Indie developers aren't shy to the concept of change and innovation. Without the usual strings attached from major publishers, they tend to have more breathing room to pursue their creative visions. Visions that sometimes challenge the traditional idea of what makes a game.
This month we're putting Dear Esther under the spotlight, a powerful narrative experience developed by Dr. Dan Pinchbeck of thechineseroom alongside Robert Briscoe, former DICE developer (see: Mirror's Edge environmental artist) and a small team of very talented individuals. Dear Esther started out originally as a Half-Life 2 mod, but has come quite a ways to become something much more. Challenging conventional devices in terms of narrative and gameplay, Dear Esther creates a very special platform for the human experience.
As written in our review of the the game, "Dear Esther, you bring to mind Marcel Duchamp's Fountain in that you are quite dada €“ and that's honestly a word I never thought I'd use in a sentence €“ you aren't a game, but you are at the same time in the sense that you toy with the very basic concept of what makes a game€¦there is a perplexing story here to be told and if you let it, it'll be an experience you won't easily forget."
Read on as Dr. Dan Pinchbeck and Rob Briscoe tell us what it was like developing Dear Esther and what they think about the indie market.
How did Dear Esther evolve from a popular Half-Life 2 mod into what it is now?
Dan Pinchbeck: That's down to Rob really, he mailed me back in 2009 and asked if I'd mind if he rebuilt it. He'd seen the potential of the mod but through that much more could be done with the environmental storytelling aspect and art. As he got working on that, we both started to realise that it could be even more than a mod, that it had a real potential as a full game. We brought Jess back on board to hit the audio and music, I wrote more script and it grew from there really. In 2011 we split away from the University of Portsmouth, who had incubated the project until then, secured Indie Funding and the Source license and the rest is history.
What inspired the unique narrative gameplay, and how do you feel this changes the experience of the audience compared to traditional game mechanics or linear story-lines?
DP: It originally just came from this simple idea: would a game without gameplay, with nothing but a story to discover be enough for an engaging experience. Fortunately, the answer to that seems to be yes! That was partly inspired by my love of world-spinning in games, I just think the sector is so amazingly good at that, and spending hours in games like STALKER, just soaking up the world. I've always said, and I still believe that Dear Esther is a logical extension of the kind of design you find in FPS games historically, it's just spun in a slightly different direction. I think the key thing with Dear Esther is the lack of stimulation creates a really different experience for the player- there's a lot of time to think and feel about what is going on. Because you're not having to respond to those traditional gameplay loops, there's no challenge, no pressure to do anything, you're not having to think how to solve a puzzle, or time a jump, or manage your ammo, or anything like that... it means there's this kind of vacuum and other things rush to fill it, which is a really human trait.
Dear Esther's narrative is backed by an impressive soundtrack and voice work, they seem very poetic. Was it a challenge to stick to this vision while avoiding the crux of using conventional narrative devices seen in most games on the market?
DP: Part of the original idea was always to experiment with a different narrative idea both in tone and way of delivery, and that was one of the things that worked really well with the original mod, so there was never any real question of changing that central idea. What has changed though is the way Rob has used the environment as a storytelling device, and he's done things there that are quietly pretty radical in game design. So we have a similar thing going on with the world as with the story - sometimes the details and objects support the story, sometimes they are set against them. There are details and objects that don't belong, in a subtle way, so they are unnerving and mysterious, but they deepen the world rather than disrupt it. That's a really challenging thing to tackle as a designer, but it means there's this deep integration between all the devices used to communicate the narrative, and I think that's what works so well in the game.
One thing I'm really keen on, which Rob and Jess share too, is this idea that what you are really doing with a game is orchestrating an experience, and everything from story to physics is all about sculpting and delivering this experience. In a way, what we're doing with Dear Esther is just conventional narrative devices, but they are wired incredibly closely together to create the experience and that's something I'm really proud of, that we've done very well. In terms of the content itself, well, I guess, once we knew there would be no AI, no goals or challenges, you have to look for a story to fit that, to make sense and to make the most of the experience, and it's a good fit. Weirdly, you still have lots of the themes of classic game narratives- a conflict, a perceived villain, a goal, but it's shifted in a different direction: it's an interior conflict, the blame attached to Paul shifts and falls away as the game goes on, the goal is obscured and changes...
There's a fair amount of hyper-real elements included in Dear Esther's locales, how much background environmental studies were performed as you designed and created this game?
Robert Briscoe: I did do a lot of research on the look of the environments in the game even before starting on the building process. In the original I felt that there was real a lack of variation in the world which made it feel repetitive and dull at times. In the remake I wanted to improve on this by giving the player something unique and interesting to look at throughout the game, such as giving each area a unique landmark or terrain to explore, ranging from small rivers to huge sand dunes. The most important part of the process was researching and acquiring a huge collection of photo reference material for each landmark/area and really taking time to study them to understand the look of it beforehand. This really helped the finished product look a lot more realistic as a result. The caves were an area which was mostly done from my imagination though due to the surreal nature of that part of the game. I still used elements from the photo references I'd gathered to bring something unique to each area, but for the most part they were entirely crafted to be more unreal and symbolic in nature.
Dear Esther can be described as an experimental title, but how far would you say it strays from being a video game to being something else? What and how important would you say the differences are?
