Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s Dan Pinchbeck on how England treats outsiders, virtual reality gaming and 1984

Everybody's Gone to the Rapture screenshot

Several weeks ago in my review of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, I said it was less a video game than a piece of “virtual-reality promenade theatre”, calling it a game for grown-ups.

More recently I interviewed Dan Pinchbeck, creative director of The Chinese Room, the studio behind the game. Pinchbeck, who is also the writer behind Rapture, took some time out to talk to us about the process of development, the cultural importance of video games and his love for first person shooters.

The Right Dishonourable: You’ve previously stated that the idea for Rapture first occurred to you and studio head Jessica Curry back in 2006. How has the game developed and changed since then? 

Dan Pinchbeck: In some ways, not much. It’s still a non-linear, open-world game about the end of the world. But in other ways pretty massively. The world was completely remade several times, characters changed, and the biggest design shift was moving it from the initial concept of having each playthrough locked to 60 minutes.

RD: Give the gameplay is non-linear, was it difficult to write/keep track of the story fragments and decide where to place them?

DP: So unbelievably difficult, yeah. There’s literally hundreds of maps, diagrams, spreadsheets. We had multiple timelines, tracking characters movements around the map to ensure they could be where we needed them to be and it all made logical sense, and then that had to be balanced against possible player movements and trying to keep a dramatic arc whilst keeping it all open and not locking the player down too much.

Then there’s the question of freedom against what information the player would need in order to understand the story, but not forcing them [down a certain path]. That has an impact on signposting and where things are, so then you need a compelling reason for a character to be in a certain place at the certain time, but that means they can’t be somewhere else, which means another scene needs to move and so on and so on.

RD: The score has done very well in the charts here in the UK. What was Jessica Curry’s process for creating the music? Was the game built around the score or did the score come later?

DP: We’re obviously very lucky because Jess is studio head, so she’s right at the centre of development and design and was creating the score iteratively alongside the game. The two are very fundamentally interwoven, it’s a really important part of how we like to work.

RD: I’ve found myself describing Rapture as a piece of virtual-reality promenade theatre. Was theatre an influence on the design of the game?

DP: Not consciously, but I do come from a background in theatre, and studied avant-garde and experimental theatre for a couple of years (like the Wooster Group, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, Richard Schechner). I’m pretty sure those influences have been felt down the years. What the key thing for Rapture for us was to create a genuine, convincing sense of place and people, and to aim for dramatic storytelling that was on a par with TV or film dramas. Something naturalistic, subtle, gentle.

RD: Speaking of virtual-reality, the game’s art direction was very immersive and realistic. Would you like to develop a VR game in the future?

DP: Well, VR is very exciting on one hand, but there’s still a lot of big questions around it, so we’re cautiously excited if that makes sense. Smarter people than us are still trying to make the psychological issues around it work, so we’re keeping a very close eye on it. It feels like a good fit.

RD: Kate and The Pattern seemed to have parallel stories, insomuch as they’re both unwelcome outsiders to the inhabitants of this small rural village. Was that a comment on English attitudes towards outsiders?

DP: It’s less a comment on that, more a reflection. Jess and I both grew up in small villages in the 80s. I remember the very first Asian family moving in and the ripples that sent.

Kate shares being an outsider with The Pattern – that was always the key point – but what I think is interesting is it’s not just because she’s black. There’s a lot of resentment towards the Observatory generally, she’s kind of doomed because Stephen loves her and the community all wanted Stephen and Lizzie to be a kind of local royalty couple, and as Wendy says, she’s quite difficult and a lot of people just don’t like her.

But then you kind of know there is also racism there. For me, it really sums up what I wanted to do with the story, to make it always complex, always shades of grey. Nothing, including The Pattern, is easily boxed into simple solutions or perspectives.

RD: Many people have debated whether the events in the game are caused by deities or aliens. Religion is clearly a prominent theme in the game, so what motivated that?

DP: Jess pointed out that for an atheist, all of my game stories have been heavily focused around faith, which is really interesting. I think as far as Rapture is concerned, it was definitely woven into the fabric of those communities in those times, so it was proper and natural to represent the faith of the characters we were presenting.

And I guess it’s impossible to deal with the apocalypse without getting into the metaphysics. Rapture is a metaphysical game in that way: It’s about what a life means, how it is valued, what it means to have lived. Even if you are not religious, it’s hard to escape the spiritual, metaphysical dimensions of that.w

RD: Rapture was definitely quite a grown-up game. Where do you see video games in our culture at the moment? Do you think we take them seriously enough?

DP: That’s a really big and hard and messy question.

One of the most powerful social and emotional functions of play and games is escapism, and that’s a serious, proper, important function. So on one level, it’s not a problem for games and play to not be taken serious, or not be too serious. It doesn’t undermine that function, which should be understood seriously, if that makes sense. Me beating a zombie to death with a lawnmower may be stupid escapist play, but that stupid escapism is a seriously important thing.

But that doesn’t mean all games should be escapist or stupid (or even fun) because games and play can do other things, there’s more to them than that. We still seem to struggle a bit with this, whereas most other mediums accept that high and pop culture can coexist and mingle quiet happily. It’s not a problem for cinema to have Meet the Fockers sitting alongside Solaris. And both are great films, and that’s OK. We can chill out a bit about games. Rapture is not a threat to [World War Two shooter] Wolfenstein, or vice versa. The fact we can have both is a sign of strength of the medium.

