod in 2008, it changed perceptions of lots of people about what can be done with a videogame medium. And recent commercial release, done in collaboration with incredibly talented level designer and environment artist Robert Briscoe, allowed Dear Esther to be known to a bigger audience.

Given my admiration for the game (and work on the Russian translation for it), it’s not surprising that I was interested in knowing one of the key people behind the project better. And while video quality, and my embarrassingly nervous talk and unexpectedly bad accent (because of long inexperience period, I’m a good translator otherwise, honest -_-) prevent you from seeing the recording of our talk, you can still read it.

In this first part, we talk about the unexpected success of Dear Esther, other early experiments, what makes horror games great and why Amnesia was an amazing game, the importance of interface and health counters and what we both love and hate with game hints and tutorials.

Klarden: Still don’t know how this thing should work, so… whatever -_-. First things first: both the mod and the commercial release of Dear Esther…erm… “murdered” expectations of a lot of people. Was it part of the design, to surprise people with the game, or was it unexpected?

Dan Pinchbeck: When we made the mod my expectations were kinda quite low. I think, we just wanted to see whenever or not it would work. And it was just as simple as going: if you do this, if you rip the gameplay and leave just the story, is it going to work? Are people going to respond to that or not? And to be completely honest with you, I thought it would probably get, maybe, a few hundred downloads and, hopefully, people would write enough about why they didn’t like it, why it didn’t work and we’ll be able to use that. It was kind of a shock how it happened. I was never expecting nearly the levels of response we got. So when we did the remake… We wouldn’t have made the remake, or certainly wouldn’t have gone commercial with the remake, if the mod hadn’t taken off the way it did. So, I think, when we went into that, when we actually said that we’re actually going to do a commercial release, I don’t think we were going into: “this is gonna completely “murder” people expectations or anything”:).

I think we were more like: enough people out there have already shown that a significant amount of people will play this, and like it, and get it and it’s not completely frying their minds or anything. It made making the commercial version worthwhile. And I think if it would’ve more contentious as a mod, we wouldn’t have made it. I think it has been since it came out, quite a few people have tried to liken it to a kind of a new poster game, like a new way of doing gameplay, or this is all about “not games”, or this is all about problems with current games. And it wasn’t ever supposed to be doing that. I never had any kind of agenda for going like “FPS games need fixing”.

And the weird thing with Esther is that it was the last game we made of the first 3 and we weren’t going to make it originally. The original idea was to do something that was planned around with AI. Where you had help from the AI where it was really annoying but you kind of relied on them. So the idea was to make a blind AI with a panic scale as the primary AI scale. You take it into the environment and it gets scared and panics and does stupid stuff. So you had to work out how to calm them down and look after them. But we didn’t know enough and we couldn’t afford agents. So that went. And it was kind of: “oh we had that idea of doing something that was just pure story, let’s get that back off the shelf.” There wasn’t any kind of ground plan, really. It was as much driven by pragmatism as anything else.

I haven’t played your first mod, for Doom 3. But from what I’ve read it was also kinda about making players sometimes frustrated about what’s going on. And from what I’ve heard, Korsakovia, which I hasn’t played as well, since I tried playing it after the update for Half-Life 2…

It’s so broken. Completely broken.

I heard that you tried, basically, lying to the player about what’s going on.

Yeah, Korsakovia was kinda going about “horror games are not scary anymore.” And we were making it before Amnesia came out. And when we did it… I think that they did in Amnesia a lot of stuff we did, but more successfully. Which is fine:). So, for Korsakovia I basically went: the horror isn’t scary. And it isn’t scary because people know what to expect. It’s kind of a formularized form of game design. So we went to try and systematically break every single golden rule, every single design thing. Some of this is gonna work, some of this isn’t gonna work, some of it will just really really annoy players. And some of it may make them have a different kind of experience. With Korsakovia we tried to systematically break everything. Do stuff like doors that lock and unlock themselves without any warning, sort of stuff that made absolutely no sense at all. Invisible creatures, so you couldn’t predict what they were doing.

I think it’s about 50/50 with Korsakovia. Some of it worked, and when it worked it worked incredibly well. And players just went absolutely bananas with fear, cause they just had no idea of what was going on. But problem was that I also made some really really bad design calls. There were parts of it which were just horribly designed. So we lost a lot of people who just looked at some things and said: these guys just can’t design games. Because we’ve done some really bad things. So when it was deliberate, the effect was lost on some people, because people just thought that it wasn’t deliberate and it was just us being incompetent. But it kinda worked and we use stuff that worked in Pigs. And there were things which we did badly which then Frictional did really well in Amnesia. Like the water monster. They had an invisible monster which was actually genuinely scary as opposed to people thinking it was just broken.

