On August the 11th, 2015, the small Brighton-based studio of The Chinese Room put out a magnificently atmospheric supernatural investigation game by the name of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. Set in a rural English village and its surrounding area, it tasks the player with uncovering the mysterious circumstances behind the disappearance of the locals. The game, initially a PlayStation 4 exclusive before making the leap to PC in April 2016, was a commercial success, (unofficially) topping the UK's all-formats sales chart in its week of release. It was an award winner, too, scooping three Gaming BATFAs in 2016 for Audio Achievement, Music and Performer (voice actor), having been nominated in ten categories.
VICE Gaming spoke to the co-founders of The Chinese Room, Jessica Curry (Rapture's director and composer of its score) and Dan Pinchbeck (its writer), a year on from the game's release, to learn about its place in the studio's heart, the lessons learned from its three-year development, and what everyone in the games industry can do to make it a healthier place to be.
(Jessica Curry interview by Lewis Gordon. Dan Pinchbeck interview by Mike Diver.)
Small Team, Massive Achievement
Jessica Curry: Without wanting to sound too Miss Worldy about it, we get emails and letters and fan art every day, and it never fails to make us really happy. We'll read things on the Steam forum and everyone goes, "Oh god, that's amazing, that's so lovely," because we worked so hard. It was so hard, with just 12 of us on Rapture. It's a massive game. To hear that people have loved it and responded to it or felt emotional because of it is an amazing thing.
Dan Pinchbeck: When I look back, I'm so proud of the team that made this game. There are some games where the passion and energy of the people behind it elevates the whole thing up, to a different level. It's interesting to be thinking about this now, so soon after No Man's Sky has come out, seeing what they achieved with a team of 15. But I think when you have titles that are really loved by the people who are making them, they can achieve amazing things. But I still don't quite know how the number of people working on Rapture ever managed to produce it – it looks and sounds every bit as good as games that had literally ten times as many developers on them.
JC: And our team is so young. We're really proud of them. Dan and I are old enough to be their parents. When we won those BAFTAs, there was just a lot of pride that night, of the game, of each other, and that we'd survived that process. You know, it was very cathartic. Let's just raise a glass to each other and go, "We did it." It was a celebration of an amazing team. I was playing Rapture only yesterday and I can't believe the team size that made that game.
"I think women need to get better at not being embarrassed or ashamed of their contributions. I wish I had been more vocal about my day-to-day contribution to The Chinese Room, on every level." – Jessica Curry
DP: We have this sense, now, of looking back and asking ourselves if Rapture was one of those lighting in a bottle moments. But we know that we want to replicate how we worked on it, in the future. We brought together a really close team, and had a lot of fun making it. It did get intense towards the end, but generally it was a really happy development. And we want that again, and the last year has been about finding what studio we want to be now, and what we can learn from the three years of making Rapture.
JC: I was in with the team every day making the game with them, which was extraordinary. I was making all the decisions with Dan every day, as well as writing the music. I'm very shy and I don't like attention, and I know it's a gender stereotype, but I think Dan's never shy. He's not ever boastful, and he's the least egotistical man I've ever met, but he's never shy about saying, "I did this". And I'm always like, "Mmm, well, I can be a bit shit at that." I think women need to get better at not being embarrassed or ashamed of their contributions, and it's something I often hear when I go talks. We're very self-deprecating and I look back now, as I'm not in the company so much, and I wish I had been more vocal about my day-to-day contribution to The Chinese Room, on every level.
I don't think I'll ever do a project like Rapture again. I'm not a gamer, whatever that means, but Dan's like a stick of rock: you cut him and he's got games running through him, it's in his blood. I'm not like that. And I think, for me, Rapture was the most... Well, if there was ever a game I wanted to make, it would've been Rapture.
DP: Rapture was our first professional game, in a lot of ways. It was the first time where we had proper policies, and we were employing people, and it was the first time dealing with significant amounts of money – at least, it was significant to us. We learned how to be a game studio, through Rapture, and it's really interesting looking back now as a position of being established in the UK development industry.