RD: Some people are very dismissive of the quality of writing, music etc. in video games. Does that ever concern you, and do you try to prove them wrong?

DP: Well, we kind of need to be honest and recognise that we set a pretty low bar for those things in games. A problematically large amount of writing, acting, music in games is very poor, and there’s no way we’d accept the same quality level if it was in code, design or art. We just accept bad quality in these areas, and that’s a shame.

It has improved for sure, and that’s what’s interesting to me. And given that there are titles with excellent acting, writing, music now, there’s really no excuse for not taking them seriously for other developers. But also – and this is going to be a bit contentious – even those games that we rave about as setting new standards in narrative, acting, music, are usually actually only as good as standard TV or film. We can definitely do better as an industry and as a community of players we could set our expectations much higher.

RD: The game’s set in 1984, obviously a significant year for sci-fi readers. I wondered why you’d chosen that year specifically? What was significant about the idea that the world ended 31 years ago?

DP: I tend to pull in a lot of inspirations and sources when I’m writing. We knew we wanted to set the game in the mid 80s, and then if it’s going to be apocalyptic sci-fi then you’d be stupid not to get Orwellian about it. And [nuclear war drama] Threads was released in 1984 and that was a huge influence for the game, so it was a bit of a nod to that.

RD: You had some fantastic voice talent working on Rapture. Did anything change by way of improvisation or was the story very concrete by the time you recorded it?

DP: No, not at all. In fact it was amazing: We rehearsed the whole thing for a week like it was a play or film before we went into the studio. So we had a chance for the actors to really explore the roles and scenes; I was rewriting dialogue on the fly, responding to the performances. Lots of things came out of that and I think that process definitely had a big impact on the amazing performances in the game. Whole scenes were rewritten. It was very inspirational – the actors on the project were just unbelievably good.

RD: There have been a few articles written recently about a creative skills shortage in the UK’s games industry. Is this true or do you think the industry’s in good health?

DP: I just don’t know I’m qualified to answer that one. What I can say is that of our tiny team, we had three graduates on the project as environment artists and the talent they arrived with was absolutely phenomenal. There are a huge number of gifted young developers out there and the question is more about how they can be nurtured than whether they exist.

There’s still lots of issues with the way staff, particularly young staff, are treated in the industry. We still have a culture of “burn ’em up and toss ’em”, and that’s tied into other unhealthy practices like romanticising crunch [the practice of overworking towards the end of a game’s development].

We ended up crunching on Rapture and that means we failed our team. If you run a studio, your first responsibility is to the people who work for you, and nurturing young talent and helping their develop their skills and careers is an important part of that.

RD: Did the absence of traditional gameplay mechanics make Rapture difficult to pitch?

DP: Not really, I think because when we approached Sony Santa Monica they already knew what kind of games we made. Obviously Dear Esther being such a hit helped a lot in terms of proving that there was a fanbase for these types of experiences and we had form in terms of making them.

RD: Do you find it difficult being an indie games developer or do you feel like it allows you more creative freedom?

DP: Well, game development is difficult, period. There are always challenges but that’s also what makes it fun. You are trading off different things. In a larger, well-funded project you might have more access to support, but you’ve also got more stakeholders to keep happy, and more risk in terms of needing to hit a wider audience. If you are a small indie you can do what you want I guess, but you’re under more pressure in terms of not having those resources, and you still have to make a living and you have a more direct relationship with the people buying your work, and so on.

So there’s different challenges, but having done both, I’d say neither is intrinsically more difficult, just differently difficult.

RD: I’d argue Rapture is a perfect video game for people who think they hate video games. What kind of games do you and the team at The Chinese Room play in your spare time?

DP: It varies around the team. I’m a big FPS [first person shooter] fan, so I play a lot of them. Generally I love first person games anyway, but I’m a fan of anything that spins a good world, whether that’s Alien: Isolation or the early Tomb Raiders. We’ve also got massive indie and art-house gamers in the team. And, well yeah, I guess most of us just play a lot really. The more places you can get inspiration from the better.

RD: The game has quite an ambiguous ending, something you also did very well with Dear Esther. I was wondering what drives that decision, is it important to you that players interpret endings for themselves?

DP: I love that in games, unlike other media, it’s about you [the player] in the world, telling the story. We always said we wanted with Rapture to create a space where you discovered a story, not had one told to you. So once you’ve got that idea, that it’s about the player building a story, that you have a let go of some control, then it’s natural to want to inject ambiguity and abstraction into it, to create a space for the player’s imagination to flourish.

That’s really interesting to me as a writer and as a game designer. Your imagination is more powerful than anything I can lock into code. Our jobs as designers are to create architectures that can work in collaboration with your imagination to create something amazing. Part of that is creating the space for you to interpret the ending and I think there’s a real power in that.

One of my favourite ends to a recent movie is Inception, where Nolan cuts from the spinning top just before it falls – or doesn’t. Whether you decide it falls or not completely changes how you read the film. That’s pretty amazing. And I love the idea with Rapture that once you’ve played it once, you can go back in, this time with all of that knowledge you’ve gained, and have a very different experience.

RD: Finally, what can we expect from The Chinese Room in the future?

DP: More games. We’re just getting started!

Image Credit – Everybody’s Gone to The Rapture by The Chinese Room and Santa Monica Studios

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