“It’s all about precision and flow”: Dear Esther creator talks live performances, politics and game design
by Thomas McMullan
I’m sitting in darkness near Tottenham Court Road with Dan Pinchbeck, creative director of The Chinese Room. These days the studio is most known for 2015’s award-winning Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but The Chinese Room first made its name with the haunting Dear Esther – set on an island in the Hebrides, with fragments of a letter read to the player as they cross the uninhabited terrain.
I’m in a room with Pinchbeck because Curve Digital is releasing a landmark edition of Dear Esther, bringing the game to Xbox One and PS4. The game is also getting its own live event at the Barbican in London, where an orchestra will play composer Jessica Curry’s score, accompanied with readings and the game itself played on stage. It’s a notable reframing of a game into a more traditional cultural context which, depending on your outlook, marks either a significant move by a major cultural institution or a highbrow take on a Let’s Play YouTube video.
On one wall of the dark room is a TV monitor, showing Dear Esther. Pinchbeck is sitting beside me, and with a controller in my hand I start across the island.
TM: How does it feel revisiting Dear Esther?
DP: Really odd. I think you get so used to shipping something, and then you’re straight onto the next thing. All you see by the time you ship are problems, so it’s nice to come back to something and say, I’m really proud of what we made – in particular, the work of Jess, Rob and Nigel [Jessica Curry, Robert Briscoe and Nigel Carrington – Dear Esther’s composer, artist and voice actor respectively].
[In the game, we walk besides a cliff.]
TM: You’ve got a live show coming up at the Barbican. I know The Guardian is also running an event. It’s rare for a game to be placed in contexts like these, normally reserved for theatre companies or author readings. How does it feel to have that kind of reception?
DP: It’s strange being in that position. Very flattering. Jess was on a week with composers and filmmakers a few months ago. She met the programmer at the Barbican and talked about Esther. He had a look at it and said we should do it live on stage – because it’s quite a short game, you can do that. You can get through it in an hour.
TM: Putting Dear Esther in a performance context with the Barbican. Does that change the way you think about the game?
DP: It’s going to change it on the night because it’ll be incredibly stressful [laughs].
TM: Who’s playing it?
DP: I’m playing it, which means I’m the human backup if the tech fails. There are the musicians and the live voice actors, but if the tech doesn’t work it’s me sitting there with a controller, nodding furiously.
TM: Describing scenes. “There’s a lovely landscape and a boat over there.”
[We walk over rocks on a beach.]
DP: It’s going to be really fun. The game has been out a long time. We don’t have anything to prove with it. It’s a feeling that we can genuinely celebrate it, and I’m really excited about the soundtrack being played live… There’s no doubt in my mind that Jessica’s work is a big part of not just who we are as a studio, but a reason we’re thriving as a studio.
TM: Do you think having the game performed in the Barbican will open up the game to another audience?
(Above: Dan Pinchbeck)
DP: I hope so. We still have that really hard divide between gamer and non-gamer in a way you just don’t have in other mediums. I think it’s important to make those statements culturally, to say that these things do have value. It also works in the other direction. If games are being taken seriously culturally, there’s a different set of expectations on them.
“More people will play Mankind Divided than will ever read a book about Black Lives Matter”
It’s been really interesting watching the debate around the politics in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. [Mankind Divided has been a source of controversy for, what some have argued, a co-opting of racial politics in the US – particularly the Black Lives Matter movement.] Games aren’t this tucked-away thing where it doesn’t matter. More people will play Mankind Divided than will ever read a book about Black Lives Matter, so if you’re going to engage with those types of politics, you better do it properly and seriously.
TM: So it’s no longer enough just to crudely nod towards something? Does the size of the potential audience mean developers need to be more sophisticated in how they handle politics in their games?
DP: I think so. I was very impressed by the way the team behind Mankind Divided said there was a lot of pressure on them to live up to this. The intent was certainly there, which is important.
[We follow a path alongside a cliff edge.]
TM: In terms of narrative, how has the way you think about story and environment changed since Dear Esther?
DP: With Dear Esther, there was the question: what does the story need to make sense? What happens if you have symbols and images that are more about the way they resonate and the impression they give, rather than the way they make literal, linear sense? I think with Rapture we ran with a similar idea – that you never have a single voice that’s an authorial perspective. It’s much more about how everybody’s got an impression of what’s going on. In terms of the stuff we’re doing now, certainly the project we’re currently working on, the voice acting is stripped down to very small sections.
(Above: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture)
TM: Is this the VR project?
DP: It’s unannounced, but yeah. There are all kind of problems with text in virtual reality. Subtitling is a nightmare. With Rapture, Jess and I talked about how, if you turned off all the text in the game, it would still tell you a story through music and visuals. Going through that process in Rapture has made me a better writer. Just because writing is cheaper compared to something like AI or ballistics, is still has to absolutely earn every single second of its existence.
[We follow a path through long grass.]
TM: I remember reading an article about [the British director] Peter Greenaway. He talked about wanting an image-based cinema. That all writers should be shot. It’s provocative, but I wonder if there’s a comparison for games. Is there a tendency to go to the bookshop when you’re looking to make a game story, instead of coming up with a language that works for games?
