How awesome does a mod have to be for Valve to give its creators full access to the Source engine and a distribution deal on Steam for an expanded, professional version? As awesome as Dear Esther, apparently. Read on for an extensive interview with Dr. Dan Pinchbeck, the research professor who created it. Quoth Pinchbeck: Dear Esther "makes Crysis look like Minecraft."
Dear Esther (get the original Half-Life 2 mod here) is a unique attempt at creating an interactive storytelling experience that entirely forgoes traditional game trappings. You don't pick anything up, you don't fight anything, you don't level up. You simply explore a lonely island, and the game tells you a story as you go along. How the story is presented, and even what facts you learn about the mystery surrounding the island, are determined by how you navigate the environment. Confused? Watch this trailer:
Still lost? Don't worry. We were too, until Dr. Pinchbeck answered our questions in great detail. I can't stress enough how interesting Pinchbeck's thought processes are. Anyone interested at all in storytelling in games simply must read on for the full interview.
GI: What is Dear Esther, and how does it differ from a traditional story-focused game?
Dr. Dan Pinchbeck: Dear Esther is a ghost story told using FPS technology: so it's a first-person game but rather than any traditional gameplay, the focus is on exploration and story. The player makes their way across a deserted island and as they do, a story unfolds. What makes it different is that the story is highly abstract and ambiguous, so rather than having the player focusing on solving puzzles or doing actions well, it's all on engaging with this story and the world.
How does the player interact with the world and progress through the story?
It's a very simple game to play. You move around and look around freely, but everything is delivered automatically to you. So as you travel, you trigger voice-overs, music, sound effects, all of which work with this beautiful, desolate and massively atmospheric environment to create this immersive story. There's also a lot of details in the environment, all of which add new depth and meaning to the narrative. So depending on where you are, and what you do, you'll come away with a completely different take on what is going on. The ambiguity of the story is really about that as well, and the fact that the voice-overs and some of the environmental details are all randomised, so no two players are likely to get exactly the same version of events.
Next up: Why a research-oriented academic created a video game
What was your goal in creating Dear Esther?
Esther was originally made for a research project about story and gameplay in FPS games. I wanted to explore a few highly experimental, high risk ideas of different things you could do in FPS games that you wouldn't normally find in commercial releases. So with Esther, I wanted to see whether you could do two things. Firstly, remove traditional gameplay, so there was nothing left but story to engage a player, and how viable that was. That comes from the idea that story is a gameplay device, and the idea that it's separate from other things we more normally call gameplay mechanics is part of the problem with integrating story well into games. It's a question of function. So in Esther, essentially what we did was assign to the story the level of functional importance normally assigned to things like combat or puzzles. It's serving a more amped-up function in Esther than story normally gets.
Secondly, I wanted to see how ambiguous and even contradictory you could make a story in a game and how players would respond to that. I get really frustrated with the last quarter exposition you get in games, where there's this sudden rush to make everything add up - and we don't worry about any of that in other media and it's usually very clumsy and ugly. Take a game like Infamous, which I completely love, it's a brilliant game with great writing and characters and works really well, but then we have this weird final cutscene which goes on forever, and ends up really clunky because it's trying to tie up all of these loose ends...and we just don't need it. So I wanted to push really far down the road of something not making any final or definite sense, to the extent where it was actually self-contradicting and deliberately evasive, and refused any single interpretation, to see if players responded well to that. And they do, and that's a lesson that can transfer directly across to mainstream game writing.
What are some of the limitations for storytelling in a traditional game design that you tried to avoid with Dear Esther?
Well, there's a certainly a tension for attention normally, the player has a finite amount of resources and the traditional model has been to keep the two things separate so gameplay and story don't trample over each other. We've got a lot better at dealing with that as an industry lately though, and exposing the duality as a bit of a sham. If you think of story as a function of gameplay, then you are asking "why have a story? what does it need to do?" and then you are writing to serve that function, then this idea of a tension between story and gameplay becomes irrelevant. Story is brilliant at helping focus players, giving meaning to their actions, helping them feel as if they are in a wider, deeper world than the system can present -- Bioshock is the obvious example of a game that makes you feel as if Rapture is a full, rounded world, rather than a set of more or less linear corridors.
