Road to Rapture #1 - From Inspiration to Prototype

I’ve always loved John Wyndham books; my mum is a huge fan and got me into them. I remember reading The Kraken Wakes for the first time and being completely obsessed with it. From that came The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids, and then it was onto John Christopher and A Wrinkle in the Skin and The Death of Grass. About the same time I was discovering these, the BBC screened a television adaptation of Triffids, and they were also running The Tripods trilogy, Christopher’s YA fiction work as essential Saturday evening viewing. Looking back, it’s no surprise that this uniquely English apocalyptic fiction was out there. The early 80s was a tense time to grow up – the cold war was looming over us, AIDS was suddenly not seen as a disease limited to gay culture and was sold to us as a civilisation killer (no accident perhaps that the threat of a ‘gay’ disease went hand-in-hand with the political shift of acceptance at the time), there was a dawning sense of ecological crisis. There was a fair amount of hate and anger flying around in society as a whole – Thatcher was targeting the unions and destroying whole communities, we went to war with Argentina, unemployment was massive and social equality was being trampled under. We were living in the shadow of the bomb. Hunter S. Thompson described us as “a generation that has been taught that rain is poison and sex is death”. And then we got a letter home from school, asking permission to show us all Threads, the TV movie directed by Rick Jackson about about a nuclear attack on the UK, specifically Sheffield. Threads is appalling, traumatic and terrifying, it left a permanent scar for me. Together with what Brian Aldiss called the ‘cosy catastrophe’ school of fiction, Threads planted a seed that I think ultimately led to Rapture.

A scene from Threads: A Sheffield street after the attack. Picture courtesy of the BBC.

A scene from Threads: A Sheffield street after the attack. Picture courtesy of the BBC.

 

Actually, Aldiss was being dismissive when he came up with that term, and there’s a certain irony in that we’re making a ‘walking simulator’ about ‘cosy catastrophes’. Both are derogatory terms that have been reclaimed by the people making them and that’s a nice turnaround for me. But that’s beside the point.

So its summer 2012, and Dear Esther has shipped and exploded, and we’ve just started making A Machine for Pigs. We’re working out of the University of Portsmouth, and I’ve been talking to the Arts & Humanities Research Council, who funded the research project that led to the original Dear Esther mod. We were talking about the value of practical academic research in games, and how getting things that started as research ideas into the commercial domain was a really excellent way of breaking down those industry/academia barriers that existed at the time. And I had a question – Dear Esther clearly worked, right… but it was linear, as is most game narrative. Especially in open world games, they were still essentially linear threads. You could explore the world openly, but then you’d lock onto a linear path and follow that. And I was wondering what would happen if you had genuinely nonlinear narrative – you could go anywhere, at anytime, and the story was just waiting there to be discovered? What if we pushed what was normally background narrative, environmental storytelling, into the centre? So we talked and we came up with a plan. Produce a prototype to explore this, then find an opportunity to commercialise it, whether that was us doing it, or selling the IP on. The AHRC had already taken a bit of a leap of faith with me with the Esther project (I was basically an unpublished PhD student at that point) and they took another one here. And that’s really important. When you play Rapture, you are playing what started as a research project, a question generated within a University, which was given life by a forward-thinking research council. I think that’s amazing.

Anyway. At this point we made the smart move of attracting the attention of Andrew, our lead designer, who’s been in the industry for a long time and has that perfect mix of being incredibly passionate about new ideas, and hyper-organised and together as a designer/project manager. The three of us worked with a couple of artists to create a simple prototype in Cryengine. It was really simple – we had dynamic time of day and crude weather working, we had an early version of the motes causing effects, and we had a layered music system giving us the ability to have it respond to the player’s movements. And we had a title and a concept.

Early concept art.

Early concept art.


