Researching for my article on "First Person Walkers" I sent a few questions to some of the developers regularly accused of producing "walking simulators", a term mainly used in a derogatory fashion. Games innovator Dan Pinchbeck of The Chinese Room, maker of Dear Esther, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and the coming Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, was once again kind enough to answer my questions.
Do you find the term "walking simulator" used to describe your games derogatory?
Not really, although I think it was Jeroen Stout who said that it's a bad name, because they don't really simulate walking very well if all you do is hold down one key ;). I just think we make first-person adventure games, but terminology isn't something I get very hung up on. I think maybe that's because I used to be an academic, so I'm grateful I don't have to worry so much about definitions anymore.
How would you define player agency in your games?
It's essential: the fact you devolve control over what the player chooses to do, and when, is central to game storytelling and is a phenomenally powerful and unique thing in itself. It's the sense of being there that is paramount to me, supported by other forms of agency. Trivial interactivity is currently fashionable to support this, but it's interesting in the context of older games, which managed very high levels of sophistication and presence without much trivial interaction. So it can't be as important as some people make out, or older games wouldn't be able to do this, right?
Do you think that your background in drama has influenced your games' interactive scope?
When you think of games as rituals, it leads you to do some interesting design spaces.
Probably, in terms of I don't think like a film maker, or have any interest in making films. Theatre is fundamentally about moving players around a three dimensional space, without having to consider how this is reduced to a two dimensional space like film. I'm sure that's helpful somewhere. I also studied a lot of performance anthropology and ritual, people like Richard Schechner and Victor Turner, and they were very influential. When you think of games as rituals, it leads you to do some interesting design spaces.
How would you define "gameplay" in regard to your games?
I would say that outside the normal exploratory interaction, our core gameplay isn't about mechanical interaction with the game, but the players emotional interaction with it. Both Dear Esther and Amnesia could be seen as mystery or even puzzle games, but that takes place within the mind of the player, at an emotional level. You don't figure out sequences of levers or buttons, or work out how to chain a skill activity to progress, but instead you have a complex story that requires piecing together. That comes, I think, from me not seeing story as different to gameplay but a fundamental aspect of it. Engaging with the story is the core gameplay in our games.
Did you receive negative feedback for your game's lack of "real gameplay"? How did you react?
Yeah, it's kind of inevitable. You take seriously the criticism that is actual criticism and is given intelligently and passionately and if you don't, you are not just failing your fans, but you are missing an opportunity to learn. But the whole "is it a game" or "does it have gameplay" thing - to be honest with you, it was a boring question in 2007 when we first made Esther and it's a boring question now. Games are a really broad church, which is a really good thing, and not every game is for every player and that's totally OK. Science Fiction still gets the occasional absurd attack as not being "proper literature" - who gives a damn what someone who can't see past an academic, theoretical naming argument thinks?And does it matter that you don't like every game you play? Of course not. There's detailed arguments that are important, there's stuff we got wrong or could improve in both Esther and Amnesia and we always try and engage with that, learn from that, listen to those arguments very closely. But trying to quantify gameplay on the basis of an amount of mechanical interaction, or visible dexterity-based goals? That's reductive. If we only defined games according to those things, then our medium wouldn't be in the amazingly creative and diverse place it is now.
All images from Everybody's Gone To The Rapture.