Making Games Is Fun: The Chucklefish Interviews


ChucklfishFish

Because clearly I don't think making one series at once is enough work, I can now announce that the first episode of The Chucklefish Interviews will be available tomorrow.

The Chucklefish Interviews will be a series of personal, intimate interviews with the developers of London based Chucklefish Games. As always with this ongoing series, they are portraits of people who work in games and their stories. I hope you enjoy this new arm of the series as Making Games Is fun continues to grow.

Look out for Episode One of The Chucklefish Diaries, coming tomorrow!

 

MGIF S2 E8: Jessica Curry and Dan Pinchbeck of The Chinese Room


Hit play for the podcast interview below. MGIF is also available on iTunes or with whatever podcast software you use. Just search for "Making Games Is Fun".


I've always been attracted to the idea of the mind as a physical landscape; an ethereal expanse of rolling hills, buildings and artefacts, comprising memories and experiences. Sometimes you're there voluntarily, tramping through vast, open fields, peering at the horizon for answers. Sometimes, you're a prisoner in a dimly-lit room, pressing your hands against the walls, looking for an exit. Sometimes, you wander through corridors built from moments passed; the architecture compressed with time; warped, reordered and distorted by emotion and the treachery of memory. 

The Chinese Room is a studio built on its worlds. In life, we build our own worlds with the ones we love and the people who matter to us. Videogame worlds, from Yaughton to Yharnam, can be reflections of our innermost thoughts and emotions. Taking a journey through our own minds can be a frightening and lonely experience, but we warm up those cold, empty, quiet places by filling them with memories and music, offering illumination and guidance in those dark places where we fear to tread.


My own journey to visit Jessica Curry and Dan Pinchbeck of The Chinese Room starts a bit like an anxiety dream, as I accidentally sign up for a training course for Unison on my arrival. The Chinese Room are situated upstairs in Brighton's Unison building, and it turns out "training room" sounds a lot like "Chinese Room". When you consider the success of their games, and the scope of the heartbreakingly beautiful Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, it's easy to forget that they are still a very small, close-knit team, tucked away in the upstairs of a shared office building. After a few moments of confusion, I resist the temptation to go undercover like the world's shittest spy, remove myself from the training course, and find my way to the correct floor.

It's been tricky for us to align our diaries and I feel a little apprehensive about pulling Dan and Jessica away from Total Dark, the working title for their current game. This feeling is alleviated immediately when Dan greets me emphatically at the door, thanks me for coming down and gives me the tour. He makes it clear that he's glad I'm here and now I feel less like a distraction to their day.

Cup of tea in hand, I'm taken to an adjacent room, where Jessica is working separately on some music. Personally, I hate it when I'm in the middle of writing and someone barges through my door, but Jessica assaults me with a tsunami of niceness. You'd be forgiven for expecting to be met by a more serious, hardened character, given the changes she has had to make to her working life following ill health, publisher woes and the never-ending battle against systemic sexism, details of which she published in a blog post back in October of 2015; instead, I'm inspired by her positivity, warmth and energy.


 

As the three of us sit down and chat, I very quickly appreciate the dynamic between the two of them. Dan is an energetic, confident person who is fiercely intelligent. He bubbles with creativity and knows his own mind. He argues points passionately and, every now and then, as he picks up a head of steam, Jessica will cut in with an incisive interjection, one which will (lovingly) earth and temper Dan's emphatic point. You can see that it's an interaction that has been unconsciously refined and perfected over the course of many, many years between two people who deeply love and understand each other, and its beautiful to see. As they discuss and debate, there's an air of total respect, and it becomes clear that this teamwork must persist throughout their working relationship, and is one of the elements behind the success of their games.

"I generate a lot of the momentum and Jess creates a lot of the focus," Dan tells me, "in terms of how we work creatively together"

"I've always said that if I made a game it'd never get finished," adds Jessica, "and if Dan made one it'd be shit [laughs] but between the mad visionary and the anal retentive we've kind of had a good partnership I think; I've been Dan's editor in a lot of ways".


