February 29, 2012 7:00 PM | jeriaska
A running theme of composer Jessica Curry's visual media projects is the experience of a hidden story being uncovered. One such hidden story is the self-contradictory narrative of Dear Esther.
Writer Dan Pinchbeck of Thechineseroom and artist Robert Briscoe have described the game's plotline as intentionally mysterious. Clues point you in conflicting directions while you search to uncover the secrets of your bleak surroundings.
The game's score is currently nominated for a 2012 Independent Games Festival award in the category of excellence in audio. We caught up with the composer to hear about her background in literature and music composition, both of which have added nuance and intention to the design of Dear Esther.
What led to the idea of remaking Dear Esther?
Composer Jessica Curry: It was an opportunity to make it the kind of game we always wanted it to be, but previously didn't have the time or the budget. It's not often that you get the opportunity to redo something that you had worked on. The sound was there, and the feel was there. It was just a matter of working with these amazing musicians to get that tonal quality that had always been in my head, but couldn't afford to create.
I've been asked why I didn't write new tracks. It was something that Dan and I had a really long talk about. We felt that the reaction to the music had been so strong, that people wanted the music to sound similar but better. Writing something new would have felt very jarring, I think. Getting the opportunity to have a proper budget to record with wonderful musicians was just so exciting.
How has your background in literature informed your current work as a music composer for visual media?
I've always had this thing about stories and narrative. Love of literature has really informed all the projects I've taken on since.
I didn't go to a conservatoire or a music college. Instead, I read English literature at university, but retained a great interest in music. I did my post-graduate at the National Film and Television School, which I think was a really nice mix, actually. The post-graduate at the NFTS gave me a grounding in the technicalities of how to do it.
What interested you in contributing to games and other experimental media, as opposed to more traditional film projects?
I felt that working in film was constrictive. Music was always the last thing to be put on, and they've usually spent the budget before they've got to you. I've found that you have so little control over the music that you write in film, which made it feel like a bad fit at the time.
Were there any particular experiences that marked your transition from one type of media to the other?
The music that I enjoyed writing the most for film school was for the animation department. I think games are a continuation of that excitement. They allow you to take a step back from reality and create in a way that is very freeing, because you aren't constrained by the devices normally found in a mainstream film.
A really respected sound artist, Evelyn Ficarra, came in to talk to us one day as a guest lecturer, and I thought, This is what I want to be doing. She was making very experimental soundscapes, and I decided to go down that route instead. I went into installation and experimental sound art, and found it much more exciting.
While at the NFTS, I scored very traditionally and wrote straight to paper. She opened up this brave new world of technology, although at the time I thought it was a lot of boys with toys. They had the technology, but there was not a lot of content. They were more excited about the technology than by making something meaningful. I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to mix those things up.
Your collaboration with the writer of Dear Esther predates your involvement in games. What were the objectives of some of your earlier projects?
In 2003, Dan and I collaborated on a Wellcome Trust commission, which are a big drug manufacturing company. They give some of their lovely money every year to artists to do projects, I'm sure as a tax break. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of DNA. Dan and I thought we could make something really interesting, and so did a project that combined animation, sculpture, sound and music.
While working together we found we were a really good fit. Dan is absolutely fantastic with ideas. He's just this massive ideas factory. Stylistically, I felt it melded really well in that his content is often very poetic and beautiful, and my music had been described similarly. We decided to continue working together.
In 2009 we got a commission from the Royal Opera House to do a project in Second Life. That was when it all came together as far as what we wanted to be making. He gives an enormous amount of trust to the people that he works with. That is what had been missing from my time in film school. With Dan, it never feels that my music is just tacked on at the end. It's integral to the experience.
Dear Esther takes place in the Hebrides, but have you made a trip to the island to get a sense of the location on which it is based?
I haven't been. But location was absolutely important to the pieces that I made. When I think about unusual spaces, be they virtual spaces or real world spaces, it seems to lock in the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle for me.
Last year I wrote a Requiem for choir and we put that in the Old Vic Tunnels in London, an underground space that was used as a bomb shelter in the Second World War. Location, story and music are increasingly interlocked for me. What Dan provides are really interesting spaces for me to put my music in.
At the moment you are planning a trip to San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference. Have you had the chance to attend any game trade shows or festivals previously?
We went to IndieCade in 2009. I met these young guys who were so excited. It felt new and fresh, and that everyone was still defining what those spaces can be. I see the space in games as just waiting to be filled by really interesting projects.
Have there been many memorable forms of feedback that you have received following the release of the game?
I get fan mail all the time about Dear Esther. I've never gotten fan mail before in my life. These are young guys, and this is not rock music, it's gentle and mournful. I find it incredibly heartening that it's spoken to people.
There's still so much debate here still about whether games are harmful to young people, but I think it's getting less and less possible to write off gamers. I read the emails that I get from people and they are very thoughtful about the media they're consuming. It's clear that these people are being totally underestimated. It's an exciting time to be working in this medium.
What was your reaction to receiving the 2012 Independent Games Festival award nominations?
We were so surprised and very excited by the IGF. I hope it means that people are interested in it. A lot of care has gone into Dear Esther. It's a loved baby. We worked so closely as a team, and Rob [Briscoe] poured his heart into making that game look the way it looks. There was a synergy of intent.
Are there elements of the way the story is told that particularly resonate with you?
A theme to my work has been hidden experiences. On the DNA project, we chose to focus on Rosalind Franklin, whose story is not well known. The Requiem last year was about Oppenheimer, who I felt was misunderstood, that there was a hidden narrative there. Those projects were about uncovering secrets. I also feel that Esther is a really big secret.
I'm the daughter of a writer, and I think that gives you an intense curiosity for people's stories. I never do cold, theoretical projects. They're always about people.
How was your experience working with vocalist Clara Sanabras on the remake of Dear Esther?
I sang the original "Always," because there was not the budget to do it otherwise. I'm not a performer, but I couldn't find anyone and I always hate asking musicians for freebees. I thought I'd rather do it myself than ask someone to do it for nothing.
It was nice this time to pick who I wanted to work with. As a composer, you write this thing and have the notes on paper, but then you give it to these amazing people who have never even seen those notes before and they breathe life into it. For me sitting in the booth at the recording studio is the best part every time. It becomes no longer yours. Often they interpret it in a way that you hadn't imagined.
For the reorchestration of Dear Esther, I had written quite a lush, romantic tone for the strings with a lot of vibrato. We were recording at Pinewood Studios and we all found together that it didn't have the right feel. What we decided on is that the strings would be without vibroto, which immediately gave it a Scottish and barren kind of sound. I love those kinds of decisions that happen really late, on the day of recording.
Was the openness for subjective interpretation in the story to Dear Esther something that allowed you room to form a personal view of the game during development?
Dan never gave me any idea of his version of events in the game. He wanted the music to reflect what I thought was going on. I think that's very unusual, because a lot of people you work with are very prescriptive about what they want the music to express.
I have my own ideas about what happens in the game. It's not something that Dan and I have talked about. It hasn't felt important. Dan has had so many emails boiling down to, "This is what I think it's about." It's incredible what people feed in from their own experiences and what they want it to be. Once, when he had gotten involved with what someone had written on a forum, they said, "Well, obviously you haven't even played the game."
This location is a vast, empty space, and it lets you fill it. In a way, I wanted the music to be the same way. Instead of saying, "Here's a sad theme," and "Here's a scary theme," my hope is that the music gives an emotional tone to the island and allows enough freedom within it to let you dream.