"I think the Victorian era was so fertile for me as a composer to take as an inspiration," says composer Jessica Curry. "It's remarkable."
Curry and her husband, writer Dan Pinchbeck, run a game studio called The Chinese Room, and they just finished a survival horror game called Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. "Dan has written an intensely political game, actually," Curry says. "He's snuck some really difficult themes into a quite traditional horror genre."
Set in Victorian London, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is about a wealthy industrialist called Oswald Mandus. Gamers wake up in his mansion to find something has gone horribly wrong. Thematically, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs touches on industrialism, madness, the zealous Victorian work ethic and its accompanying beliefs about the poor. "It's really chilling," Curry says.
Curry balanced the terrifying music with gentle chamber works. "I really started off with the idea that everybody had a piano in Victorian England and in the Victorian era in general," she says. "It was a common thing in most households, especially in wealthy households, and that women would be able to play the piano. So Lily's theme is something that a good amateur-taught musician would be able to play. I really wanted it to feel like it came from her hands and was this kind of ghost echo."
Although she isn't a professional pianist, Curry played the piano on the game score to desired effect. "I did genuinely want that sense of someone who can play but isn't a fantastic pianist," she explains.
A 19th-century art song also makes an appearance in the score. "I really was thinking about that kind of German Lieder tradition, particularly Schubert and the Kindertotenlieder - the Mahler, the Songs on the Death of Children," Curry says.
Curry worked with a tiny budget to create the music for the game, which limited the live performers on the soundtrack. "There's the cello and the singer," Curry says, "and everything else I sampled, which wasn't ideal, but again, these constraints to lead you to be creative. It's a different score than it would've been if I'd have had access to a full orchestra."
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs follows an earlier game called Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the latter of which has been described by some as the scariest game ever made. Curry says she and Pinchbeck were asked how they expected to follow up on The Dark Descent. "Dan and I were talking about it yesterday, and he said actually [he] didn't want to make it as scary, because the amount of people that report that they never got to the end of The Dark Descent because it was too frightening is really high."
Ultimately, Curry and Pinchbeck insist their objective is not to simply make games that are scary. "Actually what we do at the Chinese Room is try and tell really good stories," Curry says. "What we tried to do with Pigs is balance it, so you still get a really frightening experience but actually it leads you through, because the denouement is really important, it is the absolute crux of the game; we want people to get there, so it will be interesting to see if we got that balance right."
Listen to my conversation with Jessica Curry in this episode of Top Score from Classical MPR. Subscribe on iTunes.