The Pros and Pains of Being Platform Exclusive
DP: We couldn't have made Rapture without Sony's backing. We knew that when we began talking to them. We were upfront about wanting to eventually bring the game to PC, because we're something of a PC company, through Dear Esther and A Machine for Pigs, and we knew we'd have fans who'd be dismayed that they'd need to buy a PS4 to play the game. You know how people are about their platforms, sometimes. But when the opportunity came up, to work with Sony, we just grabbed it – it wasn't about it not being a multiplatform release, it was about having that support to make what we wanted to.
JC: The Sony deal was really interesting for me, because I don't come from the games industry. So I didn't have these preconceptions of how things worked. We were independent and doing things our own way. You know, Dan and I come from the arts and have a fairly set way of working. And then I came to the games industry and went, "Oh, so that's how it works." And so much of it to me seems so very broken, actually. Just the general processes. There's just this expectation that everybody will run late on everything. But when we delivered to Sony on time they were, like, "Oh my god, that's absolutely amazing." To them, that just wasn't how this works.
The size of a corporation like Sony was something we had never faced before – and there are challenges that such a relationship brings. So I think, for me, the main frustration was the agility of a team of 12 people was so fast, so agile, so responsive, compared to this behemoth of a machine. They were never being shitty with us or unkind, it's just that there are mechanisms in place that affect every decision you make. There was some stuff that happened that I can't contractually talk about. But, for me, I just think on a general business level, being good to your staff, open, honest, and transparent is the way to make people happy and the way to make people work hard for you. And I think the very, very screwed up thing about the games industry is that the levels of secrecy and paranoia are quite extraordinary, of the kind I'd never before experienced.
"When you're taking a significant amount of someone else's money, they are going to want some control over how that money is spent. And you have to accept that." – Dan Pinchbeck
DP: When you're taking a significant amount of someone else's money, they are going to want some control over how that money is spent. And you have to accept that. You're not naïve about those things. That other party will determine how your game is marketed, what platforms it lands on, and stuff like that – and that's their right, because they've taken the risk with the cash. But we came out of the back of Rapture with the clear decision to, whatever we do now, be a multiple-project studio, so we're never just working on one thing at a time. And one of those things will always be 100 percent owned by us. And that means it's okay if we're also doing something for someone else.
In the case of Total Dark – which will be PC initially, and if it does well we'll roll it out to consoles – it means we can get as crazy as we like with it, and that's really liberating. We also have an unannounced project on the table, which will be a platform exclusive for a little while. I think the lesson for us is, of course, to try to get games onto as many platforms as you can, but also hold onto your IP whenever possible, so you have the ability to respond to the needs of the community around your game. With Rapture being on Sony, in a way it's just not ours anymore.
A Small Minority of Internet Dickheads
JC: It's been good to step away, and get perspective, I think. This is quite a brutal industry, actually, on many levels. I think it's a brutal industry for a woman, on all kinds of levels. I received about a month of death and rape threats, was called a fat ugly Jew, called a whore and a slag, and told that someone's going to come and slit my throat. And a lot of women that I know who are openly political, on social media, get the same reaction. And it gets really, really tiresome. You're kind of always fighting between wanting not to give up to prove the point but actually feeling pretty battered by it, which is what they want. I've just done a classical (music) commission and no-one's called me a fat ugly whore. It's amazing. It's quite different.
But it's really not until you step outside of the small bubble of the games industry that you go, "Oh, that was weird," to receive that level of abuse. And that's wrong. And there's so many things that are normalised for you when you're in the middle of a project, and then you step outside, or you tell people what it's like, and they're like, "Oh my god." I'll tell my friends who work in the games industry that I've been getting death threats and they're like, "Oh yeah, it happens all the time. Don't worry, they're not going to do anything." I tell my friends who are outside the games industry and they say: "My god, Jess, are you okay? Phone the police, that's really serious." And the difference in those reactions I find absolutely extraordinary, and fascinating.
