Just under a year after the launch of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, a "walking simulator" about dealing with loss in Shropshire in 1984, it won three BAFTAs. For its developer The Chinese Room, it seemed things couldn't get any better. Fans anxiously awaited the studio's next big project. They're still waiting.
If you've heard of the Amnesia games before, then you've probably also heard that they're scary. I've certainly come across several claims that they are the "scariest games of all time" and even a few people have suggested that the games are too scary to complete. The success of the first game in the series, Frictional Games' 2011 Amnesia: Dark Descent, was contingent on its terrifying nature; its cat and mouse chases featuring in a hundred Let's Plays and streams, where grown adults hid in corners, faced the wall and whispered to themselves repeatedly that "everything is going to be OK".
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture's co-director Jessica Curry is not your typical video game developer. Having a background as a film composer is one detail that sets her apart from the pack, but what's probably more important is that she's co-directed three successful commercial games without being a gamer herself. How did this happen?
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs doesn't make a whole lot of sense and that's fine. I don't think it's meant to when even its creator admits that he has "two or three fairly contradictory interpretations of what might be going on at the end of Pigs at the same time". Pigs, as I'll call it for short, hangs its remarkable artistic achievements (Dan Pinchbeck's flowery, rotten prose; Jessica Curry's screeching, shrapnel bomb of a score; Sindre Grønvoll's's Grand Guignol labyrinthine environments) around the most threadbare of plots. Instead of focusing on a pat little tale, it creates an atmosphere of dread so potent that the conventional criteria of what we look for in a game - things like puzzles, plot, win/lose conditions - are thrown completely out the window in favour of an abstract, wondrous experience that hits notes other games simply don't. That it's so hard to grasp only adds to its charm.
You may not know Dan Pinchbeck by name, but chances are you've heard of some of his games. The British indie developer made waves in the industry a few years back with his experimental Half-Life 2 mod, Dear Esther - a project Pinchbeck and his company The Chinese Room remade as a standalone release last year - and more recently he headed development on the divisive Amnesia sequel A Machine For Pigs. The Chinese Room's games are often characterised by their arcane prose, abstract storytelling, and an almost complete lack of conventional game mechanics.
It would be easy to imagine Pinchbeck as a snooty artiste. Instead, it may surprise you to learn than Pinchbeck is an extraordinarily approachable, modest man who put 170 hours into Just Cause 2 and argues that Doom is an under-appreciated gem of video game storytelling.
Speaking to Pinchbeck over Skype, it's impossible to bring up A Machine For Pigs without first discussing its most criticised aspect: it's simply not as scary as its predecessor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Why's that the case? Many of Pigs' harshest critics have attributed this to The Chinese Room nixing the first game's sanity mechanic that caused your character's vision to get blurry and imaginary cockroaches to crawl over your face and make skittering, crunching sounds in the back of your skull when gazing upon an enemy or staying in the dark for too long.