The increasing diversity in games is wonderful – why is difference such a threatening concept?

Dear Esther

Dear Esther.

Jessica Curry is director and composer at The Chinese Room.

We’re often asked at The Chinese Room whether we’re anti-games, or whether we’re trying to deliberately subvert the medium. This question felt valid after we made Dear Esther, as the game (unintentionally) brought something new to the table and as a result raised some interesting debates. Move forward two years and a great deal has changed on the gaming scene. So when Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs was released we were really surprised to still be facing the question (and sometimes naked hostility) as to whether we are aiming to create interactive fiction rather than games. So here is wot I think.

This question rests on the idea that games are purely driven by mechanics and goals, and this seems laughably outdated as a concept. Why do we feel the need to classify and name and label before we can enjoy something? Do I need to know whether or not Bach sits in the classical canon before I can appreciate his incredible music? For me, the key is whether it’s an engaging experience (or not). The increasing breadth and diversity in games – a medium that ranges from Tetris to Gone Home – is wonderful. Why is difference such an enormously threatening concept?

We have been accused of trying to destroy the very foundation of gaming and I oscillate between feeling hugely amused and utterly depressed by these claims. A Machine For Pigs was criticised for its removal of mechanics but very little thought was given to the question of whether or why this made it a less successful experience. The writing, music, sound, levels of immersion and psychological depth were all praised to the hilt but then in lots of the reviews we were heavily penalised for the removal of the mechanics that featured in the original game. Why was that a problem? Well…it just was because, games, y’know, should have, like, mechanics. Duh!

I don’t care if you don’t like it, (patently not true but you know what I mean), but what I genuinely do care about, and this goes for fans and critics alike, is that the reason you don’t like it is better than “it’s different to what came before.” It’s weak, insubstantive and if I’m honest pretty bloody dull as a rationale.

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.

So, for the record: we care about flow and immersion but the apparatus required to deliver that experience; whether it’s story or a traditional mechanic is immaterial. You just use the right tools for the job. The Chinese Room is unusual in that a writer and a composer head up the company. This, I hope, brings a fresh perspective. Mechanics will probably never be our core focus as they’re not the reason we’re driven to create. What this focus isn’t is: an agenda, a manifesto, a fuck you, a provocation, a purge or a stance. It’s simply us being us. We want to make games that we feel utterly passionate about and those games will most likely continue to focus on beauty, narrative, immersion. Basically, good stories told well.

Is Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture going to be a high-octane shoot ‘em up? I think you already know the answer to that. But if that’s what you love then don’t panic as there are plenty of games out there that will float your Uzi-laden boat. If I do sneakily have a manifesto it’s that diversity can only be a good thing. Inward looking reductionism can’t lead us anywhere fun, positive or challenging.

I should end by saying that amongst the scratched heads, the death threats, the doubt and the naysayers, we are also fortunate enough to have a large and loyal band of supporters who totally get us. It’s horribly easy to focus on the negative, but those people who have a strident belief in what we’re trying to do keep us going on those days where we want to throw our hands up into the air and walk into the (pre-rendered) sunset.

I got an email this morning that simply said, “thank you for bringing such beauty into this world.” That’s why we do it and why, as long as you’ll have us, we’re not going anywhere.

The Chinese Room won six awards at last year’s TIGA Awards, which are free to enter for both TIGA members and non-members. Entry deadline is 30th September 2013 – for more information on this year’s event, head through the link.