Dan Pinchbeck

Dan Pinchbeck

Blog | January 2015


Let’s start by doing the common thing of saying Dan Pinchbeck is married to the great Jessica Curry. For those people who’ve been living in a cave for the past five years, Jessica Curry is the composer and director for The Chinese Room and she definitely will get her own post soon, when I am writing a lot more about music, because she is epic.

Anyway, today, not for nothing, I wanted to write about Dr. Dan Pinchbeck, who used to be a reader at the University of Portsmouth [1] but more than that, he is the creative director behind The Chinese Room and such indie games as Dear Esther, Amnesia: A machine for Pigs and Everybody’s gone to the Rapture [2].

Let’s not beat around the bush: this guy is my hero. He took his research, went "let’s try this outside, in the real world, involve player as test subjects instead of spending hours theorising for days on end without collecting any data whatsoever" [3] and really went for it, designing mods and such to see what worked. And man, some of his crazy ideas, do they work! [4] [5]

There are loads of lectures of Dr. Pinchbeck in videos out there, here is a selection of the one I liked:

GLS #5: Doing Development-Led Research in Games from ITUcph on Vimeo.

A different point of view

Soooo, this is someone speaking really fast about things that we don’t hear a lot.
Video-game is an experience and what we tend to do as indie developer [6] is to confuse the experience and the game mechanics.

Turns out, that for Dr. Pinchbeck [7] games have to be designed for the emotion they give the player. Let’s face it, I had forgotten that. I know [8] that I need to see something multiple times in order to really get it. The first time, there is this "whooa" moment, when I realise that there is a before and an after having seen this; and the second vision, now I know, and I can analyse more of what is said over the general idea; third time is usually sometime after and I had the time to integrate the information, forget about it and seeing it again, makes a lot of things I’ve done make sense.

Dr. Dan Pinchbeck is the reason why I make games. He made the idea of game design captivating and every time I’m listening to a new speak of his, I am reminded by the brilliance of some simple concepts I infer from his experience.

Never underestimate a good constraint

I guess, that’s the main thing. A good constraint - say you have no money to pay an animator for example - will always push you to make an interesting design choice.

What am I talking about? Dr. Dan [9] is an FPS person. I... definitely am not. But that’s not the point. The point is because of his focus on First Person, he did the most incredible, unexpected and ballsy games I’ve ever played. He went and removed weapons, enemies, faculty of jumping and running from an Unreal Mod [10] and made Dear Esther : the most soulful and poetic game because it is engaging, not compulsive.

The first game I wrote called “J’ai vu le Soleil” [11] will be coming at some point [12], and is based on the teachings of Dr. Dan... truthfully, I’m waiting for Unity 5’s global illumination and for my balls to grow in order to do this game because... hm... well, you’ll see. Anyway, “J’ai vu le soleil” was a poem first, and then I tried to think about turning it into a short film. Turns out, I had had a very weird idea for a video game ages ago that fitted the ambiance I wanted to give to that particular film. But keeping in mind the constraint issue, I’ve always been understanding this particular game as a "feel this" kind of game, more than a "shoot here, get this, capture the flag".

Doing a First Person is a constraint. I guess you can be as creative with making a game that is basically just U.I. [13] or having no character in a game and still make it engaging.

Healthy dissonance on tutorial

Been doing a bit of reading, and Dr. Dan isn’t found of in-game tutorials... and come to think of it, neither am I. However, I’ve been watching my dose of Extra-Credits where James Portnow is advocating for this exact thing, claiming that tutorial are to be part of the gameplay.

This is my two-cent about this. They’re probably both right (and not speaking about the same thing). One is bored by the in-game tutorial telling you "hey you, you should do this like that to achieve this" all the time, getting you out of the gaming experience, breaking the suspension of disbelief, and you should be put in a situation where you can figure stuff out by yourself, because it is more engaging.

You should read the master himself

Here are some links you should read, because the Chinese Room’s blog is a lot better than this [14] and it speaks of game design related reflections directly form the horse’s mouth [15].

And now, I’m going to go on wikipedia and look for Who the fudge is Antonio Damàsio?

[1sayeth the Internetz

[2the fanboy inside me is yelling my ears off

[3Not unlike what Wilhelm Reich did with Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis... what? I read!

[4here, I’m containing myself, but I’d like to point out that most of his creations work because of Jessica Curry’s musical genius, but see, I’m not doing it...

[5Full disclosure: I did not complete Amnesia: A machine for Pigs, because I like horror games as much as any five year-old girl, but I started getting actual physical goose-bumps and having to repress my "fight or flight" instinctual physical response to remain seated while playing... so... as an horror game, cudos!

[6of which I’ve been utterly guilty in my last post

[7and yes, I will call him that to differentiate him with the other Dan Pinchbeck that seems to be an artist of some sort?

[8because I’ve seen a TEDtalk about it

[9This is getting worse

[10of all things

[11I saw the sun

[12but probably split into 2 different games

[13This, I will do next I think

[14I told you before, I’m not entirely sure what it is you’re doing reading this... don’t you have kids or somethin’?

[15I never understood this idiom... I’m not even sure I’m using it right


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