"It was like being back at school. But with death threats." – Jessica Curry
Some days I'd open my email and go, "Oh whatever, I'm not bothered, whatever." But others, if I was feeling a little bit vulnerable or tired, and someone was criticising my appearance on such a horrible, deep level, it felt really, really mean. It was like being back at school. But with death threats.
DP: I think Jess suffered very heavily at the end of Rapture, and got it in the neck a little bit, because she was shielding the team from a lot of the worst stuff that was happening. The basic thing is that if you're a game developer, and you have an opinion, you're going to get it. And if you're a game developer, with a product out, you're going to get it. It becomes water off a duck's back after a while, at least to me – pretty much anyone who expresses an opinion on the internet is going to get shit.
The thing that I really liked, in terms of community feedback, was people telling us how they hadn't expected to like it, but they did. I don't know how much of that is down to the cultural landscape changing, as there were more games of this style out there by last year, but it was a total surprise to have that positivity from people who we didn't necessarily expect to like it.
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The Reality of Awards
DP: As a studio, awards are nice, but fans are what matter. Awards are great recognition from your peers, though, that you're doing something really good. I run a business, too, and people's jobs are my responsibility. So what I'm looking for is whether or not the money is coming in – so that is massively important. I have a responsibility to these people, to make sure they're okay. Awards do help with that, to an extent – they get new people looking at what you're doing.
At the same time, while the fans are our number one priority, it's a buzz to get awards – I'm not sure that anyone who says they're not bothered about getting them is being completely honest. It's lovely to walk into the studio and see a load of BAFTAs there. I like the fact that all the people who worked on Rapture come into the office, past this wall of recognition for their achievements. These are awards from people at the top of this industry, saying: what you did was really good. At that level, awards are important, and they give you that kick when you have moments of self-doubt.
JC: Awards are genuinely lovely, and they're a laugh; but they're the icing on the cake. You know we're in Brighton, and we're quite a hippy team, and feeling the love, it was just so amazing. I think for us, as well, the BAFTAs in 2016 were the last big awards ceremony that we were going to go to, so everyone went. It was a big, "We are together, we made this" evening. And that's what it felt about. And we genuinely said at the beginning of the night, "We've had ten nominations, which we know is amazing, but let's just have a brilliant night." And that's how it felt.
The Challenges of Modern Development
JC: I look back to Dear Esther, and I'd never played a game when I made it, and I thought all games were like it. I've played absolutely tons of games since, but there's so little that interests me. It doesn't feel like there's much going on in the world of games that I want to pursue, apart from the games that we're making, and a few others.
DP: I think the industry is in a tough place financially, right now. There are very good, very established studios that are going under – we have Relentless down here in Brighton, which has just closed. And that's definitely frightening. But what we do well in the UK, as an industry, is innovation and quality control – and those are the things that will protect a studio in rough weather. If you've got a list of games behind you, look at them and know they've all been quality, then that can keep the work, and the fans, coming in. Start doing stuff just for the money, and you start depreciating the value of the studio.
I know we get under some people's skin because we're quite vocal about working practice, and treatment of employees, and respect for players; but I, personally, don't really care if I'm getting under their skins. I think that's the stuff that makes studios sustainable, and the industry too as a whole. If we behave in a way that is proper, that's how the industry survives. If we go back to some of the worst practices, that people are there to be bled, and drained, and booted out, and then you put any old shit out because the players are too stupid to understand, then that hurts the industry.
"Crunching is failure, a total failure of management and scheduling. We, as an industry, can be better at that kind of thing." – Dan Pinchbeck
JC: What's really special about working in a small team is that it's usually either one or two of us, or we're all in the same room. And I think it completely changes the discussions that you're able to have. In terms of when I need a scene to be longer, I just go, "Andrew, can we have a chat?" And because we're talking all the time, it makes those decisions feel completely normal. But when I talk to people who are working on triple-A games, they're like, "That couldn't happen." Not out of a lack of good will, but just the amount of dependencies that completely fall. It's like dominoes that once this thing changes, you're changing a thousand things behind it. But when there's just one person on each job, and we're all working holistically together all the time, those things feel eminently possible in a way that I just don't think bigger teams would be able to logistically make happen.