And the Doom one… The idea behind that one came from looking at the structure of FPS games. The core of an FPS game is – you’re in environment, and there’s lots of stuff in it and you get rid of the stuff in it by shooting it:). And when there’s nothing else left, you go to somewhere else that’s got lots of stuff in it and get rid of it too. And we decided going: what happens when you can’t get rid of stuff, and it actually gets more complicated when you go, not less? And the most obvious way of doing it is to say: you can’t kill anything. But it had to be just as intense, as mental as Doom 3.

So the way we did it is we wrote story that you’re a prisoner and since everything that happens in Doom, there’s still lots of stuff there The Company wants to steal, lots of information to seize. So they send down prisoners as it doesn’t matter if they get killed. But you don’t want to give them real guns, because they might want to use them when they get out. So we hacked the shotgun so it shoots rubber bullets. You can shoot as many zombies as you like, so they fall over, but after 3 or 5 seconds they’re back up again and keep coming after you. So you eventually have this crowd of zombies following you around the level.

And on top of that we thought, NPCs in first person games are always really nice to you. They’re always telling you you’re great, you’re a hero. It’s like Cortana in Halo. It’s more of “wow, you’re wonderful”. And we thought, why don’t we have an NPC who hates you and tells you you’re rubbish all the time? So we wrote that NPC and I coded him so, if you shot a zombie and missed he’d say: you’re complete shithead, you’ve just missed a zombie, you deserve to die. And if you shot one he’d say: well, that was no good, what’re you going to do next? And he’d just pour derision and hatred at you. He’s still guiding you around the world, he’s still telling you what to do next…

He just hates you.

Yeah, he just hates you. And people liked it, it was really good. It was just as intense as Doom 3. But it was completely different in the way of gameplay. But when we did it we just were: “this is really funny. This is hilarious, I love this idea! This guy is just so foul all the time. And everything you do is useless, this is really amusing.” And people were playing and were like “it’s really dark, really bleak”. And we were like “no, it’s really funny!” But the thing that went with it is that we figured out that there wasn’t enough modding scene around Doom 3 to have any particular reach. But it still got about 18000 downloads which, for a research project, is pretty good.

So in… erm… Korsakovia, how do you pronounce that?

Korsakovia (yes, you can’t hear him saying that, sorry -_- – Klarden). It’s from the syndrome of.. it’s called korsakoff’s syndrome, when you can’t make new memories and you lose all your existing memories. So you don’t know who you are or where you are and you can’t remember anything that happened since you got korsakoff’s. And then people tend to retreat into kind of a fantasy life and then those fantasy lives get reinvented constantly so people can’t remember all the fantasy lives they created.

Oh, that explains a lot.

Oh, it’s really messed up. Could you have a character in game that had that? It would be completely insane. If you take that premise you can make anything you want with the game world and it will not make any sense whatsoever. Cause every time anyone says “but it doesn’t make any sense” you can go, “well, yeah well it’s not real, it’s a constantly invented fantasy”. So yeah, it was a really nice concept and it worked really well.

By the way, do you think that… mostly horror games, obviously, should play more with what reality is?


You know, like the expectations of the player as to what reality is, of what is actually happening. And what is real, what’s not. It was played with in Silent Hill a lot, it was played around beautifully in Penumbra Black Plague, where you had these constant deja vu moments. And Amnesia played with it a bit. I’m surprised that not a lot of games actually play with this. Do you think it’s more of a risky thing, or there are some technological limitations, so people don’t use it more often?

I think it’s not a technology thing, it’s a design thing. I think it’s pretty easy to do… kind of appearing and disappearing objects, so you have placed an object that is visible for only a fraction of a second. And only if the player’s look target is moving away. And you’re only gonna catch it in the corner of your eye. And it takes tweaking to do that, but it’s not hard to do. I think it’s got more to do with where the survival horror market went. That it sold more if you turned horror into gunfests. And it’s a shame. It’s interesting that Silent Hill tried to kinda go back to that.

Shattered Memories.

