The Chinese Room History

Dan Pinchbeck and Jessica Curry created Dear Esther, but this was not thechineseroom first game, nor was it the last.

Dear Esther Commercial Release

For the longest of time, a debate brew in the gaming community, whether Dear Esther was a game or not. This conflict coined the term “walking simulator” to games such as thechineseroom’s (named after the famous argument) mod but it stuck to ones which followed such as Campo Santo’s Firewatch or Fullbright’s Gone Home. Still, there was one person who would not get into the argument, it was Dan Pinchbeck himself, the very creator of Dear Esther.

See, Pinchbeck was a researcher and a lecturer in the university of Portsmouth in 2007 when he secured from the UK Art and Research Council a grant to develop three mods of his choice. A mod (short for modification) is the alteration of a videogame, by adding or subtracting elements of it. Before engines such as Unreal or Unity became free, modding was one of the main sources of development for aspiring videogame makers. Meaning it should come as no surprise that Pinchbeck who always thought researcher should verify their theory through game making, first developed a DOOM 3 mod aptly named Conscientious Objector. In this small mod, the developer restrained the capacity of the player to kill zombies through the first three levels of id Software’s DOOM 3. Thinking they were not going far enough, Pinchbeck opted to have a voice-over abuse the player instead of praising him, in an attempt to subvert player’s expectation concerning FPS (First Person Shooter). Pinchbeck thought this was funny, but what he wanted more than anything was feedback, and data. And surprisingly, his sort of reverse-FPS essay gave him exactly this.

thechineseroom’s second mod was Dear Ester whom first build was actually on idTech 4, the Doom 3 Engine, before Pinchbeck decided to switch to the Source Engine, the engine behind Half-Life 2, for one very simple reason: the modding community on Source was thriving. In the researcher’s mind this would lead to more data. Still, reading through interview Pinchbeck gave, you can see Dear Esther first concept was wholly different from what the mod ended up to be. At first, Pinchbeck wanted the player to have to virtually control a character figure overcome by anxiety ; sadly the team lacked the know-how and with Pinchbeck philosophy being “As long as it works” which is further proved by the design of the mountain in the original mod being so broken that it almost killed the engine it worked on, Dear Esther got strapped of every piece of interaction that could have been there all the while asking a great question : Would an abstract story be enough to keep the players engage ?

To Pinchbeck own surprise, the answer was a resounding yes, with players going as far as stating that Dear Esther was too short. It may come as no surprise that thechineseroom’s next mod was a short and multiplayer game of soccer, which hasn’t become that famous over the year. An answer to the resounding success of Dear Esther in a way.

Dear Esther original mod

Enter BlackOut, the first codename of what would become Korsovakia. See, Pinchbeck had other interesting ideas about FPS. Ok, he’d proven you could strip an FPS of almost all gameplay and still keep the player engaged, but what about representation. Could you pit the player against a set he would not recognize or enemy figure he could not see? Korsovakia, which takes its name from the Korsakoff syndrome Pinchbeck heard about through William Gibson’s book Mona Lisa Overdrive, aimed at being a new kind of survival horror trying to see if players could get scarred of abstract things and concept. For this, he used a very real disease, often characterized by amnesia and difficulty to grip with concept such as time, as an excuse to pit player against abstract cloud of black lines and invisible enemies, decorum destroying and reshaping themselves continuously and physics based puzzle, while a narrator, much like in Dear Esther recounted so cut-up, you would have to concentrate to make sense of it.

In its own way, Korsovakia itself was a success even though Pinchbeck deemed it a failure. According to the researcher, he’d made some ridiculous choice, notably on a puzzle pertaining to boxes which seemed to anger everybody. Also, a week later, Frictional Games’ Amnesia the Dark Descent got released and Pinchbeck bowed at the smartness with which the developer used their invisible foes and them having restricted the player’s ability to fight monsters. Sadly, Korsovakia has now been broken by a Source engine update, leaving it to be enjoyed nowadays only through Youtubers’ playthrough. All in all, it had been a sweet experience when Pinchbeck got mailed by Robert Briscoe.

Robert Briscoe was a game developer who after having released a few mods through the Source engine before he got a job at Dice working on Mirror’s Edge. Still even though this experience was supposed to be an achievement, it left the young man craving for the creative freedom he once had as a modder. This is why, deciding he had enough money on the side, he could contact Pinchbeck to overhaul the whole Dear Esther mod, make it a true videogame. This put thechineseroom in a precarious position. As a research group, there existed no incentive to make money, but deciding of a commercial release meant that the risk Pinchbeck liked to take, could very well become financial trouble.

Still Robert Briscoe was an artist, and what Dear Esther definitely lacked was a graphic overhaul. After all, Dear Esther’s gameplay solely consists as walking towards a tower on an island while bits of narration spurt here and there, hence the walking simulator coining. What if the player could walk in a beautiful environment, then? For this, Pinchbeck had to ask for a new funds, which the university granted him for at the time the whole team was dependant on the resources of the university but when a problem arise concerning the copyright of the game. All money disappeared, letting Briscoe in some deep financial problem. Luckily, or thanks to Pinchbeck preparedness, the game designer had contacts with Indie Fund who accepted to fund the game in less than two weeks. This didn’t mean the remaster of Esther was an easy task. Briscoe added a lot to the game and not only visual. According to Pinchbeck Briscoe went as far as putting puzzle into the environment before taking them out, never informing anybody of the changes he made. The whole creation of the program put Briscoe under a financial strain like he’d never felt before. See, Dear Esther the commercial release was much like the modd, done solely by 4 persons.