We've been asked about growth so much over the last couple of years. "Do you want to be 500 people in two years?" And that is our complete nightmare. There aren't many studios where a composer could say to the lead designer, "I need you to make your path zigizaggy". Most designers would go, "Errr, who are you? I've never seen you before," and ask: "Why does that matter?"
'Everybody's Gone to the Rapture', launch trailer
On the Culture of Crunch, and Better Working Conditions
DP: Crunching is failure, a total failure of management and scheduling. And sometimes it's very hard, especially as a small team, to take on board all the curveballs you can experience, and you can end up in intense situations. But we all know that there are studios out there, and nobody likes to name them, that assume that crunch just happens, that it has to. They sell projects to publishers that are too big for them to ever finish on time, under reasonable conditions; and then they lean on their staff, squeezing every last drop out of them to get that product on the market. We have a real macho development culture here, that both developers and players buy into – this idea that something must be great, because those guys were up until three in the morning doing it. But there's no reason why that will make for a better game; it's just stupid, and it hurts people.
We, as an industry, can be better at that kind of thing. Jess and I are married, we have a kid, and we want to spend time at home. And if I'm leaving the office at 5pm, I can't expect anyone else to be in there until 10. That's just shit, and not fair. But I'm always surprised when people sniff at me, and have a problem with that, because I don't understand what is so contentious about saying: treat people nicely, give them freedom, let them be passionately invested. Do that, and you'll get a better game at the end of it. It's also nice to look people in the eye and know: I'm not fucking you over. That's a good feeling to have, as a manager.
JC: I think this industry is in desperate need of unionisation. I think it is a hugely exploitative industry on many levels, and I think we need a central voice. If Dan and I had had somewhere to go last year that had our protection at its heart, I think it would have been so much less of a painful experience. But actually we didn't have anywhere with any bite that could help us. It was interesting for me, when I wrote that blog post, I thought seven people would write back to me. But I got back from picking my son up from school, which is a 15-minute journey, and I had 2,000 Twitter notifications. And within a day I probably had about a thousand emails. And it was all people saying, "My friend killed himself because of his working hours." "My wife left me." "I don't see my kids." "I had a nervous breakdown." And I was glad people told me, because I felt less alone. But actually what I wanted to say to everyone was that, if we all say no to these people, we have power. But while we're individuals, just very upset and very lonely and very exhausted, we don't have any power to change this industry. If we mobilise and come together and say a collective no to some of the most poisonous working practices, there is a positive way forward.
Dan and I keep talking about when we will find the time to try and get something like that off the ground, so if people are interested, I'd be very interested to hear from them, because I think the balance of power is shifting. You know, you keep a close eye on the industry. Self-publishing, small companies, the triple-A model – none of that is necessarily going to work. Free to play is changing everything. Everything is in flux. So, hopefully, those behemoths of power will start to crumble slightly, because I don't like them. And I don't think they're healthy.
Last year was as close as I've every come to breaking, and that was nothing to do with The Chinese Room. Put it that way. And I don't want anyone to go through what we went through. I don't like bullies, and I think unions stop bullies.
If You Could Remake Rapture Today
DP: That's the painful bit of making games – there are always things you would change, after it's out there. That's part of it, and you just have to accept at some point that you can't make those changes for that game, but you can take what you've learned into the next thing.
We had a new producer, Martin Newing, join us in September, and we were looking at Rapture for PC, and we were talking about the auto-saves and how we could adjust the check-pointing. The amount of data on each save point was ridiculous, which meant we had these little hitches. And we got those down to 0.2 seconds, but it was still a hitch. We reduced the number of save points because we knew people hated the hitches; but then the save points were thin on the ground, and the community really wasn't hot on that. Martin just came in and said: "Why not just make it so every time you go into the map, the game saves?" There was this silence, where everyone went: we can't believe it. This was right in front of us, but sometimes you just don't see it. There's no way we can go back in and change this, as it'd mean months of tearing up the entire check-pointing system, and then new QA. But there's always that thing when you ship of, "why didn't we just..."