Was it?.. Cause that was the thing with the first Silent Hill. I remember playing it the first time around and getting the worst possible ending. Like you’ve finally found your daughter, than she turns into a sort of demon thing (Dan, actually, mixed things up a bit, as Cheryl turns into demon only in “good” endings – Silent Hill fanboyish Klarden), and then you shoot her and then it casts you being dead behind the wheel of your car. And I remember just sitting there in front of my Playstation and going: Whaaat?! I don’t know why it never took off in the same way, cause people really like it.

But I think it’s similar to how the horror movies have gone. Going: it’s better to have this pattern when you’re walking in a horror film, you can predict everything. It’s kinda the Wes Craven’s Scream thing. When it became ironic that the fan of horror can predict what can happen in horror. And it seems really weird, cause for hundreds of years the horror was not about that, it was about staring into the dark side. And one of the big reasons why I love STALKER so much is that you can have this sense in there. It really got the thing from the film and the book that the stuff would happen and you’d have no idea why it’d happen. And it made it really really creepy and scary. And it wasn’t about trying to trick player with trying to break reality or anything. It was mostly about putting player in a situation where they’d go “we don’t have to tell you that, we won’t tell you that”.

And… oh, i really love to talk about these games :). So, in Metro you defeat this big biomass and it’s like a big boss fight, and it’s all over and the only thing you get as a pay-off is the stalker going “well, i don’t know what that was, let’s not go there again”. And this is kind of the reaction you’d have, really. And it was really cool, very human. And in classic literature, like Lovecraft… the whole point Lovecraft is scary is that you can never figure out what’s going on. You always get the chance to feel that there’s logic, but you can never understand that logic. And you’re always quite powerless.

And I don’t know if it kinda doesn’t fit with the received wisdom of what you’re supposed to feel in the game – you’re supposed to feel increasingly powerful until you win. And that’s why I love the bad endings in STALKER:  if you didn’t follow a little subquest that they didn’t signpost massively, then no matter how powerful you are, when you get to the end something horrible happens to you. And what was genius is that they hid the conditions of the horrible ending you got. So unless you read stuff on forums to get this, you go back and replay the game and get a different horrible ending. But you’ll be able to work out what you did differently to get a different horrible ending, which, to me, seems much more fun than going: ok we’re getting towards the end of the game, we’re 75% through, now we have to explain everything, because players need to have everything explained. And I’m like: why?

And that’s the kind of thing we did with Esther. People want to know, they love it, but they don’t necessary want to be told. And I think a lot of horror is like that – you don’t know, but you can see the shape in the dark. Yet can’t tell what it is. And it’s much more frightening. The noise in the dark is much more scary than seeing a monster. But yeah, I guess since the games are still about manipulating the integers, it’s hard to think on how to create spaces for things to be really ambiguous and unanswered. And there is kinda jar between these philosophical things and technical systems. But it’s not exactly difficult to do. I think :).

I consider the first Silent Hill to be, probably, the scariest in the series because with the technical limitations the studio had, with all the murky visuals, you had to use your own imagination to explain to yourself what you see and what’s going on. And your imagination always made things even scarier than they actually were.

Yeah, absolutely.

And… i didn’t really like what happened after SH4: The Room, where the newer games looked better, and beautiful in a scary way, but very clear. And you didn’t have to use your imagination as much.

The mist in Silent Hill was genius. Those shapes coming out of the mist… It’s terrifying. You can’t work out what’s behind the next corner. And it’s one of the things we talk about when designing Pigs. Where you have players create gameplay for you. When you put them in a such psychological state, that they start imagining things, predicting stuff is going to be there, when it’s not. And you don’t even have to do anything. And I had so much respect for Frictional when they released Amnesia and were like: “Oh, don’t look at the monsters, cause they’ll see you!” And it wasn’t true. And yet players were edging sideways along corridors. It’s a massive thing to show that you can make the players to create their own gameplay in their heads. And behave differently in response to the system. And the system doesn’t have to do all that stuff, you just tell the player it will happen and they do it for you. But I think it’s hard to pull off. Frictional completely nailed it with Amnesia, they got into player psychology in a really deep way.

I think, if Frictional were better known, people would’ve had other expectations from Amnesia. And they would think “I want to know how the system works” and go to GameFAQs or a different site and read strategy guides. But Amnesia was more of an underground hit at first and there wasn’t enough information about it. And Frictional used this and “leaked” some of their own information about the game and part of it, as you pointed out, was actually a lie.

