“Experimental Art” Talk – Sweden Game Conference 2016

Sweden Game Conference info


The Chinese Room is best known for making first-person experimental games, from Dear Esther to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Using The Chinese Room games as case studies, I want to take you through the creative journey of creating experimental games and how diverse experiences will benefit the games industry.


brief intro

  • Graduated uni 1st class honours 2014
  • Got job as junior at TCR
  • Now, games artists
  • rebrand tcr,
  • talks, mentoring students, STEM VGA
  • I was where you are sat now 2 and a half years ago


How people see us as

  • Serious, cult
  • We make serious (subjectively) ‘boring’ games


who we actually are

  • A family of misfits making games they’re passionate about
  • Hierarchy and management is very flat with a mix of adaptable abilities


  • We take a holistic approach
  • Don’t believe in crunch – crunch = failure
  • Every member of the team is valued and respected
  • We make sure to have team activities to bond to work more efficiently together
  • We don’t take ourselves too seriously – office jokes with the replace me hat story
  • We’re just people making something they’re passionate about together


  • We make experimental games
  • We make experiences that have aesthetics, story, music and narrative at the core
  • The studios first title was Dear Esther
  • Dear Esther asked us to reconsider what a ‘game’ is, or could be


  • Our most recent game was Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture released ps4 Aug 2015
  • TCR developed it
  • Sony Santa Monica Published it
  • This received critical acclaim, a string of awards
  • I want to give you a bit of a breakdown of the elements of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture to establish what makes it a diverse experience and why this is important for the industry

For anyone who hasn’t played it, here’s the trailer for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture


What’s special about the TCR games?

  • Make realistic, authentic stories about real people
  • Aesthetics – beautiful, believable, immersive worlds with storytelling
  • Made something WE’RE passionate about – not for money or otherwise – we make it because we want to
  • Team making it is driven, passionate, liberal and diverse thinking creative people


  • It comes down to beauty and emotional power
  • When you create ‘art’ instead of replicating, you have the power to elicit emotional responses from your work
  • This makes your work more impactful, and the games you make far more intriguing
  • You have the power to make games that are respected that have the possibility to reach a wider audience, that don’t necessarily play games
  • Creating emotional power through music, art, narrative and player experience
  • Creating believable spaces, people and stories – immersion is key


  • Experiences come under scrutiny
  • Snobbery in the gaming community
  • ‘Casual’ vs ‘hardcore’ gamer
  • The studio received critical acclaim, a string of awards and put The Chinese Room on the map as one of the most creative and forward thinking studios
  • Inevitably there is a backlash – people don’t like change!


  • Games are subjective – just like music and film
  • Mechanics vs aesthetics
  • Innovation that is rarely seen by the wider public
  • Commercial products and artistic exploration
  • But the backlash still remains heavily towards ‘experiences’
  • And the wider public don’t see games as a legitimate cultural form… STILL


  • Interesting comparison – We’ve seen this same refusal to accept change manifest countless times in history in other ways.
  • Most art movements – impressionism, romanticism (turner) – anything that challenges the status quo of that time is discredited.
  • More recently – Photography, digital art, animation – Pixar
  • This refusal to change the status quo is not restricted to the creative industry
  • We see it with social movements – when activists advocate for social or political reform for human rights and equality


  • Suffragettes
  • LGBTQ – the first pride march was a riot
  • Abolitionists
  • This recurrence of fighting for change and encountering resistance is historical and inevitable – and often with hugely damaging consequences for the activists and groups involved
  • But then, positive progressive change
  • Which starts a domino effect where we see others inspired to also make change and challenge the status quo


  • How to start making change? Change the lens you see the world through to see things differently.
  • There is a substantial lack of diversity in the games industry
  • A lack of diversity can lead to similarity in products
  • Working on being inclusive, respecting minorities, appreciating their difficulties can lead us to develop more diverse games
  • Only diverse thinking people can make different games


  • There’s a difference between compliance of equality & diversity – following legislation to ensure all groups are treated fairly
  • And inclusivity – understanding other peoples experiences to yours are different and valid

We have a lack of…

Inherent diversity

  • Traits you’re born with – gender, sexuality, ethnicity

But there is the possibility of…

Acquired diversity

  • Must be intentionally developed – Getting involved in areas outside of your demographic

Recognising bias, you can make better and more unique products!


  • Unconscious bias – become self-aware
  • Gender neutral pronouns
  • Allowing women’s voices to be heard
  • Using less masculine language
  • Call out everyday sexism? Don’t call people out, pull people in – ask men to join women in games events, see how they can help and why having them involved helps everyone.


