Dear Esther is an upcoming first-person perspective game where players are free to explore an abandoned island, discovering the mysterious narrative through their exploration.
From Dear Esther’s official website: “Forget the normal rules of play; if nothing seems real here, it’s because it may just be all a delusion. What is the significance of the aerial – What happened on the motorway – is the island real or imagined – who is Esther and why has she chosen to summon you here? The answers are out there, on the lost beach and the tunnels under the island. Or then again, they may just not be, after all…”
The following interview is with Dear Esther’s writer and producer, Dan Pinchbeck, and Dear Esther’s Artist and Level Designer, Robert Briscoe.
Dear Esther provides a unique storytelling experience, largely unseen before. What should players expect, going into Dear Esther?
Rob: Expect something different, a fresh look at what the games medium can do outside the boundaries of traditional gameplay. There’s no shooting, puzzling or platforming, instead the focus here is on exploration and story, uncovering the mystery of the island, of who you are and why you are there. Every play through is unique, with randomised narrative and environment details which give you your own individual insight into of the story of Dear Esther.
Dear Esther started as a Source-mod, is the new version of Dear Esther still using the Source engine?
Rob: Yeah we’re still using the Source Engine, although a much newer, shinier version built upon the Portal 2 codebase. I did start the rebuild in the Orange Box version of Source though, as a mod, which we used to right up until we hit alpha and finally got our Source License.
It wasn’t difficult to start from scratch, in fact rebuilding the levels was made so much easier by the fact I had the original mod to reference from. I tried to keep close to the original in terms of the layout of the island – for example all of the important landmarks still remain, but in terms of visuals I have given the environments a huge overhaul to make them much more interesting, detailed, and diverse.
More importantly I spent a lot of time making sure that the design flaws from the original (getting stuck, overlapping voice-over’s, confusing navigation etc.) were fully resolved, so that the experience was as flawless as possible. I think the most difficult part was keeping the atmosphere authentic to the original. There is this desolate loneliness in the mod version which I think is so important to the game, and it was a real challenge to balance this with the sheer detail amount of detail added into the remake, but I think I managed it.
Besides the improved visuals, what else is new with the updated version?
Rob: Overall you’re getting a much more polished experience, not just visually, but in every aspect of the game; the design, music, scripting, voice-overs etc.
There’s also the fantastic, re-mastered soundtrack, new voice overs, and a ton of randomized details in the environment which complement and even contradict the original Story. So now we have a huge amount of depth behind the story and history of the island which was not visible before, and coupled with the new environments, we’re really raising the bar in terms of being able to immerse yourself in Dear Esther’s universe.
How many people worked on the original Dear Esther, and how many are working on the new version?
Dan: The original version was a team of 4 – me, on the code & art, plus Jessica on the music. So for the new version, it’s the same size team – Rob has delivered pretty much everything in the environment, and basically been leading all aspects of the actual development including code. We’ve got a great programmer, Jack Morgan, and Jessica has re-made the soundtrack of course. Then there have been some other people working on aspects as well that we should credit – Ben Andrews, our concept artist, and Sam Justice, who’s done a lot of audio work with Rob and Jess, and then a bunch of musicians and studio engineers for all the audio work. But it’s still essentially a team of four.
Do you feel that what you are doing with Dear Esther, could be one day used to present poetry academically?
Dan: I guess so, although it’s never been something I’ve considered. I think games are amazing places to explore storytelling, poetry, all of those things, as they are so unique. But my focus is on games, and what you can do with them. One of the really wonderful things about games in the last few years has been the huge advances in depth and detail in terms of storytelling, particularly using games to spin these extraordinary worlds, and in a way, that’s starting to flesh out what was done back in the early 90s when graphic tech really started kicking off.
For me, what you see in Skyrim, or Metro2033, or Uncharted, or Dear Esther, these are extensions of the ground broken by titles like DOOM and System Shock, about submerging the player in a fictional world that is optimized and geared to support the gameplay and the experience, to orchestrate the player’s journey through the game. So in a genuine way, Dear Esther’s heritage belongs to that history, as what we’re doing is adjusting the relative weight of those design components.
Dear Esther is like the Phobos Anomaly without the shotguns and Imps, it’s drawing on that whole aspect of games to try something new. I see a slightly weird but more-or-less direct route back to the amazing work people like Adrian Carmack did on those older games, and that’s what grabs me as a designer. But essentially, yeah, I guess it could, and I’m always banging on about how critical it is that academics stop just theorising about games and get their hands dirty, build things, explore things practically. A couple of hundred years ago, I’d have been one of those crazy inventors wiring up bodies to lightning conductors and sticking electrodes in their own brains, just to see what happened. I’m definitely up for experimentation.
When and where can players get a copy of Dear Esther?
Dan: Dear Esther will be available on Steam on the 14th February – http://store.steampowered.com/
A big thanks to Dan and Rob for answering our questions!
Visit the official Dear Esther website for more information.