DP: Absolutely. By the way, Jess is a huge Peter Greenaway fan. She really takes an ongoing inspiration from his relationship with [the composer] Michael Nyman, and how they worked on films together.
(Above: A shot from Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract)
DP: For me, it’s about understanding what something can do that other things can’t. You shouldn’t be using writing in a game for plot exposition. Words should be there to do the things that the other storytelling devices can’t, like expressing interior lives, or to set up a counterpoint to what you’re seeing and hearing. You can seed an idea with words that the player carries with them. Something that completely cuts across at a weird angle to what they’re seeing. That’s what I mean by earning its place. Rather than the traditional thing of walking up to a character and them saying “I’m very upset because I’ve lost my green keycard. Can you please find it for me? I think I left it behind the bins.” Really? If you can’t communicate that you need to find a green keycard behind the bins without using words, you’re basically not doing a good enough job as a game designer.
[There is a shipwreck in the distance.]
TM: Reading something in text, or hearing it in the audio, and then that having that reverberate with the environment. You can create interesting clashes with those two things, right?
DP: I think so. We don’t do it very often in games, if at all. It’s always about reinforcement rather than counterpoint and contradiction.
TM: There’s this great artwork I love by Juan Muñoz, which is a sculpture of a banister. It looks like a normal banister in an art gallery, but he hid a knife in it. So if you slide your hand across it you’ll slice your fingers open. I love that as a way of thinking about games, ones that use the fact you have a crutch – a comfortable relationship to how you play – and then doing something to challenge those expectations.
(Above: Juan Muñoz, First Banister, 1987)
DP: I think we as an industry are at a point where we understand player psychology well enough to play with it. As a player, getting played with in that way is really fun. When you go, oh you got me, you got ahead of me.
TM: I guess that also hinges on there being an established grammar that you can subvert, or take as a given. Are games at that stage?
DP: I think so. You’ve got Ethan Carter, Firewatch, ADR1FT. They’ve all pushed beyond the walking simulator. They’ve started layering in mechanics and taking grammar from other types of games. It was really interesting to see the difference between the first Tomb Raider reboot and the second one. The biggest thing they injected into it was space, and time to explore. I wouldn’t be so arrogant to say it’s a result of the walking simulator genre, but I reckon the designers were thinking along similar trajectories – “What if there’s less?”
[We’re inside a shipping container.]
TM: Not just throwing a few extra bad guys in there?
“I feel like I’m just being minced through a machine.”
DP: I’m a massive shooter freak. I want combat to be interesting as well. Bioshock Infinite is the classic case. There isn’t a great deal of intelligence in the combat in terms of why it’s happening. It doesn’t have any meaning. I feel like I’m just being minced through a machine. But I loved the remake of Doom, because it’s got a design weight to it in terms of the combat. It understands its own grammar so exceptionally well. It knows exactly how to finesse an arena encounter to the point it feels new and fresh, even in quite a simple run-and-gun format.
You can feel someone crafting that and honing it. It’s like a poet saying: just that word, just there. That’s what makes it special. That’s what Rob and Jess did with Esther. That nuance and that inflection. It’s all about precision and flow.
[We follow a path along the water’s edge.]
TM: That’s interesting in the context of something like No Man’s Sky. There you have procedural generation, but the game does in many ways come from the lineage you describe of games such as Dear Esther, where the emphasis is on exploration and environment. With No Man’s Sky, it’s computer made, but Dear Esther – as you were saying – is precise in how it’s paced. Can you do both?
DP: I think it’s the holy grail. I think it’s understanding how to shift seamlessly between procedural and scripted without drawing attention to that threshold. Where you have that complete uniqueness and a really personal journey, but you can also ensure you’re getting the scripted beats that give you a dramatic curve. It wouldn’t surprise me if Hello Games crack it at some point, that there’ll be a [Destiny DLC] Taken King [equivalent] in 12 months that makes the game as good as it can be.
Total Darkness, the project we’re working on now, started as a board game, then went procedural, then we’ve shifted away from that. I think we made that decision because we haven’t made games that really hinge on replayability. For me, replayability is a bit of a…what’s the word…white elephant?
TM: Red herring?
DP: Red herring.
TM: The elephant in the room.
DP: The herring in the room.
TM: The elephant under the fish.
DP: If I love a book, I’ll read the same book again and find new things in it. I don’t need it to be fundamentally different. That, inherently, doesn’t make it better. It should only be me that’s changing.
[A cave opens up around us.]
TM: This is nice.
DP: Rob changed the way caves look in games. After Dear Esther, so many caves look like our caves. That’s more than tech improving. It’s a generation of artists changing how they think about caves.
[We go further into the caves.]
The relationship between the visuals and music in this section is so dreamy and otherworldly. I always feel slightly weird that this is the bit with the least amount of text. The best bit of the game is the bit without my words.
TM: Well, it’s like you were saying about giving the text room to breathe.
DP: While you’re in here, you have time to think about what you’ve heard so far, yeah.
[We look at the caves.]