Dear Dan. Talking with Dan Pinchbeck. Part 3

Dan Pinchbeck talk with Klarden

(original photo here)

And a week after, here’s a new part of my talk with Dan Pinchbeck, the creative director of thechineseroom. This time, we’re going to talk a bit more about the two new projects of the studio, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and Everybody’s 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 Daniel’s 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, no… Wow, I have no idea, actually. :D There’s stuff in the game, which Rob’s put in, and I don’t know about it. When I was looking at the betas and stuff like that, I was just constantly: I didn’t know that was there, it’s really cool! So, I’ll ask Rob.

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

Yeah, there’s 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. It’s completely central. And Jess and I are married, and she’s a composer… And it definitely influences the choices we make professionally. And we worked on a few things before we started making games. And I’ve always felt that what she aims at musically, type of music she does and type of writing I do… They just fit really naturally.

And I think that music in games… Audio in general, but music in particular, is incredibly underexplored in terms of how powerful it is in user experience. And it’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t break from synthesizer for that.

So I think it’s central. Every bit as important as visuals. But maybe it’s kinda harder to talk about music, unless you’re someone who knows music really well, if you’re 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 it’s difficult to… explain. Like you can say: there is this number of polygons. But with music it’s 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 they’d 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 it’s 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 – most of the ambient tracks are brilliantly put together. Because they’re not necessarily in your face, but constantly adjusting the mood. So yeah, it’s 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 constantly… “grinding” your nerves.

And we watched on the original Amnesia, when working on Pigs. And the sound design there is just so… I mean, they’re doing so much with audio. If you put a weaker soundtrack on the game, and you’ll completely rip the spine out of it in terms of experience, and particularly in terms of fear. It’s just so really well put together. I think it’s conceived of as not something which is there because music’s ought to be there. But it’s an integral game design tool. And, I think, that’s why it worked really really well. It’s the same kind of attitude that we have to writing, we have to music. No, this is a game design tool, it’s not something that’s just there because it’s ought to be there. It has to earn its place, have a functional effect on a player. And that’s 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 about… 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 that’s 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 it’s 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 music… there was no way of pulling them apart. So, it’s one part of the soundtrack which pre-existed the game.

And we’re doing it with Pigs now, where she’s been writing pieces based on some concepts we’ve written, then we’re using it in the early builds of the levels, and then readjust those as we go through. And Sam Justice, the audio designer… his ambient loops and lot of the noises and effects go in there incredibly early. And I think it really helps us in terms of… the art and design teams just can go: yes, that’s the mood, that’s 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 Nigel’s work for the success of Dear Esther?

Completely essential. The story with the voiceovers is that originally we used… Well, when the environment was just being built and wasn’t ready… 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, he’d kinda put an emotional intensity into it that would’ve 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: …it doesn’t 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 Nigel’s, played it for about 30 seconds, then looked at each other and just said: that’s him, that’s who’s doing the game! And he was fantastic. I think, he’s 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 think… 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 people’s work: Rob’s amazing work, Jess’ amazing work, i guess, my writing, and Nigel’s voiceover. I think, if any one of those things would be falling below in quality it wouldn’t 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 we’ve been working with other voice actors since, and I’ve 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, he’s really good at it. His voice sounds good in games.

But you’re 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: it’s 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, he’s fantastic.

I recently noticed that with most games I love, it’s more about the narration, the characters and the setting, then the story. If you look at the story itself of most games, it’s not very good. Even the Silent Hill 2, which is usually getting the “bestest story evar” 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 – not so much. And it was similar with Amnesia – i don’t 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?

Jess’ 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 it’s far more important to have that, than it is to say “this is what’s happening in the world”. And I think that really holds true to games as well. Because you’ve got player in the middle and the player is thinking about what he’s doing, and they’re 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 it’s 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 you’re going: I didn’t need that extra twists, I didn’t need those things to make sense. And the best videogame stories are the ones which have very simple plot structures. Because you’re concentrating so much on what you’re doing, what it means to you, that if they start saying: and than this, and then this, and then this… You’ll just go: enough story, it’s just too much. And you wouldn’t 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, you’re just like: ugh, just tell the fucking story!

I think we should just chill out about what story is, and just say – story is there as a functional gameplay device. To conduct and steer and manipulate the player’s experience. And if it’s not doing that, there’s no point in it being there. Unless you’re 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 – it has far too much story than it needed. Because it was basically: you’re running around ruined New York shooting squid-aliens. And that’s what I really like about Doom, and what id did with RAGE as well is that it goes: yeah, you’re driving around, it’s Mad Max, you’re shooting things in the face with a shotgun.  If you don’t need a story – don’t have a story. If that’s enough, then you’re fine.

And this is what I loved about Silent Hill, is that it made no sense at all. And they went like: oh, you don’t want to understand it, it’s so weird, you’re 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 it’s really powerful and it stays with you. And you remember it because of that. So I don’t 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 she’s 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 series… halfway through the game i don’t remember most characters. I’m just driving around in a car and suddenly someone calls mu character to go and hang out somewhere, and I’m 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 it’s really important! Yes, it is important and can be a powerful tool. But saying “it’s critically important”? It’s as critically important as having 3D in the movies. It doesn’t make a good movie great and doesn’t make a shit movie good. It’s just there, because someone thought it’s ought to be there, and someone invested in it. If you can’t pinpoint a proper functional reason why this should be here at this point – it shouldn’t be there. I find Skyrim a bit like that. I’m just: I don’t care about any of you.