I’ve often talked about my tastes in gaming, so I’m not going to go into much detail here, that’s for another post. The short version is I’m obsessed with first-person shooters – I wrote a PhD thesis on the damn things – and have a particular and possibly disturbing adoration of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, (and from them, 4A’s Metro, and yes, part of the reason I’m looking forward to finishing Rapture is to sink some quality hours into Vostok’s Survarium). You want apocalyptic games (which I also love) – look east. Fallout is great but Shadow of Chernobyl remains the masterclass. I also wanted to make an apocalyptic game because I’m a gamer, and gamers are hard-wired genetically to get all excited about apocalpyses. So Jess and I talked a lot, because we also wanted to make a game about people – real people – and the conversation went back to threads, and took in the extraordinary comic When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs (who also created The Snowman and Fungus the Bogeyman, and it was a hell of shock picking this one out from the library as a kid and not realising it wasn’t a kid’s book). And one of the things that we talked about was getting aside from our hero/ine complexes, in reality, we’d all be ashpiles, or nasty stains on the furniture, or just plain old food for the rats if the apocalypse actually happened. But what was interesting, alongside this discussion of how normal people would react, was about those small acts that really define us. How in the most extreme circumstances, the way we behave to one another is what makes us properly human. One of the most scary images in Threads isn’t the mushroom cloud, it’s a melting milk bottle and E.T toy. The saddest part of When the Wind Blows is Hilda and Jim dying of radiation sickness but thinking its varicose veins. We wanted to capture something of real people, and those small moments – positive as much as negative – and the phrase we kept coming back to was “the epic and the intimate” and how playing those off against each other was a way to frame the drama with a genuine emotional depth.

Hilda and James Bloggs, an English couple preparing for Armageddon in “When the Wind Blows” (1986). Credit Film 4 International

Hilda and James Bloggs, an English couple preparing for Armageddon in “When the Wind Blows” (1986). Credit Film 4 International

 

During this period we started talking to Sony Santa Monica. We already knew that Rapture was going to be significantly bigger than anything we’d done before. We were learning a lot with Machine for Pigs but it was exposing our inexperience. We knew we wouldn’t have the budget to realise Rapture, but also we needed production support to make it happen. Kickstarter was an option we briefly discussed, but it felt like it would be adding pressure even if it hit the kind of target we’d need to make Rapture and all-in-all, it wasn’t the right thing to do. We were nervous about working with a publisher – we’d been around and knew enough people to know that could be problematic, but it seemed inevitable that if we wanted to make this thing, then we’d have to work with someone. And Santa Monica had form – they’d made Journey and other more experimental titles, they were working with the Giant Sparrow team on Unfinished Swan. We’d heard great things about how supportive they were, how open to ideas. So we reached out, created a pitch video, sent a load of documentation about where we were and then flew out to meet them off the back of a trip to Indiecade 2012. Fortunately, they loved the concept, and in January 2013, as soon as we handed Machine for Pigs over to Frictional, we started work on a pre-production period to turn the prototype into something that gave us a proper architecture for a game. I’ll pick up the story of the pre-production period and how the game changed in part 2.

 

Links

Podcast with me talking about Dear Esther and Rapture for the AHRC - http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News-and-Events/Watch-and-Listen/Pages/Dan-Pinchbeck-on-Everybodys-Gone-to-the-Rapture-.aspx http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News-and-Events/Watch-and-Listen/Pages/Dan-Pinchbeck-on-Everybodys-Gone-to-the-Rapture-.aspx

2013 article at AHRC about the funding scheme that created Rapture – http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News-and-Events/News/Pages/Taking-Arts-and-Humanities-research-to-market.aspx

The AHRC funded summary of Rapture - http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/Funded-Research/Pages/thechineseroom-commercialisation-of-practice-led-research-driven-experimental-storytelling-in-games.aspx

Jane Rogers’ Top 10 Cosy Catastrophes for The Guardian - http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jul/05/jane-rogers-top-10-cosy-catastrophes

STALKER website - http://www.stalker-game.com/

4A Website - http://www.4a-games.com/index.html

Vostok / Survarium website - https://eu.survarium.com/eu-en

Threads Full Movie on Vimeo - https://vimeo.com/18781528