 

As a husband and wife to each other, as well as parents to a teenage boy, Jessica and Dan have built both real and digital worlds together. Dan is the one who brings a thousand ideas, Jessica is the one who distils and processes those ideas; if Dan is the train of thought then Jessica is the train driver. This special relationship makes the studio unique, but I worry how this will change now Jessica plans to take a further step away from The Chinese Room by leaving the office to focus on writing music. 

"The games we're developing now are the first games that I haven't had a direct day to day development relationship with," laments Jess, when I ask her how the step back has felt. "That's been really tough for me, actually; it's been very strange because I've been there every step of the way in every element for the first three games, whereas now I'm going to be basically writing the music for the new games."

It's this soft separation from the office that she feels isn't working, as the rest of the team hold too much respect for her to not ask her opinion on various matters.

"Every day someone will come in and ask me to have a look at something, so I'm only half out", she explains. "I'm going to move out of the offices at The Chinese Room because it's really tough to have one foot in and one foot out; it's quite painful.

"I feel like I need a clean break from the studio, because my personality dictates I'm not very good at having that half foot in. I love writing music and I think that's what I rediscovered with Rapture; that passion for what I'm really good at.

"Running the company was always Dan's dream, it was never mine. But I always helped. I really enjoyed running the company but it has taken me away from my own passion and my own dream, which is to write as much music as I can."


Dan will miss Jessica's presence in the studio, both as a loved one and a coworker, but he tells me that, "being a husband trumps being a business partner," so he feels that the decision is the right one. 

Jessica's position is an analogue to the position of the games industry in general; on one side we have self-described "hardcore gamers" telling us that the medium doesn't need or want change, diversity or deviation of any kind from the norm; on the other, we have the scoffing newsreader, who raises his eyebrows and voice with an air of incredulity when speaking from a position of complete ignorance about a game which has been nominated for ten BAFTAs.

And here we are, stuck in the middle.

Why does it so often feel like a fight? In what way does it help the medium to hound out people with different experiences who come at videogames from a different angle? Why use violent threats to oppose an approach which breeds innovation and progression? 

Although I am saddened to learn of Jessica's plans to further remove herself from the studio, she remains a keystone of The Chinese Room and a major reason the studio's identity is so prominent in their titles. She is strong and maternal, resilient and sensitive, all the while maintaining an irrepressible joy for life, quietly and gently defiant in the face of illness and adversity. She is the kind of person who will read all that and chuckle about it, but I think that when we lose people like Jessica from the industry, we're walking backwards. Whatever the future holds for Jessica, she will leave her indelible mark on the studio's games - past, present and future - through her music.


 

 

 

 

 

 

MGIF S2 E7: Dan Pearce

Hit play for the podcast interview below. MGIF is also available on iTunes or with whatever podcast software you use. Just search for "Making Games Is Fun".



I spent my twenties absolutely certain that I was immortal. Death just wasn't on the cards. Is it even possible to die before you're thirty? Death was a concept, a temporary setback in a videogame, not a feasible, inevitable eventuality. Death was always marked with the word "later", not "now" or "soon".

In the middle of the most hectic and complicated week of his life, Dan was being pulled in five different directions at once. He was already busy with Ten Second Ninja X when life, taxes, and everything else fell on him at the same time. Overwhelmed and running out of time, he absent-mindedly crossed the road, where he was knocked over by a van. He took the wing mirror off and suffered injuries to his arm and leg. Dan was given a wake up call in the form of a very heavy piece of moving metal; a wake up call that could very easily have been the end of his story. He had found his limit.

So he continued on his journey to Norwich Gaming Festival and had a swordfight with the team's programmer. Obviously. After a week or so, as the pain got worse, he finally went to the hospital to treat an internal bruise in his knee.

I'm sat in the conservatory of Dan's parents house in Maidenhead as he recounts this tale of pressure and stress to me. The sun squeezes and bullies its way through the blinds as we chat with the doors wide open to keep us cool. The birds twitter in the lush, well maintained garden as we talk, and we stop occasionally to shoo out a bluebottle who zips robotically around the microphone, keen to be a second guest on the podcast.

The more success you attain, the greater the pressure; Dan has had a very successful early career since earning a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit award at the age of 19 back in 2013. His game Castles In The Sky was BAFTA nominated and he has since gone on to produce Ten Second Ninja. 

