This is the second part of our recent interview with The Chinese Room co-founder, Jessica Curry. You can read part I, where Jessica explains how she and the rest of the team fell into game development, by clicking right here.
Of course, if you’ve already devoured the first part ignore my ramblings and tuck in!
After building a reputation working on smaller, more intimate titles like Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Jessica, Dan, and the rest of The Chinese Room’s talented team were determined to carry on creating games that they loved, even as their projects ramped up in scale.
Their latest effort, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, might have the backing of Sony, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be a bombastic, all-guns-blazing, blockbuster affair. In fact, you should expect the exact opposite.
“[Our games are about] focusing on the real world, and the real people within,” explains Curry.
“I’m really interested in people and relationships. It’s interesting, I was listening to Radio 4 this morning and Mark Strong was on talking about A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller, and how he captures the small dramas of ordinary people’s lives.
“He was saying that, with Miller, it isn’t about these big events, it isn’t about heroism, it’s about these small tragedies, and that’s what I find is sometimes missing in games. They’re bombastic, and they’re very epic, and if you want that there’s a real plethora of content out there, but if you want to focus in on those personal dramas there’s not much to choose from.
“That’s what I love about Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. For example, in Rapture we have – and I’m probably not allowed to say this, I always feel like someone from Sony is going to creep up behind me and take me out mission impossible style – a real breadth of characters, especially in terms of age.
“Again, I’m a bit sick of seeing the male hero, the slightly feeble woman. I’m just not a saver. It’s a very male need. Dan loves that sort of thing, but I just don’t want to do it. It’s not what interests me.”
Indeed, as games become less-linear, with players clamouring for more freedom, more choice, and more spontaneity – we know, we’re excited for No Man’s Sky as well – Curry is determined to go against the grain and deliver an experience that takes players on a very deliberate journey.
“The other thing is – and again, I’m probably killing my career here – that I actually like being led on a journey. That’s what I love about film. I like being shown what people what to show me. I find interactivity far too stressful. You may be asking yourself at this point why I’m working in the games industry,” laughs Curry.
“But, what I would say to that is that I think the games we’re making are different. It might sound arrogant, but I do think they offer something else.
“I also think that music plays an important role in that. I like to imagine that soundtracks, mine included, nudge people, and point them in the right direction.
“I want to take people on an emotional journey, which is what movie scores tend to do, but I also think it’s so much harder to write a good game soundtrack because you’ve got that extra concern, that extra layer, of what do you want the player to being doing, and how do I get them to do that using music?”
The best of times, the worst of times
In an effort to understand how she could manipulate the player’s choices and emotions through music, without exorcising the soundtrack of its soul, Curry began to question why video game scores had never affected her in a profound way. Like most people, she hopes that understanding the mistakes of the past will allow her to usher in a new future.
“At the beginning of Rapture I questioned why I listen to so many film soundtracks, but so few video game scores. I think it’s because the level of interactivity can pollute the purity of the musical vision,” continues Curry.
“I wanted to explore how I could make the player feel like they’re on this unique, bespoke journey that’s been made purely for them while maintaining the musical strength of a theme or a concept or an idea. So, I’ve been working really closely with Adam Hay, who’s our sound designer, and we started of with this intellectual challenge of trying to allow the music to keep its integrity.
“I’ve seen a lot of talks recently about interactivity in music, and we’re now down to two second chunks, which is fascinating, but it’s not something I’ll ever be able to do. I can’t granulise like that. I have to think bigger. Some very clever game composers don’t build and cut, they build outward, but that’s a very particular skill and it has its challenges and its issues.
“So, what Adam and I have been working on is letting music and sound have a much closer, dynamic relationship. We don’t have music and sound sitting separately, instead they’re closely interwoven. Adam has built a amazing procedural system, which allows the music to blend seamlessly with the landscape. I’m really excited about it, and I hope people enjoy that relationship.
“It’s been a really interesting project, and it was the first one to make me cry. It was a complete head-fuck. It’s the most joyous project I’ve worked on, but it’s without a doubt the most challenging.”