  • Become a role model – mentor, become a VGA
  • Geena Davis – “if you can see it, you can be it”
  • Judge graduate showcases if you’re nervous about speaking
  • Imposter syndrome – talk about your experiences – everyone has a unique perspective (irrelevant of professional experience)
  • Getting more diversity into the games industry isn’t a technical challenge – it’s a human challenge
  • The responsibility should not always be with the victim to make change, yet it often is.
  • Do art, make games, read code… and then do ANYTHING else.
  • Immerse yourself in things outside of your own demographic
  • (Photography 30 day challenge; inktober; game jams; video games ambassador; roller derby)


  • A balance of skill professionally – triangle of art ability, tech ability and adding context
  • A work life balance
  • Have experiences – good or bad – they can inform your art
  • I’m a gay woman with high-functioning depression and anxiety– I’ve had A LOT of experiences
  • Go and find them yourself – speak to people unlike you – take up a hobby – do other art – don’t play games – read – have conversations… again, do roller derby


  • Why is it important to have other experiences?
  • Art is a reaction to emotion. And art should evoke a reaction.
  • Your experiences will give your work context
  • They can be positive or negative
  • As long as they have context they should evoke a response
  • They can be a political statement, they can offend, they can make people sad, happy. They can be liked or disliked. As long as the audience reacts in someway, the artist has succeeded.
  • They can be simple or complex with a myriad of artistic techniques.
  • It is not the technical execution, but instead the idea
  • Here are some examples
  • Marcel Duchamp said that anything can be interpreted as art – challenge what you know, push boundaries and question everything about the artistic principals you apply to your work.


  • Ana Mendieta had a political statement to make – challenged gender, objectification of women and rape culture.


  • Marina Abramovic – explored art and human nature


  • Jamie Reid – punk era – controversial politically driven art for sex pistols


How can you apply this to your own work?

  • Storytelling
  • Add character to your work – example of art test
  • Tell a story through your work – where’s the depth?
  • Artistic Skill should be applied to 90% of your portfolio
  • Don’t just copy something that exists – anyone can do that and make it technically excellent
  • You have to stand out to be noticed and show you can do more than copy
  • Credibility & respect, comes from critical thinking/analysis
  • Find artists who are where you wish to be that inspire you, and analyse and deconstruct their work
  • Aim to reach their quality – reach for the stars and you’ll hit the clouds
  • Make sure you’re always critiquing your work so you learn something


  • Force yourself to try different techniques
  • Don’t just use digital methods. Not being able to draw is not an excuse! You must be able to visually communicate your ideas before making anything

Find inspiration from anywhere that isn’t games! slide20

  • Storytelling and adding context to your work makes you stand out
  • Adding a sense of character into an environment is important
  • When your game doesn’t have conventional characters, it’s essential to add character in other ways
  • How do you make a space feel lived in?
  • What aspects do you need to establish to give an environment depth? – time period, location, context
  • Is the space real? Or fantasy? What are the implications of both?


Authenticity – what makes your work believable?

The basics

  • Spatial constructs
  • Architecture – space, scale, form
  • Balancing colours
  • Staying true to a time period

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  • The environment you make is the characters you portray – look at people in your life, reflect their personalities back into games for uniquness
  • The balance between narrative and visual cues/hints
  • Ensuring both narrative & visuals match – continuity – suspension of disbelief

Who lives here?

What are the indicators?

making a space feel occupied

We have to paint an entire picture of a scene

  • What is the message of your game/scene?
  • How do you visualise a moment
  • How do you visualise an emotional tone
  • What makes a space feel lived in?
  • Who lives here, and what are they feeling currently? (rushed? Frantic? Panic? Love?)
  • What makes your space unique compared to another space? – i.e. Bob, late 50s, English. Why not add something more interesting – closet drag queen, taxi driver, loves gold fish sally
  • Careful of stereotypes and tropes


  • encouraging personal projects to gain experience
  • The only way to do this is to find a passion, have a reaction and channel that into the art you create.
  • BRRD, 2D art, photography
  • Again, these side projects can feature on your portfolio – I have a wordpress blog and document art, photography challenges
  • A blog gives your studio or you as a student a personality, an online voice with opinions and makes you relatable
  • It shows your dedication to develop your artistic skills in a variety of ways and willingness to learn and try new techniques


  • Students – give yourself a break
  • All of this other advice is good to remember but find a balance
  • At uni I worked myself all the time and my mental health suffered severely
  • I want to talk to you now about monkeys.
  • Monkeys is a corporate term when used to describe work
  • Just like having an interesting project, a monkey is cute and you can look after it and dress it up and it can be a fun and engaging thing to have


  • If someone was to now suddenly give you 10 monkeys… it would soon be difficult to handle and you’d become quickly overwhelmed
  • Learn now at uni how to manage your workload for your personal student projects.
  • If you do team projects, learn how to communicate with others to share the monkeys around so everyone can have a cute little monkey and no one is too stressed doing everything.
  • This is important when managing upwards – line managers, directors and producers – as an artist in the development team, it is also my responsibility that I have only as many monkeys as I can manage. Know your limits to what you can cope with.


  • Becoming overwhelmed and you risk being too stressed to do anything
  • Stress suppresses creativity


  • Use your experiences to inform your art, to give it weight and make it credible.
  • Tell stories through your art to make it engaging and evoke emotion from your audience
  • And just keep making art!
  • Thank you

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