We consider his career so far, in between discussing our fascination with open world game systems. Dan seems simultaneously pleased and dissatisfied with his progress. It's clear that high standards are important to him, and this was part of the rationale behind making Ten Second Ninja's sequel, Ten Second Ninja X.

Ten Second Ninja was a vehicle for expanding and testing Dan's coding and design abilities. Essentially, he wanted to make the sort of game he wouldn't usually enjoy playing, to see if he could do it. Following the game's release, he keenly soaked up and accepted the criticisms of the game from press, much of which he agreed with. Armed with this information, he created Ten Second Ninja X, a game he says he genuinely enjoys playing. 

Now, as he works under the banner of Four Circle Interactive on a new, as yet unannounced title, he seeks to test himself once more, taking on further challenges and greater responsibility with a new game which sounds like it will push a few boundaries. But he won't fully launch into that before releasing Ten Second Ninja X first; one thing at a time. Having had what he calls his "Whiplash moment", referring to a similar occurrence in the film, he is keen not to repeat the situation in the future, and has realised the importance of putting physical and mental health first.

That's not to say he isn't still brimming with ambition; we talk privately in more detail about Four Circle's next game, discussing the smart toolmaking of Hello Games and their upcoming game No Man's Sky. It seems like the creation of smarter game making tools and engines may be the way for smaller "indie" companies to close the distance between themselves and their AAA counterparts. If smaller companies can figure out clever ways of creating large amounts of content more efficiently, they could occupy the space in between, reclaiming the lost and much mourned "middle tier" of the PS2 era.

This focus on working smarter seems to be where Dan is heading now. No more flustered, crunch-heavy weeks, filled with 18 hour working days. No more being pulled apart by disparate, muddled responsibilities. Just focused, smart progress. 

No matter your age, it can do you good to step back for a second and take a good look at things in the eye of the storm. Even as a freelancer supposedly away from the regime of the 9 to 5, I suffer from the workaholic culture society compels us all to subscribe to; a gross badge of dubious honour which glorifies strain and stress. It's a curiously masculine attitude of "get on with it and don't complain" until it all gets on top of you and you can't handle it anymore. As Dan's recent memento mori revealed to him, as we move through life, whatever route we take, we mustn't forget to live. 

MGIF S2 E6: Anisa Sanusi

Hit play for the podcast interview below. MGIF is also available on iTunes or with whatever podcast software you use. Just search for "Making Games Is Fun".



I love Cambridge, it's so powerfully English it's unbearable. As I walk through the city I am practically mugged by Gothic architecture; I don't understand how everyone isn't constantly walking around with their heads skyward, mouths open. I'm snapped out of my trance by the tinkling of a cyclist's bell as they pass; a long, slim, white dude in his late 50s with a white beard, head to toe in very lime green lycra. Obviously. The cyclist glides along like a middle-aged, neon bogey against a backdrop of opulent, medieval edifices.

Cambridge is a place where men and women use a long stick to push a very small boat around a river like it's a reasonable mode of transport in 2016, so it must've felt like a parody of England to Anisa Sanusi, a UI artist at Frontier Developments, when she first moved here. We wander through the streets aimlessly, looking for a places to shoot and, more importantly, places to eat. We're in no rush, however, and we soak up the brief window of sunshine before scuttling into a café to grab a bite to eat.

We chuck a bit of lunch down us and form a plan to record in the café - a plan quickly scuppered by the arrival of the lunchtime rush and a very loud couple on the adjacent table. We're not in any rush, so we brave the rain and winds and go hunting for a quiet spot. Anisa is great company - easy going, friendly and funny - and we pass the time waiting for the rain to stop by buying cupcakes and laughing about essentially walking around in circles.

Anisa was born and grew up in Petaling Jaya in Malaysia. She's a city girl at heart, from her youth spent travelling in from PJ - as it's affectionately known - into the nearby city of Kuala Lumpur. Because Malaysia is a Muslim majority country, café culture predominates, as opposed to the somewhat aggressive pub culture of the UK. This is something she found especially alienating at first, seeing as anywhere that isn't a place to get drunk closes by the evening.