This revamping nonetheless permitted Jessica Curry, the music composer and the co-director of thechineseroom, to be able to produce the tracks she wanted, the team going as far as extending some level for the player to be able to hear the fullness of every piece she wrote. If you look up any interview of Pinchbeck on the subject of Esther, you’ll take this from it. Dear Esther doesn’t solely work on its clever and original game-design, it was the patchwork of Curry’s music, Briscoe’s art, Nigel Carrington’s voice acting (for the first actor didn’t work) and Pinchbeck’s idea which shaped the fame of the end product.

And Dear Esther sold well, recouping its production cost in less than 6 hours, at one-point overselling Skyrim on the Steam charts. This according to Pinchbeck was thanks to Valve’s promotion of the game, in which the studio deeply believed ever since it was a modd. According to Pinchbeck, Dear Esther was cracked 45 minutes after its release, an achievement in the eye of the newbie developer that he used to be.

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs

Through the development of Dear Esther, another game designer had contacted Pinchbeck, Thomas Grip, the head of Frictional Games. See, Grip also had noticed the similitudes between thechineseroom’s modd and the game he’d developed and he wanted to talk. With Frictional being a little studio, Grip wanted an Amnesia game to occupy the shelves throughout the revamping of their HPL Engine. Pinchbeck loved the idea, in fact, he had preordered The Dark Descent before it was released, that’s how much he respected Grip’s work. Although this would lead to a problem.

Frictional games had released four games at the times, the three opus of the Penumbra series and their magnum opus Amnesia: The Dark Descent. But they were not a publisher, they had only an experience on being a developer. Still, both parties agreed to the deal, the new game would be a DLC (a very small game 1 or 2 hour tops) entitled We are the pigs. And things didn’t go as planned. First, Pinchbeck really dug steampunk, so he decided the game would take place in Victorian London, but being mostly renown for walking seems and tiny environment, the game designer soon decided he wanted to show the city. The game would have an infection meter, to be in line with the mental state meter of the original, it would have a procedural electrified environment, enemies you can only see through the corners of the screen but are otherwise invisible… Things that would never make it into the final game (such as necrophilia).

See, Frictional Games, having no experience in being a publisher, had demanded a complete level as proof that the studio now-named The Chinese Room could deliver a whole game. This meant, in place of white boxing the game (meaning building the entirety of the game as white box, with interaction, enemies and all to verify how well it worked) The English studio spent a long time making a level that would be cut short in the commercial release. This led to other problems, such as the team not realizing that having all the objects throughout the game be movable led to horrible framerate drop. All in all, the inexperience of both studios partly explains the lukewarm reception A Machine for Pig (for this was the final title) from the fans. Having been released one week after Red Barrel’s HUGE success Outlast might not have helped either.

Frictional games had revamped the build The Chinese Room gave them, erasing respawn are for instance and some puzzle they deemed too difficult. Another factor which surely had an impact on the game developent was that while The Chinese Room agreed to deliver a new Amnesia game, they were alos working on the side on Everybody’s gone to the Rapture, Dear Esther’s spiritual successor they promised to Sony.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Pinchbeck had accepted this deal for two reasons, first it enabled his studio to work on console and reach a wider audience. See those weren’t not the golden days for independent studio on the Steam platform anymore so the Brighton-based studio need to find new players. The other reason was that it would give them the opportunity to work with Santa Monica, the studio behind the God of War Ip who also helped Giant Sparrow make the Unfinished Swan videogame.

The idea behind Rapture was simple. Break the players’ heart. See, Dear Esther had proven time and time again that sadness was as much a good tool to make the player move forward as fun. Pinchbeck wanted to test this idea on a larger scale. Except now he had both Sony’s support and a certain renown in the videogame medium.

The Chinese Room used 60s English tv shows, such as Threads, to create their new game, wanting to make the player experience an apocalypse through the retelling of it of every civilian who died from it. Still, as is often the case with a Chinese Room project, the game first had a timer, a time limit on which the apocalypse would start and prevent the player to finish the story, a way to put gamers through an eternal cycle of humane-sized Apocalypse (a cycle-based concept Arkane is supposed to have adopted for their new game Deathloop). Even if the idea got dropped, Rapture remained a vast English country side town, an open-world in which the player could explore freely the piece of lives and the bit of deaths experienced but every inhabitant during the Rapture.

It’s hard to really know if Rapture was a succes. What is known is that Jessica Curry found the whole ordeal painful and left the head of the company. And taht the games, much like Dear Esther in its day won several awards, including a BAFTA for Dan Pinchbeck. Still, The Chinese Room would then go on to release So Let Us Melt a VR title before going dark.

Little Orpheus

In 2018, Sumo Entertainment acquired the Chinese Room, and in 2020, earlier this year, the studio released Little Orpheus, a cinematic platformer on Apple Arcade, episode based. It’s funny to think that Pinchbeck was the creative director on it, writing the script as he always did in the past, but what’s even more interesting is that Pinchbeck always wanted to be more than just a developer of walking sims. In fact, before the going dark bit, Pinchbeck first hinted at a new walking sim named 13th Interior before declaring the team was actually working on a RPG named Total Dark.

Still, there is a thing about cinematic platformers, originating from Jordan Mechner’s Karateka and spreading to this very day thanks to Playdead’s Limbo or Inside, according to Thomas Grip this precise type of game is one of the best examples where gameplay and stories support one another.

And wasn’t this Pinchbeck’s dream all along?

On the fifth friday of the month, I will now write about videogames. This is the first piece but you may also like my writing on movie, litterature or comic-book.

Ouh, I also write fiction on the fourth Friday of every month and French Frights my series on French horro/scifi film takes place on the second.



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