As challenging as game development is, sometimes the entire process can be made unnecessarily painful when you’re trapped in an business relationship more frustrating than the final episode of Lost.
It’s a scenario every indie surely dreads, but, according to Curry, there’s an easy way to make sure you don’t fall into that trap: get it touch with Sony.
“We knew that we wanted to work with Sony Santa Monica. That was a real business strategy for us because we’d talked to people who’d had various experiences working with them. Of course, they also worked on Journey, we knew they were sympathetic to a game that had different goals and that looked and sounded different,” says Curry
“So, we wrote a pitch document, which looking back was just really basic and naive, but people judge you on your output and they liked Esther and Pigs so they wrote back to us explaining that they thought we had a good idea. It happened really organically.
“In hindsight, I think we’ve managed to stay true to that initial pitch. Dan is a really strong writer, so in a way it’s less complicated because that story hasn’t shifted. Small things have changed, but nothing major.
“Dan was saying to me that in post-apocalyptic games you always play the hero, but that in reality, in the zombie apocalypse, he wouldn’t be the guy with the chiselled jaw who saves the day, he’d be the piles of bone and ash littering the floor.
“That was the game he wanted to make, where you’re not the hero, you’re just one of the people. That hasn’t changed at all, and I think good things get made when you have a strong idea.”
A match made in heaven
“One thing I genuinely do love about Sony Santa Monica is that they’re passionate about independent games and what we can bring to large corporations,” explains Curry.
“They leave us alone, in the nicest possible way, and that shows a huge amount of respect and trust from their perspective. They do suggest things, but if we say that we don’t agree they leave it. From the many conversations I’ve had with colleagues this isn’t true most of the time, so we feel very grateful to have such a trusting relationship.
“The thing that I do think is difficult is that we’re very used to being open and saying what we want about our games, because we have complete ownership of them. I think the tough thing is having to check that we’re on message. That’s a challenge for us. We’re getting more used to it now, but it did require a change of mindset.
“It’s just about thinking we can’t say this about the audio system because maybe they’ve got a PR beat planned for that. It’s nothing sinister, it’s just about acknowledging that there’s an external person out there potentially planning this stuff. that’s the toughest thing, and I know it doesn’t sound all that hard, but that’s definitely the most difficult thing we’ve encountered.
“That being said, Sony Santa Monica are a really strong team. They’re clever, experienced, funny people, and they’re really nice to work with which makes a huge difference. We feel that they care and we trust them, and if you trust people, it’s going to work.”
Looking ahead, Curry isn’t hellbent on getting bigger and bigger. Expansion isn’t the only way to grow, and sometimes its more important to preserve what you’ve got. The Chinese Room isn’t just a studio, it’s a family, and they’re going to build new worlds together.
“Yeah, what we’ve been talking about recently is that, obviously we’re now at 15 people, and there seems to be something really special about that number in that it allows us to operate as a small family,” says Curry.
“We’ve talked a lot about growth, and where we want to go for the next game, because I think we could get a lot of money if we asked for it, without wanting to sound arrogant, I think we’re in a strong position in terms of business. We could also crank it up in terms of scale, but actually we just want to keep on making really special games.
“The bigger you get, the more removed you become from projects on a day to day basis. Your role just becomes managerial, and that’s not something I’m after. I want to make music and Dan wants to write the words. We still want to be the creative leads of the company.
“Because we’re a really tight knit team – it’s probably a bit culty – everyone respects and trusts each other, so going forward, it’s really about building and maintaining those strong relationships. I think if we add much more to that we’re in danger of ruining it.
“When it comes to the games themselves, Dan is never short of ideas. Right now we’ve narrowed it down to two or three concepts that we think are really, really good. Ultimately, we’re just trying to work out what’s the best way of keeping this good thing going, but yeah, the future is incredibly exciting.
We’ll be uploading the full hour-long interview to YouTube in the coming weeks. It’ll be worth your while, we promise.