Anisa has always been interested in art and creating things: like most small children, she would draw on the walls of her house, the difference being she would complete her masterpieces with a signature. At school, Anisa got A's across the board, leading to others expecting her to move into law or medicine, but she was only interested in art. Support was strong from her parents, in a "well, she's so headstrong there's no way we'll change her mind, so let's roll with it" sort of way. Her mother being an architect meant that she had sympathy with Anisa's life goals; whenever Anisa's uncles see her constantly doodling away in one form or another, they remark on how she is just like her mother was at her age.

Her first experience of living in the UK came when she studied for two years at Teeside University from the age of 19. Anisa applied through UCAS to a number of universities, but settled on Teeside due to the Animax Festival, a celebration of animation and videogames. It was Anisa's mother that suggested she focus her career interests in animation, as it is an industry with a greater likelihood of a stable career than other artistic pursuits. Anisa tells me she has huge respect for comic book artists, who work incredibly hard making beautiful art for comparatively little money (and mainstream respect) but do it for the love of it.

Anisa tells me that Malaysians pride themselves on multiculturalism, and she grew up in PJ within a culture of racial harmony and diversity. She found it strange to have messages of diversity preached to her on a regular basis as a child, because around her, with the children of her generation, it had always been that way. It wasn't until she left her little bubble of harmony that she realised that life wasn't as harmonious as it seemed. As children, you don't see others as different to you. Nobody is born with prejudice, prejudice is taught.

Despite the upheaval of moving halfway across the world, Anisa found leaving home far less daunting than you might think. Anisa had visited the UK on holiday several times before, staying with family friends, so this just felt like a slightly longer holiday. The plan was never to stay in the UK, or maybe it would be more accurate to say she hadn't thought that far ahead yet. This meant that, instead of the stinging, gut wrenching feeling of being torn from her home, she just took each day as it came.

Before she knew it, Anisa had secured an unpaid internship at a small startup called Arcus Studios. It was a two hour commute from her home, so it cost her to work there. However, the wealth and variety of experience she gained from this set her up for her first paid role at Double Eleven in Middlesbrough as a UI (User Interface) artist. By adopting the "fake-it-til-you-make-it" approach, learning both on the job and studying further at home, Anisa soon cemented her role. Today, she works as a UI Artist at David Braben's Frontier Developments, creator of Elite Dangerous.

It was that fearless quality of the young that took Anisa on her journey from being a curious, bright-eyed girl travelling halfway across the world to study, to the successful, intelligent woman I see today. That perfect balance of naivety and optimism is something we lose as we get older, yet it's so important in helping us find our feet in the world. It allows us to take risks, to venture out beyond our self-imposed boundaries, to be less concerned about long term outcomes and to focus on each day as we experience it.

I'm hardly an old fart - I'm more of an "ageing smell" - but when you reach your thirties, responsibilities add up. You can be trotting along happily when life hits you square in the face; suddenly, heavily, heartlessly. Eventually, you gather yourself, find your balance, and trot some more. Your priorities and parameters shift, and although you grow stronger and wiser in some ways, in others you grow timid and cautious. So it's ironic that, if you're a doddering thirty-something like me, there is strength and knowledge to be drawn from the ambition of youth, and stories like Anisa's can help us remember that. 

MGIF S2 E5: THE DANCAST

Hit play for the podcast interview below. MGIF is also available on iTunes or with whatever podcast software you use. Just search for "Making Games Is Fun".



Friday the 4th of December, 2015 saw the very first Making Games Is Fun live episode. I was joined by Dan Pearce, Dan Da Rocha and previous MGIF guest, Dan Gray.

We discuss school days, more BAFTA chat, as well as questionable and frankly cruel parenting methods. Plus, the devs discuss their own games and the inspiration behind them.

Thanks to everyone who came down to listen. To support me in creating more episodes of Making Games Is Fun, as well as more potential future live podcasts like this one, go to www.patreon.com/MGIF and get on the cool person bandwagon, where the cool persons hang out, and throw us some unwanted pocket change.

Failing that, share this far and wide on all the social media platforms you can bear to be a member of. 

Thanks for your support and interest so far and be ready for MANY, many more episodes of Making Games Is Fun in 2016!