2012-01-24_00005.jpg Originally released as a Half-Life 2 mod, Dear Esther has been remade with totally overhauled graphics, audio, and other design tweaks, fitting of a commercial release. It's a narrative centric first person exploration game, and it's exceptionally pretty.

I played it to completion the other day, and wasn't sure if I fully understood it, so I caught up with developers Dan Pinchbeck & Rob Briscoe to find out more. It turns out you're not supposed to fully understand it, so that's a relief!

Here's what they had to say about the Dear Esther remake:

How would you describe Dear Esther to potential players?

Dan: Dear Esther is a first person game, set on a deserted island in the outer Hebrides. Rather than using traditional gameplay loops you might find in a first person game, like puzzles or combat, it's stripped right back to just exploration. As you move around the island, you trigger voiceovers, which build a story as you go though. An ambiguous, unsettling, story. Then also in the environment, there's a lot of visual detail that combine to create basically a story experience. I think that sums it up really, does that make it sound really dry? I'm so bad at blowing our trumpet. Players have said it's an incredibly deep and powerful emotional experience. It's really touched a nerve with a lot of gamers. It's just this incredible world that people enjoy spending time in, and trying to understand the history of the island, and what's happened on it. I guess you could call it a pure story game, that's a term that's been used a few times. A first person game that's all about exploration.

Rob: I think that's a good one actually. It's a story driven, first person exploration game.

I'm not entirely sure I fully understood the story, but I like it that way, it's quite ambiguous, like you said.

Dan: It was deliberately written that way, that was one of the ideas we were interested in: Could you have a story in a game that didn't make logical sense. A lot of games, particularly first person ones, do this really weird thing where they are brilliant at creating worlds, and you really just go into that world. Then about three quarters of the way through the game, there's this sudden explosion of exposition, and they try to make all of the plot add up. Everything has to make sense, and everything has to be explained. It's usually the weakest point of the game, because you just think "I didn't need to know everything, I was quite happy not knowing why everything happened", it's really quite an artificial thing. If you look at other artforms, if you look at something like a Jackson Pollock painting, it's not important which paint dribble came first, or which order you should be looking at, it's just a whole experience. It's enough for you to just be intrigued and engaged in that experience, you don't have to have everything laid out for you. In Dear Esther, the story deliberately doesn't make sense, and within the randomised plot, a lot of things are contradictory. When I was initially writing it, one of the challenges was writing a story that doesn't add up. Kind of a William Burroughs thing I guess.

How much information or detail is there that a player might miss?

Rob: I don't think it's about what they miss, I think part of what Dan's saying is that your brain likes to fill in the spaces. Like in movies, I think some of the best movies I've seen leave you with a question, or leave you guessing, and filling in the details that were missing in the movie. I think that's sort of what we're trying to do with Dear Esther. Part of it, something I'm looking forward to really, listening to people interpretations of the story, and seeing people discuss, what they saw on their playthrough, and what they made of it. One of the good thing about the remake is that there's more randomisation that before, so you'll see more stuff in the environment. The little bits and pieces that contribute to the story, or sometimes contradict it. It gives you a unique perspective, and unique experience, of the game and the story. I don't think there's right or wrong version of the story, any actual conclusion of what happened in the story. I think part of the fun of it, is having your own unique look at the story. Is that fair to say Dan?

Dan: Yeah, definitely. When it first came out, there was this great thing. I don't usually get involved in forum stuff, when people are discussing the story, I don't like the idea of me going in and saying "No, this is what happened", but I remember there was this one time where someone had came up with this amazingly convoluted, really interesting take on what's going on, and I couldn't help myself from replying. I said "That's really interesting, have you thought about this". They replied, telling me "It's obviously you've never played this game", which I think is brilliant. This thing is so out of our control, in a way, that's a really lovely feeling. Then there's stuff that we did in the remake as a direct response to theories and conversations people have had about the original. We were going "We didn't think that was it, but wow, that's a really interesting take on what's going on here, let's get something in about that", to just kind of play of some of those ideas. In a weird way, some of the new stuff that's gone in, bits of it have been driven by the initial mod communities response to the original. Which is a really nice position to be in, celebrating the heritage of the game, if that doesn't sound too pretentious. The mod community supported it, and took it forward, and this is us respecting their take on it.

It seems like you've had an interesting route to development, a lot of what was the mod scene in the past is merging with indie games, and you straddle both sides of that. What do you think the future of mods is going to be like.

Rob: For me, there's a lot more choice than you had before. For the original mod, there wasn't really much of a choice. There wasn't UDK, there wasn't CryEngine 3, Unity was only in its first iteration, still finding its feet really. To be honest, the only really way to go was mods, we could got for either Unreal Tournament 3, or Half-Life 2, which already had millions of installed copies already, so we knew we had a huge audience for it. Now, we've got a huge amount of choice, Unreal Engine 3 and CryEngine 3, with no upfront costs you can go out and make an indie game. Straight away, you've got this choice of whether you make a mod, or make something completely new and fresh, and make a bit of money out of it. In a way, especially what I've seen of the last year or so, there's a huge increase in the amount of indie titles coming out, people doing it in their spare time, as opposed to new source engine mods, and stuff like that. I think that's a good thing though, rather than being stuck with your standard tools and what you could do with mod. If you want to make an adventure game, but you're stuck with just the source engine, you've only got first person controls, stuff like that. You don't have to be worried about that any more. You can go into the unreal 3 engine, and pretty much do anything you want to, with basic scripting, the landscape engine, stuff like that. You can do the same with CryEngine 3. So I think it's evolving really, it's evolving from the mod scene to the indie scene. I think a lot more people are eyeing the indie scene as a much more realistic alternative to the mod scene.

How did the Indie Fund backing work out for you?

Dan: You can't really fault it. What I think is really significant about Indie Fund is that they're developers, and they really understand. It's a weird metaphor, but it's kind of like when you're at a restaurant. A good waiter doesn't keep coming up to you and ask you what you want, but they're just there, and you know they're there, and they can read your mind, and step in when you need them. Indie Fund are really great at that light touch. They're there, they're brilliant and incredibly supportive, but they also understand that developers need to just get their heads down and follow what they're doing. They've been brilliant in terms of that. They don't hassle people at all, they trust you, because they're developers, and they know how it works. They're coming in, using their experience to look at games, and work out which ones are worth investing in. The money is a big part of it, but it's also the support and belief in what you're doing. Of the basis of stuff like Q.U.B.E., I hope they've made as smart a choice with us as they have with them, that's been a huge success story. It's really important to see people who've made money in the indie scene, putting it back in. It send out a signal that this is a really viable business model. One of the major strengths about the indie scene is the social aspect of it, people are incredibly dedicated, and have an amazing knowledge of the medium, and people are supportive of each other. It means that stuff happens, things get made, that can be more experimental, and can be more innovative. To be able to have an investment group that can not only support us through it, but also can help fund these projects come into fruition, and be more than what they could have been. They're also really nice people: If you're going to have investors, have people that you can pick up the phone to, or go for a drink with. They just love games beyond anything else, that makes a big difference compared to normal commercial models of investment, where you're talking to people that don't give a shit about the product, they're just looking for a return.

Rob: It's really less about how much they can make from it, and more about how they can help you, I think.

Dan: I hope we make them shitloads of money from their investment to, I'd love to be driving around in a mid life crisis Ferrari this time next year.

Dear Esther is due for release via Steam on the 14th of February, and will set you back $9.99/£6.49. The (lovely) OST is due for a release via iTunes sometime around release too.