Game Talk--Dan Pinchbeck on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, the legitimately frightening horror game that we raved about last month, initially seemed like a weird choice for Dan Pinchbeck and his fellow game designers at The Chinese Room. Their last work, Dear Esther, was a lightning rod for ever-roiling debates about the role of storytelling in games and the artistic merit of the medium. It was surprising that they’d follow that up with the sequel to a beloved game made by a different development team within a very specific genre.
Amnesia makes sense for the company, though. The first Amnesia, made by Frictional Games, is an unusually effective survival horror game that prioritizes reaction over action. With its unique setting, stifling atmosphere and lack of traditional combat, it’s one of the few horror games that actually succeeds at feeling horrific. With Dear Esther The Chinese Room created a game that was almost entirely atmosphere while instilling a general sense of unease into a narrative that was largely free of overt attempts to scare. Horror was a feint in Dear Esther, whereas Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs lets Pinchbeck and his co-designers fully explore terror while still prioritizing story over action.
Paste recently exchanged emails with Pinchbeck about A Machine for Pigs, lessons learned from Dear Esther and the nature of storytelling in games.
Paste: Why did The Chinese Room pick the Amnesia sequel as your first project after Dear Esther?
Dan Pinchbeck: The short answer is because Frictional asked us to! So we actually started on Pigs before Esther launched and we literally had no idea Esther would do so well, we thought we’d maybe shift 20,000 units if we were lucky. So the opportunity to dive straight into making a new Amnesia game was really amazing and jumped at it.
Paste: What did you think of the first Amnesia?
Pinchbeck: It’s a brilliant game. I have some issues with it, I think the mechanics were flawed, you could exploit them pretty easily which took the edge off the game a little (and Frictional agreed with this, which is why we took the decision to remove them for Pigs) but I think it’s earned it’s cult classic status over and over. At the time, horror games were really stagnant and not very impressive at all and it stood head and shoulders above the rest. The conceptual design of the game is incredibly strong and it works—I mean, there’s no question it’s spectacularly scary.
Paste: How closely did Frictional work with you on the story to Machine for Pigs?
Pinchbeck: They gave us a pretty open brief and then let us run with it, basically. So the story is just us, then Frictional would come in, look at how we were delivering the plot, check that they felt things were being communicated clearly enough, that they felt the pacing was right, those kinds of things. But we were lucky, they really left us alone to follow our own sick path into the machine.
Paste: How did the development of Machine for Pigs compare to the development of Dear Esther?
Pinchbeck: It was totally different really. So Esther was really just three of us, Rob [Briscoe], Jessica [Curry] and me, and Rob was doing the lion’s share of the development work, with support from another couple of people occasionally. For Pigs, the team grew to a core of about seven people, with two artists, a co-designer, an audio designer, coder and Jessica and me, with some freelancers working on character and animation. And I designed the original Dear Esther, which Rob used as the template for the remake, but I wasn’t actively building for the release, and in Pigs I was designing levels, scripting events, doing very practical design work as well as being the creative director, producer and writer. But we were really lucky again to work with a great team. We work very collaboratively as a studio.
:There’s a strong sense of foreboding at times in Dear Esther, but it never turns into outright horror. Machine for Pigs is explicitly a horror game. From a storytelling perspective, what sort of opportunities and limitations did you find with the horror genre?Pinchbeck: I guess that part of what we wanted to do was see just how far you could push things, if you started with this set of ideas and just keep on pushing them as far as they will go. So Esther was quite an intimate game, and Pigs is pretty similar in some ways. In Esther you basically have a story of a man broken into psychological pieces by a terrible event and his coming to terms with that. Pigs on one level actually starts from a parallel idea, only this time the terrible event is what is to come, and how this drives Mandus’ madness. And in Pigs for me (massive spoiler ahead) what is interesting is not the evil of the Machine, but the sense in the last couple of levels that the Machine is actually trying to save the world, the only way it knows how. And rather than the redemption at the end of Esther, Mandus opts to inflict the horror the Machine is trying to prevent on the world, destroying himself and the Machine because he can’t take responsibility for what he has done. Of course, a horror game like Pigs let’s you do all kinds of stuff you can’t do with a game like Esther, like break apart physics and history and have actual monsters and clockwork machines. That’s a lot of fun to play with.
Paste: How did your experiences with Dear Esther and its response influence your work on Machine for Pigs?
Pinchbeck: What Esther really showed above anything else is that players can not only cope with pretty ambiguous, open storytelling in games, but that they can really like it. So that gave us confidence to push that out again in Pigs and to me that’s really central to the horror. Most horror games kind of let you off the hook really, they might chuck a bucket of blood over you, but they’ll give you an easy out at the same time. Silent Hill games are much more interesting in this regard of course, as they go into that idea of aberrant psychology and really implicate you in the action. So for me, Pigs is a horror game because of those things, not gore or jump scares but because it’s about the things humans do to one another and why and it implicates all of us in that and doesn’t give this easy way out. I think Esther gave us the confidence to know players would take that.
Paste: How did you balance development of Machine for Pigs and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture?
Pinchbeck: We were prototyping Rapture with a separate team during the first half of the development of Pigs, and then we merged the teams and focused on Pigs for the rest of the development, while Jessica and I worked with Sony to work out the best way of us working together on Rapture. Then we handed Pigs over to Frictional at the end of January, and Frictional worked on the game for the last six months of it’s development. And during then we did bits of work, mainly me—I rewrote the end and redesigned the last level completely—whilst the team got stuck into Rapture.
Paste: Dear Esther and Gone Home have some similiarities in that they’re both story-based and experiential. Have you played Gone Home? What do you think?
Pinchbeck: I think it’s a great game and not only am I really pleased it’s out there, but it’s really heartening to see how it’s just been adopted by the gaming community. On a selfish level, it’s a something of a validation that stuff we were playing around with in Esther wasn’t just a one-off. More importantly though, it’s a million miles away from the stories normally told in games, and particularly at the moment when the political content, treatment of women, approach to morality and ethics in many games is just really fucking nasty, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a company make something that is fundamentally about the good in human nature, the fragility, the little things that really matter, and do such a good job of it, and see it succeed.