Yeah, if you don’t have enough money to do PR campaigns, people are going to come a lot colder to your game. If you give a lot of money on PR, to cover your sales, you have to give away a lot of information about the game. Because you have to hammer it on people until they buy it. Kind of a Call of Duty method, so if we wake you up in the middle of the night and shine a torch in your face and scream “Call of Duty!”, eventually you’re going to buy it :). You’re pretty sure about what the game is going to be about.

And with Amnesia it was interesting that they released a trailer and the trailer was: you’re hiding in the cupboard from a monster. And it kinda sums up the game, it was a really clever way of doing it. But it doesn’t tell you anything about what’s going on otherwise. And you’re basically going into this knowing that you’ll have to hide from monsters in cupboards. And it meant that they could do 20-30 minutes of gameplay in the beginning without a single agent in it. Because as long as there is a cupboard in the room, you’re looking out for a monster, cause it’s the only thing you knew about the game. It was a really clever design.

I’m a fan of Frictional games and played them since the first Penumbra demo. And they even played with expectations of people like me. The first time I realised that monsters disappear after some time (it doesn’t happen all the time – Klarden), I was hiding in some dark corner for like 10 minutes.

Yeah, and when we started looking at it in the level editor… When we started working on Pigs we decided to study the Amnesia levels. So we opened them, and they’re really small spaces. And it’s amazing how long the game takes, given how tiny the maps are. And it’s about that: you just spend so much time sitting and waiting. And I think it’s a really underused thing in game design.

Again, the first moment when I realised that I loved playing STALKER like I haven’t loved playing games for years, was when I was crouched behind the rock waiting for it to go dark. Just sitting there in real time with my fingers on keyboard and thinking “please go dark, please go dark!” And I realised that… I’m doing nothing. Nothing, but don’t dare to look away from the screen as well. I don’t want to pause it, I’m sitting there in real time. And if you get people in this kind of state, they’re going to get a deeper experience than if they’re playing… you know, off hand.

That is something we’re going to see more in game design. I hope we do. Just, let nothing happen for a bit, let things flow. Dead Space 2 did it really well. When you get to the wreck of Ishimura, there’s like 10-15 minutes of the game where there are no creatures. And it’s the most frightening part of the game. Because you’re just imagining things that aren’t there. And the moment the first necromorph appears, that tension just goes and they don’t get it back again. And for me Dead Space 2 kinda went down after this point. Because you’re just returning to the things you do. And they kinda compensate this by making the story increasingly… weird.

Yeah, I really loved Dead Space 2, but it did go into something I call “Alien to Aliens transition”. People tend to want more… stuff happening in sequels of horror movies or games. And it usually means more action.

It would be cool if they then did Dead Space 3 like Alien 3.

Yeah, would be amazing.

It’s my favorite Alien movie. It just goes: “no, let’s have just one alien, but then make sure that people have no means of defending themselves.” And it so much tenser than 50 grunts with laser rifles in space.

I wish they’d make a true Directors Cut, let Fincher make the movie the way he wanted. Assemble cut is great, but…

Anyway, returning to the idea of making players becoming immersed in the game and sitting and waiting… Do you think the interface is vital for creating such immersion? The lack or subtlety of it?

Hmm… It’s a hard question… It depends on the game. Because, I think you can be really immersed into something that is really frantic and has a complex HUD and action stopping to go into inventory and that kind of stuff. We really care when you’re going to jolt a player in or out of space. Because you’re going to distract their attention. And I think there is a real challenge in removing the HUD these days. They contain information that is just vital.

Oh, and making the inventory systems in games is really hard. There is so much in design you can’t do without it. When you remove the ability to pick an object, put it in your inventory and apply it somewhere else on the level, you have to completely rethink the design. And removing that stuff makes it harder to make a logically consistent level or experience. Because you have to work around what’s basically a really useful shortcut.

For me the most immersive games are the first person games, because you don’t have an avatar.  You have this direct… what the avatar sees – you see, you have the spatial awareness. So it always throws you into the game more, than if you have an avatar. That always removes you from the game a bit. But there are ways of not using the HUD which are simply overused. Like the discoloration of the screen while your health recharges is so established, that it doesn’t have any impact on you. You’re just going “oh, that means I’m 50% health down.” And it doesn’t really immerse you into the game. It doesn’t have that effect it had when it was first used. A lot of those things have become so formulised that you just go “that’s the structural device”. And it’s not actually less immersion breaking than a health counter.

