Who is Jessica Curry? Okay, that’s an easy one. Jessica Curry is, of course, the infectiously cheerful, award winning composer currently heading up Brighton-based developer The Chinese Room with her husband, Dan Pinchbeck.
Between them the dynamic duo have brought new meaning to the words “indie success”, entering the industry on little more than a whim before going on to create two critically adored titles in the form of Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.
If none of this is ringing a bell right now, I’d be willing to bet you my favourite jumper-tie combo that by the end of 2015 you’ll know exactly who I’m talking about.
After all, success doesn’t go unnoticed, and with a string of hits under their belt – as well as a newly assembled team of talented women and men behind them – Jessica and Dan are already working hard on their next title, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
The early signs suggest that the studio’s upcoming PS4 exclusive will be just as compelling as their previous efforts, but before we find out more about The Chinese Room’s bright future, it seems prudent to learn about the studio’s storied past.
A kind twist of fate
“I never expected to work in games. It wasn’t in my life or career plan. I’d always composed very experimentally really, for sound installations, opera projects, and short films: quite an array of stuff,” begins Curry.
“My husband, Dan Pinchbeck, was doing a degree in first person shooters, and he decided the best way to complete his research would be to make some short mods, rather than just approaching it from a purely academic perspective. He wanted to see how players responded to games themselves.
“Anyway, he asked if I’d mind making some music for those mods, one of which was Dear Esther. After he’d built them he stuck them up on Mod DB, because one of the things he was really interested in was player response, and they were incredibly well received. Honestly, we were gobsmacked that people were interested at all. “
Of course, while all of Dan’s creations had a role to play, there was one that stood head and shoulders above the rest. That mod was Dear Esther, and it was about to propel the couple towards an exciting new frontier.
“The frontrunner quickly became Dear Esther, with the aim of that mod being to find out if players would still want to play a game once all the mechanics and gameplay had been removed. It was just completely story based.
“I wrote the music for it, and I really, really enjoyed doing that, but I didn’t really think much of it at the time. It was also free on Mod DB, so it was never really a money making thing either. Eventually, Robert Briscoe, who’d just finished working on Mirror’s Edge, contacted us to tell us that he loved the game but the visuals were quite poor, which was fair enough because they were never really one of Dan’s strongest skills.
“Still, he explained that he thought we had something, and that he’d like to work on it in his spare time. He became a little bit obsessed with it, and two and a half years later he came to us and said he’d finished.
“It was never really the plan to put it out as an actual product, but we thought it was too good not to release, especially considering Rob had put so much work into it.”
Dear Esther 2.0
Fresh interest and updated graphics meant Pinchbeck’s humble mod was beginning to look and feel more like a commercial title.
One or two crucial components still needed a fresh lick of paint, however, prompting Curry to head to a recording studio, string quartet in hand, to grant the soundtrack a new lease of life.
“Because of all of the other improvements I had to redo the soundtrack. I didn’t get a huge budget but it was enough for a string quartet, a piano, and a singer. I only really reskinned it, because Dan, like myself, thought it was great as it was. It just needed some live instruments. When the improvements were made we put it out, and we just sat looking at Steam as the numbers kept going up and up and up. It was insane,” continues Curry.
“We only wanted to sell enough to pay Rob back for all of his time and effort and maybe make a little bit of money, but by the end of the first week we’d sold 50,000 copies. For us that was so unexpected, and at that point we all kind of looked at each other and realised we were actually running a games company. It was really, really strange.”
“Very soon after Dear Esther had released, Frictional, the team that made Amnesia: The Dark Descent, approached us because they were looking for someone to produce a loose sequel. As you’d imagine, we couldn’t say yes quick enough. I suppose it was at that point we became a ‘games company’. It was like a domino effect.
Much like Curry’s metaphorical dominoes, the pieces of The Chinese Room’s game dev puzzle quickly fell into place following the success of Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.
The games industry looked on in awe as a daring new studio was born, and as more and more people hurled praise at the team, bigger companies found the developer’s penchant for success hard to ignore. It was time to take on a new challenge.
“I wrote the music for A Machine for Pigs, and now we’re working on our third game, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. When we started out it was just myself, Dan, and Rob, but now there are 15 of us. Because of that growth people are always asking how we made such a successful game, and then how did we replicate it. The thing is, it’s useless to ask that question, because I think Dear Esther was just one of those situations where it was just right place right time.
“I think it’s a beautiful game, but I also think sometimes you just hit the point where people are ready for it.”
Make your own luck
Luck may have helped Dear Esther find its feet, but it was only a small part of a much greater whole, with Curry emphasising her belief that it’s important developers try new things.
Indeed, creatives, in any industry, shouldn’t be content to follow the pack. If you’re passionate about something, pour yourself into it, believe in your vision, and surround yourself with people who want to help you bring it to life.
“It’s important to follow your instincts, yeah. Actually, someone on the team spoke to me about this last week. They explained that it’s interesting to have a writer and a composer at the head of a company, as well as people who aren’t from the games industry, because it helps to give everyone a completely new perspective. He said that really affects everything, from the things we create, to the way we run the studio,” recalls Curry.
“All of the mods were such passion projects because we never thought we’d make any money out of them. We weren’t looking at a particular audience, we just asked ourselves what did we want to make, you know, what could we get excited and passionate about?
“We talk a lot in the studio about how if you’re following the market you’re always behind. You’ll always be cloning and replicating or just following, and we’re not interested in that.”
As those who’ve played any of their games will already know: what The Chinese Room is interested in, is the art of storytelling.
Games don’t need to have photo-realistic graphics, celebrity voice actors, or million dollar budgets to be special. Much like the Stone Age cave paintings drawn some 40,000 years ago, all they really need is an honest, human tale to tell.
“Making games, and making music for games is so hard, if it isn’t something you feel totally passionate about then why do it?” asks Curry.
“We don’t actively think that we need to make something new, or something innovative, our games just stem from our interests. We want to tell stories, and for me the music in our games one of the ways we tell those tales. Dan always says that we need to be able to hear the story through the music, and I really like that.
“I think the other thing worth saying is that when I wrote the music for Dan’s mods I’d never actually played a game. I’m not a gamer, so I didn’t really understand what the genre was about. I didn’t even know what a loop was.
“That freed me in a really beautiful way, because I wasn’t hung up on what a game was supposed to sound like. I just wrote really heartfelt music, and people really responded to that freedom of expectation. It was a really lovely alchemy.”
Thanks to Jessica for her time. You can hear more words of wisdom next Wednesday in the second part of our interview. Until then, you should probably follow Jessica and The Chinese Room over on Twitter.