The next game from the makers of Dear Esther is an isometric RPG
The Chinese Room is a peculiar game development studio. Its first release, Dear Esther, began as a Half-Life 2 mod and bore out of studio director Dan Pinchbeck's academic research into the ranges of expression first-person shooters were able to offer. A Machine for Pigs, a spin-off to Frictional's Amnesia: The Dark Descent was a bit more conventional -- if Frictional's run-and-hide-in-a-closet horror game model could be called such -- while the studio's latest game, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, returns to the loftier experimental tone of Dear Esther.
Until now a Playstation 4 exclusive, the first-person exploration game in which players attempt to uncover the reasons behind the sudden disappearance of an entire English village, has been announced for PC. The Chinese Room has also released the first details of its next game, Total Dark -- which, as a roleplaying game with an isometric, overhead view akin to Baldur's Gate, is as far from the photorealism sensory experiments of Chinese Room's previous efforts as one might imagine.
"It's a much more traditional game, an isometric adventure with a free-floating camera and lots of mechanics," says Dan Pinchbeck, speaking with Rock, Paper, Shotgun. "That will make some people happy while other people are going to wonder if we have the right experience to make that sort of game. But we absolutely do."
While The Chinese Room is best known for the aesthetic of first-person "walking simulators" that Dear Esther brought to international attention, the studio has a long history of experimental game design, with quite a few mods and conceptual projects the studio seems ready to revisit.
"Total Dark actually started off as an RPG boardgame," Pinchbeck explains. "A lot of the inspiration came from pen and paper and gamebook systems. Traveller, Paranoia, Twilight 2000. I’ve been looking at loads of paper-based RPGs and wargame systems. I love how those books retained a scrappy bedroom aesthetic. Modern stuff is so glossy, but with early RPG and wargame systems you can see that it’s just a couple of people in a bedroom scratching out line drawings. It’s very energetic."
Personally I can't look at the name Total Dark without thinking "because Pitch Black was already taken" -- but my sidelines snarking aside, it sounds like it's a good time to be a fan of isometric RPGs, or a fan of The Chinese Room in general. The studio is going solo for this title and expects to have a first prototype of Total Dark out by the end of the month.
"It’s such a relief to be able to talk about the game during development. We had to keep quiet with Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture but now we’re working on PC, without a publisher, and we can talk about the whole process," says Pinchbeck. "One thing I can say is that [Total Dark] has a lighter tone. We’ve made three very heavy games now and it’s time for something lighter. It’s no less weird but it’s not quite as bleak."
Kris Ligman is the News Editor for ZAM. They played the mod version of Dear Esther back at IndieCade in 2011 and some guy asked them if they had made the game. 'Oh yes, I'm The Chinese Room. You can call me Chin,' Kris responded. Find them on Twitter @KrisLigman.