March 5, 2012 3:00 AM | John Polson
Sometimes mods can grow legs to stand on their own. Thechineseroom's Dear Esther is clearly an example, beginning merely as a Half-Life 2 mod. It was fully fleshed out into a story driven, first-person exploration game that has earned four IGF nominations: the Seamus McNally Grand Prize, Excellence in Visual Arts and Audio, and the Nuovo Award.
While its success at IGF hasn't been determined, the game has already succeeded by investment standards. The Indie Fund managed to recoup its $55,00 investment in less than six hours after Dear Esther released on Steam earlier this month.
Robert Briscoe and Dan Pinchbeck discuss here what makes Dear Esther an audio-visual, experimental crowd-pleaser, sharing its transformation from a 2007 mod to its recent, standalone release.
The two discuss the importance of an ambiguous narrative and the vast amount of development tools available which make the indie scene a realistic alternative to the mod scene.
What are your backgrounds in development?
Pinchbeck: I really started back in 2007 when we first made Dear Esther as one of a bunch of mods for a research project. I'd been modding and playing for years before (who hasn't), but that was the first major development I worked on. So it's been quite a learning curve, particularly over the last two years as I've had to raise my game along with Rob producing such amazing work. Thechineseroom was created in spring last year, so I guess I've got nearly a year as a professional producer and director.
Briscoe: I'd been toying with making games for years, tinkering with various simple game creation kits like Klick & Play way back (anyone remember that?), but it wasn't until much later when I discovered the modding and mapping scene that I really started to get serious about game development and more specifically game art. I started out making a couple of maps for the Source engine and then got recruited into the mod Nuclear Dawn in 2005 where I met some really talented guys who inspired me to work hard and raise the quality of my work.
Many of them ended up getting jobs in the games industry as a result of the work we did, and eventually I also landed a job at Dice alongside some other fellow modders. I worked at Dice for two years on Mirror's Edge before deciding to take some time out to plan my next move, and that's when I stumbled upon Dear Esther.
What development tools were used to make Dear Esther?
Briscoe: I started off re-developing Dear Esther in Valve's Orange Box SDK for the Source Engine, which was a logical choice at the time. The project originally was just going to be a mod, a small side project for me to stretch my creative muscles during my time out.
Back then there wasn't really a lot of choice in engines/tools anyway - there was no UDK, CryENGINE 3, nor other license-free engines available, so modding was really the only way to go. I considered switching engines early on, but I really felt like the Source community was one of the best audiences for this type of game, which was really evident by the following the original had already gathered.
When we eventually got a license to go indie, Valve allowed us to use the latest Portal 2 version of Source which was a huge step up in comparison to the 2007 Orange Box Engine and tools, which has allowed me to raise the visual bar even higher than would ever have been possible with the old SDK.
What about Dear Esther will make it a winner at IGF?
Briscoe: Jessica's work with the music has really brought the whole game together in a way I never thought possible. She's done some amazing things with the music to help portray the atmosphere and emotions throughout the journey across the island. I don't think I've ever seen music establish such a symbiotic relationship with the environment and story before, so for me it's really groundbreaking stuff. The music is no longer just a backdrop, but an integral part of the storytelling process.
Of course, Dan deserves huge credit, as well. It was his amazing brain that originally conceived the idea of Dear Esther and brought it to life with his fantastic writing and vision of what games as a medium could do. Without his work, none of this would have even happened in the first place! He's really inspired me to push myself creatively in my work these past two years, so for me, the Nuovo really belongs to him!
Pinchbeck: Rob deserves this award because his art work is just stunningly good. It's not just the fact that it's probably the most beautiful game environment ever built, but the way it really subtly and cleverly feeds into the game, reinforcing the story and experience. It's such a challenge to create a world that really feels alive, not just a pretty backdrop, and that's an achievement [even] for huge AAA games with entire teams working to produce those kind of results. For one individual to pull it off is extraordinary.
So on one hand, it's a spectacular technical achievement; on the other, it's a complete showcase for how to create a world and to make sure it interweaves and enhances all the other parts of the game. The level of imagination, aesthetic quality and depth of reality are world-class.
How would you describe Dear Esther to potential players?
Pinchbeck: 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 through. It's an ambiguous, unsettling story. Then also in the environment, there are a lot of visual details 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.
Briscoe: 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.
Pinchbeck: 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 art forms, 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 randomized 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. [It's] kind of a William Burroughs thing, I guess.
What do you think the future of mods is going to be like?
Briscoe: For me, there's a lot more choice than you had before... 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.
Dan completed a doctorate in FPS games, which led to the questions that inspired Esther. Could you share what games and what questions specifically led to Esther, and how so?
Pinchbeck: The question behind Dear Esther was pretty simple: can you remove traditional gameplay loops from a first-person game and still have an engaging, rewarding experience? Happily for us, the answer seems to be a pretty solid "Yes."
But this question came from looking at a whole load of games in a lot of detail and really thinking about the way they orchestrate the player's experience, and that ranges from the way story is delivered in Half Life, to the kind of retrospective storytelling of System Shock 2, and then the attention to subtle, non-critical aspects of the world you see in games like Bioshock, STALKER, and Doom3. Both Rob and I are big fans of the whole Eastern European scene - STALKER, Metro2033, and Cryostasis.
And for me, studios like Frictional Games have been doing consistently amazing work for years. And, I'm still a DOOM freak. You can learn [almost] everything there is to learn about crafting a player experience in a first-person game from DOOM; it's all there.
[Parts of this interview were taken from a previous discussion with Lewie Procter.]