DP: We're just not that interested in that debate to be honest with you. I think for us it's a game and that's that. What really matters to us is whether people find it enjoyable, engaging, rewarding. Is it a good experience - that's what really counts. I kind of see an analogy with the debate about whether science-fiction should be considered literature. Whatever your opinions on that, it doesn't make a blind bit of difference to the fact that things like Roadside Picnic, Oryx and Crake, Ubik, etc, are all incredible books. Personally, for me, Dear Esther comes from a love of FPS games, and the design comes from the history of FPS games, it's built in an FPS engine, your core experience is like an FPS game... you can join the dots on that one. And I really, really, have no agenda about games needing to evolve (which is a stupid argument when you look back over game history) or mature (no, really, they don't), or aspire to being art. Why? Games are brilliant, they are the most exciting medium on the planet right now. I'm proud to be part of the medium, I find it far more exciting, intelligent, innovative, than anything that's come out of the art world for years.
Dear Esther started as a mod, do you think that the modding community plays an important role in the development of a game? Is it a place developers should look towards for general feedback, new ideas and even potential recruits?
Rob: I think the modding community plays an important role in how a game develops, if it weren't for the great support we had from the modding community, especially during the remake of Dear Esther, then we certainly wouldn't have come as far as we have. It was our community that encouraged us to take the game further, beyond the restrictions of being a mod so that we could reach a much wider audience. I don't think it's just about the moral support though, they also can provide a great deal of constructive feedback and advice which ultimately helps in creating a better product. I find that the indie development scene is also born upon the same principals by being very open in their development process, releasing early builds and gathering feedback from their communities, which is a really positive thing.
Speaking of mods, do you have plans to enable players to craft their own experiences using Dear Esther's world as a foundation?
Rob: Right now we just don't have the adequate resources to be able to support a full-blown SDK, and to be honest, I don't think that the game would really benefit from it either. We've spent years building a very carefully crafted experience and I really want to keep that experience unique to Dear Esther. Besides, I don't think players/modders/developers need to be restricted to our engine in order to create similar experiences, especially when they have such a great choice of indie-friendly engines out there at the moment (Unity/UDK/Cryengine/etc)
What are your thoughts on independent games as an emerging market and do you feel that developing independently provides more room for creativity and an easier platform from which a game can reach out to an audience?
DP: Indie games are clearly massively important, but there's a huge amount of pressure on indie developers as well. It's financially very tough and uncertain, and you can be quite isolated, even though there's this amazing, supportive community around you. You're certainly free from the kinds of pressure you get in mainstream development in terms of being required to fulfill someone else's remit, but you're still having to provide a great product to your players, and that's no less critical. But you look at the creativity, the risks, the blue-sky games both coming out of the indie sector - and succeeding, more importantly - and it's amazing right now, and it's no surprise that more traditional studios and publishers are taking note. Look at Double Fine, for example, they're being incredibly creative and innovative with their development models and are a complete inspiration for that. And then you see things like Insomniac describing themselves as an indie studio on their Twitter feed, so people are really seeing the sector as the place to be, where to position themselves. I completely love Insomniac's games, by the way, that's not a criticism of the company. As long as they keep making Resistance games, I'll be a happy player!
In terms of hitting an audience, well, no, it's not easier in many ways. I mean, having a million pound marketing budget would be very nice, but it's all costs you have to repay. I think what you can say is that it's a hell of a lot easier than it used to be, and that's partly down to platforms like Steam, and Valve's willingness to put indies alongside AAA's as equals, and partially down to runaway successes, like the products made by the lovely people over at Indie Fund, which really raise awareness of indie games. So it's differently difficult I guess, but the rewards are amazing. Rob worked in a AAA studio, he might have a different take on it.
Rob: I definitely agree with Dan on this, it can be a struggle to make it in the indie scene, the sheer personal investment you have to have in your game is huge compared to simply working for a AAA studio where you can sometimes feel like an insignificant cog in a colossal machine. As such it can hurt a hell of a lot more if your project fails which adds to the pressure. Ultimately though, I do believe that the rewards outweigh any negatives in the long run, even a small success can be a thousand times more rewarding knowing that it is by your own hand, and not that of a multi-million dollar marketing campaign.
How supportive has Valve been to you, and how much of an effect do you think Steam has on the independent market, as well as mainstream titles?
DP: Valve cut a deal for a license and let us put it on Steam. If that hadn't happened, it wouldn't exist. Equally, without Steam and without Valve shouting out about the viability of indies through Steam, the sector would be radically different. I think looking at what's happening currently with dissatisfaction with XBLA is telling in comparison. So big. Massive. They get grief and criticism because they are a big company sometimes, but they have grown because they saw potential and delivered on it well, and they deserve every dollar they get as a result. And they treat indies fairly and well, give them exposure and equal billing, and take risks to put on games like Dear Esther, B.U.T.T.O.N., Dinner Date, The Path. So I've got nothing but respect and thanks for them. I hope they are pleased with what we did with Source!
Would you say you've achieved your vision in developing Dear Esther? Looking back, were there things you would've liked to have done differently given the opportunity?
DP: Oh yeah, more than. A couple of years ago it was this experimental mod, now we have a game that's been raved about by players and critics, repaid it's investment in six hours, was 1 seller on Steam and shifted over 20,000 units in two days. That's pretty good. Artistically, Rob and Jess have exceeded any expectation I had, it's just a stunning, stunning piece of work. There are always things you think - oh yeah, we could go there... and it's been really interesting talking to players about their experience, you use that to feed into the next project, that's the exciting thing. I wouldn't change a thing about Esther, but I've also got lots of new ideas for Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, so have already sent the team lots of over-tired, over-excited emails saying "We've GOT to do THIS!" and "wouldn't it be COOL if we did THAT!". But that's the fun of it.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
DP: Just a massive thank you to everyone who has bought the game and put their faith in us over the years. We couldn't have done it without you.
A huge thanks to Dan and Rob for taking the time to answer our questions! Dear Esther is now available for purchase on Steam for just $9.99.
Do you have an indie game you'd like to see under the spotlight? Shoot a message to colin [at] gamingunion.net and we'll see if we can't work something out.