Yeah, and i never understood the point of using these things just because they are popular. I mean, for example when the regenerating health (well shields first) were used in Halo, they made sense. They were actually explained – you were wearing a special suit that did it. And now you may be a normal guy in a usual suit and still have regenerating health, which just makes no sense at all.

Yeah, and for many shooters I think it doesn’t really do good. It’s one of those things where they’re trying to make the game more accessible for causal players and make things the way… a lot of more experienced players might not want to play. In the games with the health counter – it means something. You watch that health counter and it adds tension. You have that number and if it goes to like 34, you get a lot more tense, than if it’s on 75. And you can’t get that tension if you can just think “I will duck behind this crate for 3 seconds and will than regenerate and carry on.” So you play the levels completely differently, the whole game differently. And it usually feels like it was applied wholesale, like: this is how we do health in shooters now! And I think it’s different rather than better. And some shooters definitely suffer. Because sometimes you want that tension going: I’m gonna have to play this like an arcade game and play to the end of the level 5 or 6 times, because I arrived at this quicksave with 24 health. And I’m not going to load an earlier save to redo it, I’m going to try and do it like this. And you concentrate harder and engage further, so… I like health counters.

Oh, I had a moment in the first Max Payne, where I’ve quicksaved like a second before receiving a lethal shot from the shotgun in the back. And I decided to reload that quicksave about 15 times before finally successfully dodging the shot and killing the enemies. It was amazing – I made a mistake and had to fix it. I really liked that feeling.

Yeah we got to the moment where…. You know, going “I don’t want to make the game too broken” is not the same as “I’ll make the game impossible to lose”. I was playing Fable 3. And I’ve been playing it for an hour and a half, and I was still in the tutorial. And I was like: by the time this tutorial ends, by the time you stop holding my hand the game will be over. And it kinda was. It was so disappointing.

I really liked in the original Deus Ex, and Half-life and… where was it… Anyway, you had this separate tutorial level, and it wasn’t connected to the main story, and you’d play it, learn how to play, and just load the main game. And when you’re in the game it just goes: “well, you know how to play and if you don’t, well, tough, because you had an opportunity to learn.” Again, sometimes it works, this integrating training into the game. But other times I quite like the idea that the game starts, you fall from the sky right in the middle of battlefield and you’re off. The game’s not gonna do you any favours at all. So I think, it’s not always a good idea to start helping the player. Punishing the player and challenging them are pretty similar things. And if there’s no challenge it’s very easy to slip away, I think.

I loved how Valve did hints in Left 4 Dead. You were in the game, there was no tutorial, but those small hints helped you to understand the game. And yet you learned by playing the game. And they adapted to you and went away when you learned the lessons. They didn’t just go “the games stops and you have to press this to continue”. And you’re just “no thank you, I know this, I did these actions five times already”.

Yeah, absolutely. And that’s why Valve games are so amazing. They just think of all those small things while designing the game. They just have time and money and go deeper in the design of the game. And it was weird that I didn’t really like Portal 2 that much. I felt like… I got to it from Portal 1 and I knew that some people will go in Portal 2 without playing Portal 1 and the game would have to account that. And when I started playing Portal 2… if I played Portal 1 i don’t want to be taught to play Portal. I stink at puzzle games anyway, and kinda lost cause for games like Portal. But Portal 1 kept me all the way to the end. And I put about an hour into portal 2 and it just didn’t…. they’re clever puzzles, but I have to find the right surface to shoot the portal onto and that’s it. And the world didn’t really pay off for me to make that investment. It’s a personal taste, of course.

Well, while I loved Portal 2, I really love Portal 1 more. It was more about playing and “thinking with portals” as it was advertised. The second one was more of a listening to a very funny dialogue, listening to the story, then just finding two tiles to shoot portals at and then going forward and listening to more story and dialogue. It was fun, but not fun gameplay-wise.

In the next part we will talk about the game pricing, the models and influence of digital distribution, the concept of franchises made by several small indie companies, Dan’s fondness of soviet and post-soviet science-fiction and videogames and difficulties of going from a mod or a free game to the commercial release.

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  • Silent Hill fanatic said Cheryl’s name was Sherry. For shame. 

    • Klarden

      shame on me indeed. i guess replaying RE2 few days before writing this did mix things up in my head -_-
      emergencey fix done, thanks