And it’s 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: we’ve got Alyx, we’ve got Kleiner, we’ve got Breen and we’ve got Eli, and that’s pretty much it. And it’s 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 they’re very well written. They’ve 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, which’re in it. And it means something. Because it’s people’s 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 haven’t 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 don’t have memorable characters in them. And that’s why it’s hard to remember them. In films as well, you’re 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 you’re invested in it.

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


Right, so… it’s been a month, I forgot what I wanted to ask… -_- 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 terrifying… because you can’t kill anything. I think you can’t underplay that. If you see something and it sees you – you’re dead. And once you establish that, it’s just inherently very very frightening. Also there’s the thing that they didn’t 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 can’t fall back on the same skills and tricks. And you don’t know how to get through each situation. In most shooters, including survival horrors, things go like this: I’m 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 couldn’t fall back on that idea in Amnesia, every time you’re going into a situation, you’re going: I don’t know what’s gonna happen here. And that’s inherently frightening.

And it’s very irregular in terms of the design. When you’re looking at the levels in the engine, and when you look at the original design documents, there’s 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, it’s a real mess. But it’s not a mess, it’s very clever, because it means that you don’t fall into predicting what’s going to be around the next corner, what’s gonna be in the next level. So it constantly undermines the player’s knowledge about what’s happening. You feel constantly on edge, because you can never know what’s going on. The light mechanic is very clever, but it’s obvious for the player to get.

And I think, the game’s 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 it’s made, and the care and attention and balance. It’s a brilliant concept. But not that different from other post-apocalyptic concepts. But it’s done really really well. That’s much harder to quantify and pin down on a single good idea. And with Amnesia it’s 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 crappy… But suddenly you’re in a massive open space, and you kinda go: ok, everything I’ve learned up to this point is useless, there’s no way to hide. And it’s terrifying. And it’s like you’re 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 Everybody’s gone to the Rapture didn’t arrive in time, so they have to make up for the time lost.*

Alright, let’s 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, it’s definitely an Amnesia game. And I think, what we’re trying to preserve is the type of the experience the player has. So, while we’re 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 people… will recognize it as an Amnesia game. And it’s really important to protect that. Because Amnesia is done so well. There’s no point in going: we’re doing a sequel, so we have to evolve and change everything. There’s no point in changing things that are brilliant and work really really well. It’s 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 priority… It’s 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 don’t like. That it descends into a kinda more Lovecraftian thing, which is not as interesting as the stuff that’s going on in the first part of the game. And we’re trying to focus on… What in my opinion is the strongest part of Amnesia story is Daniel’s 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 “why has he done it” and him coming to terms of why has he done it is the most interesting part of Amnesia story. And I’m much less interested in Alexander, than I’m 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 you’re 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 that… 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 wouldn’t 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? Like… giving the player the ability to shape the character story?

Yeah, I really liked what Amnesia did with Daniel story and I think it’s one of those story design things, that haven’t 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 doesn’t know I think BioShock is a boring game and does this concept really bad -_- – 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 realization that he is you. And in BioShock Jack is a separate character to the one you are playing. And it’s 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 – it’s essential to Amnesia. And, again, Pigs has got that. You are Mandus, but who Mandus is lost to you in the beginning and you’re 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 it’s weird, cause there’re so many games with an amnesiac player character. And it’s really important to game design. A really central thing if you have… Trying to figure out the way for your avatar to not have to much local knowledge about the world. Because if you did, you’ll be able to use that. Your character would just go: well, I would’ve gone there, as if I live in this tower block, why wouldn’t I know where the exit is? And a lot of games do that. Like with Halo – Master Chief is literally chipped out of a freezer in the beginning of it and has no idea of what’s going on. System Shock – you wake up after a coma and you have no idea of what’s going on. And it’s a design tool, not a story tool. It’s like: how do we manage players’ expectations about the character… And the Gordon Freeman thing. Valve just about got away with Freeman. He’s a world class theoretical physicist and he’s kinda crowbaring down doors and things like that. And you think: wouldn’t the first thing he’d 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 don’t know anything and can be whomever you want. But, you can see or hear about what your past incarnations did. And if, for example, you’d 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 you’re like: no, I don’t want to be like that.

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

Yeah… And… The difference between the Rapture and Esther is… The main one, I think, is there are six characters in Rapture, which are actually represented in world. So it’s not like inside your head. There is always that sense in Esther, that nothing of what’s happening is real, it’s just in your head. And in Rapture, the world is absolutely real and you’re 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, it’s important for Rapture to feel, that you really are in a real place where real things happen. So it’s quite different to Esther in that way.

But it’s still, yeah… I think, in everything we do, in everything… I think it’s just the problem that I can’t write differently, rather than a particular skill for it :). But, “what’s missing” is what makes things interesting for me. What you don’t know, what you can’t find out, what’s really ambiguous, what’s lost. So I guess this… 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 I’d love to see in games and we’ll talk about the awesomeness of “meaningless” 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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