"I don't know if I'll ever make something again that feels as complete and as joyous, and as hard and as invested as Rapture. I'll just be proud of it forever." – Jessica Curry
With Rapture, the sprint function was originally automatic – the more you moved in one direction, the more you'd speed up. In testing, which happened really close to the game going gold, we got told that people hated that, and we needed a dedicated sprint button. So, we put one in, but it was too late to update the UI, which led to that debacle about the "missing sprint button".
The things that make great games truly great often happen right at the end of development, and they're not in the big ideas that sell the project. They're the little polishes. I feel like early access, which we see a lot of these days, doesn't do a lot of games a lot of justice, a lot of the time, because they've had none of that polish time. Ideas are kind of cheap and easy, but getting that degree of finish on a product, that's not just where skill comes in but also real dedication and passion. Those final three months can be quite dull from a development perspective because you're just honing and honing these angles until they're spot on, and it takes a hell of a lot of attention to detail, but it means the experience will be transformed. Getting 75 percent of the way there is the relatively easy bit – it's that final 25 that gets really tough, and that's where real expertise kicks in.
But, you have to be pragmatic about these things. No game is perfect, and there's always something to learn. When we look at Rapture, there's so much about that game that we're all so proud of, that the other things don't matter so much. Fundamentally, the game is still great.
JC: As the creator, you want to make something that you can stand by, and be proud of, and you put it out into the world and you hope you like it. I don't know if I'll ever make something again that feels as complete and as joyous, and as hard and as invested as Rapture. I'm so proud of the collective achievements of the team, and I think it shows what you can do when you come together as a group of people with one vision. I'll just be proud of it forever.
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The Lessons Learned
DP: I think, as a studio, Rapture will always be a very special game for us; but we're having fun at the moment. We've recognised how heavy and emotional Rapture was. The games we're making at the moment, we're able to have a lot more fun with them, and know that we've lightened the emotional load a bit.
JC: There's complicated stuff from the making of Rapture that, if I get into it, I will get pulled out of the room by a Mission: Impossible-type man. But to be honest, the further I leave it all behind, the happier I get, and the happier the team gets. The difference in our stress levels, particularly mine and Dan's, from last year are quite extraordinary. And we don't want to go back there. We've learned a lot. We learned a lot about contracts as well, what to never miss out. You know, they have a lot of power. And at the end of the day it is an uneven power balance, and with that comes great responsibility, and a responsibility that they don't always honour.
"Now, we're loving making games together again, and enjoying being a studio. You can't really complain if that's your life." – Dan Pinchbeck
DP: I see now, more than ever, how important it is for small studios to message just what their limitations are, because they're not in a situation where, if something's wrong, they throw another 600 people at the problem. It's amazing what small studios can achieve. Look at Inside – Playdead is a tiny company and that is an unbelievable accomplished game to have put out. It does matter that it's a small number of people who've achieved that, because it's not had infinite resources.
It's not hard for small teams to put games out that look a lot more expensive than they actually are today, that look as if they involved a lot more people. But there are still things you cannot do with a small team, because you simply don't have the resources. That's the tough thing: if it looks and sounds triple-A, there's an expectation that the mechanical depth and complexity will be at that level too, and that's often the thing that smaller teams can't do. A larger studio will stick five individual designers on weapon balance for eight months – but you can't do that at a small indie studio.
The last year of Rapture was really intense, but now we're loving making games together again, and enjoying being a studio. I get up in the morning and get to hang out with a bunch of people I really love, and we all get to do what we love doing, and that's amazing. You can't really complain if that's your life.
Follow The Chinese Room's projects on the studio's official website.