The next game from the creators of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs and Dear Esther will be a systems-driven isometric adventure, inspired by tabletop RPGs and wargames. I spoke to The Chinese Room's studio director Dan Pinchbeck about the game, Total Dark, and he explained that he's wanted to make a game driven by RPG-style mechanics for a long time.
As well as providing us with some of the first details about Total Dark, he discussed the continuing influence of Esther, and the ways in which 'walking simulators' are returning to their first-person adventure roots.
It was confirmed today, but the PC release of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture has been long-rumoured. In fact, I can't remember a time when we weren't confidently discussing exactly when the game would be coming to PC rather than if it would be coming to PC. That's partly because The Chinese Room began life as a Very PC Studio Indeed, modding Half Life 2 and Doom 3. Dear Esther, later released in jazzed-up standalone form, was the breakout success of those early experiments. It's a ghost story. An FPS without the S. A walking simulator, if you'll forgive the term, that seemed to act as a prototype for many games over the next eight years.
I find it hard to imagine Gone Home and even Firewatch looking and playing exactly as they do without the influence of Dear Esther. Even The Chinese Room's own A Machine For Pigs stripped out some of the mechanics that were used in the original Amnesia - sanity effects, dwindling light supplies, an inventory - to reveal a much starker experience. There's little to obfuscate or disguise the fact that the game is about descending through the bowels of the machine, walking through nightmares and memories. It's about getting from point A to point B with few obstacles to block progress.
Despite having made his studio's name with three slow-paced and contemplative games, with no guns or stats to get in the way of the narrative and the view, Pinchbeck is an unlikely pioneer for the walking simulator. His early gaming memories are of RPGs and playing with pen and paper rule systems, and that's where Total Dark comes from.
"It's a much more traditional game, an isometric adventure with a free-floating camera and lots of mechanics. That will make some people happy while other people are going to wonder if we have the right experience to make that sort of game. But we absolutely do. Because most people know us because of Dear Esther and now Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, it's easy to assume that's the kind of game we will always make and have always made. What they may not realise is that we were developing other mods alongside Dear Esther. One of them was Antlion Soccer."
If Antlion Soccer had caught the attention of as large and talkative a crowd as Dear Esther did, maybe we'd be talking about The Chinese Room as the people who inspired Rocket League rather than Gone Home.
"Dear Esther came from first-person shooters. Looking to the left of the spaces normally explored and wondering what else could be done. A lot of that came through narrative and music, but we were experimenting with a genre rather than trying to create a new genre. The other mods we were making were very game-y.
"It's fascinating to see how that type of game [walking simulators] is evolving really rapidly at the moment. Even though there's a conception that any game that falls in that category is very much the same as the next one, mechanically, people do expect the games to have moved on from what we did with Dear Esther. Rapture went open world. Firewatch and ADR1FT are all introducing new stuff, whether its dialogue, choices or survival elements.
"What looked like a new avenue is getting assimilated back into a more traditional form of first-person adventuring."
Pinchbeck doesn't say that as if it's a bad thing. In fact, the impression I take from our conversation is that he'd be quite happy to see all games treated as an exploration of the interactive medium rather than categorised quite so neatly. And that brings us to Total Dark, the next game from The Chinese Room.
"Total Dark actually started off as an RPG boardgame. A lot of the inspiration came from pen and paper and gamebook systems. Traveller, Paranoia, Twilight 2000. I've been looking at loads of paper-based RPGs and wargame systems.
"I love how those books retained a scrappy bedroom aesthetic. Modern stuff is so glossy, but with early RPG and wargame systems you can see that it's just a couple of people in a bedroom scratching out line drawings. It's very energetic."
Pinchbeck reckons there's even a possibility of releasing the physical, tabletop version of the game in some form. For now, energies are directed toward the PC version though and Pinchbeck isn't entirely sure what the game will look like when it's ready for release. He's sure about one thing though. Development will be much more open.
"It's such a relief to be able to talk about the game during development. We had to keep quiet with Everybody's Gone to the Rapture but now we're working on PC, without a publisher, and we can talk about the whole process. We're aiming to have a playable prototype by the end of April, at which point we'll have worked out a lot of the systems, but since we last spoke [around a month ago] we've completely gutted a lot of what was in the game.
"One thing I can say is that it has a lighter tone. We've made three very heavy games now and it's time for something lighter. It's no less weird but it's not quite as bleak."
All screenshots are from previous The Chinese Room titles. We'll have more on Total Dark soon and will bring you our judgement of the PC version of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture close to release.