Put this another way, we still are driven by resources and I think we can do more in terms of understanding how story can make a huge contribution to game design because compared to other aspects of game development it's basically massively cheap. The process of writing, casting, recording, editing and dropping in voice-overs and text is so cheap and we can make more of it. If you want to expand the game experience for a player, it's the obvious choice for a limited budget, frankly. And I do think as writers we should be making that case quite strongly. And by the same token, there's really no excuse for finding poorly written dialogue, or descriptive information anywhere in a game these days. There are lots of great writers out there and writing a decent character, audio log or diary entry, whatever it is, isn't rocket science. So there's no excuse to not take writing seriously if you are a studio. Because story isn't just an afterthought, or just a means of papering over the cracks, but a genuinely powerful means of making games more engaging for the player.
At the same time, it's important to understand that games don't actually necessarily conform that well to the movie model. We need homegrown game writers, not Hollywood imports, and as writers working in the industry, we need to be making the case that we have specialist skills and understanding that have their own value. And to do that, we have to look at these functional aspects of storytelling.
So I guess I don't buy the limitations as being anything other than a historical accident, the way the medium has grown and developed. In the best written games -- which are often the best games, as one thing about story being low on most developers' agendas is that if you get a game where attention has been paid to that, then it usually speaks of a wider attention to detail, and that's what makes a good game great -- this assumed limitation just isn't there at all.
Next up: Why the idea for Dear Esther had to be expressed in the gaming medium
What does Dear Esther do that is unique to an interactive medium that you couldn't do in, say, film or literature?
Two things really. Esther doesn't have any branching narratives or stuff, so it's not really an interactive narrative at all. You can't change or affect what story is delivered to you by your actions really. But what you do affect is how you engage with the world in a physical sense. Where you stand, how you approach landmarks, what you are looking at, how long you look at it...what you do whist the audio is playing...all of those things will be subtly impacting on interpretation and they are all down to the player. You can't do that in a non-interactive medium. You control the pace, the flow. Which is something we see in mainstream games too. I was playing Red Dead Redemption the other night and found myself just sitting at the top of a rise, watching the landscape. The ability to break the flow of events without breaking your being in the world is something absolutely unique to games. You can just be in the space.
And that's the second thing -- this idea of immersion. It's a really problematic concept, but there is a sense of being in the world in a game like RDR, or Esther. The screen is a much more fluid boundary, and most gamers have had that experience, whether it's a rush of vertigo, or panic to not get hit by a bullet or a sense of deep engagement with the world. I was playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. last night and had to jump for a ladder whilst a bloodsucker was chasing me and my heart was thumping and I felt myself lift off the chair to try and reach it. That's a game thing, no other medium can do that.
So that's for me why Esther works best as a game. This idea of the player being in the world, and the idea that as an author I surrender a lot of interpretative control over exactly how they will engage with the story. That's really exciting. I don't feel the need to control every aspect of their experience, which is why I write games not films.
How do you hope to advance the field of interactive media with Dear Esther?
I hope I've made a contribution to it in some way, in showing that players have a much higher tolerance for ambiguity in game stories than the industry has historically given them credit for, and that a really hardcore community like FPS players are willing to take something really quite left-field and niche to heart. That we can tell different stories, and we can do it in different ways. Also, I'm really interested in the idea of short game experiences, where we can have 2 hour experiences for the same price as a movie theatre ticket, and we don't have to be locked into $60, 20+ hours, that place incredible pressure on story and gameplay. The old survival horror model is a sad casualty of the way the industry has gone and we need to reclaim it. 5 brilliant hours are better value for money than 20 mediocre ones.
Plus the bottom line is that Esther came out of games research and hopefully I've made the case that at least some of us working in higher education have something to say.... Games research gets a lot of criticism for not being relevant, and to a large extent, I completely agree with that. Not enough researchers try their ideas out in practice, there's far too much theory and speculation. Making games is actually pretty easy now, so there's no excuse. If you want to find something out about games, and there isn't a game available you can look to for answers, then there's no excuse not to build it. And then release it, get it out into the gaming community. That'll tell you whether something works or not, way more than theorising about it. And you show relevance at that point, which is critical.
What made you decide to remake the original mod project as a commercial release?
The mod project succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, players really loved it and given that, it makes sense to try and get it out to the widest audience possible. It means we can expand beyond the modding scene, which is brilliant, but it's always going to be limited in terms of numbers. As Rob was building and showing me alpha builds, all I could think was, "this is amazing, totally exceptional and we have to get it out as far as we possibly can." Then we talked it over and he canvassed opinion with an update release and the response was really positive, so we went for it...
In terms of research, it's also a really important next step for us. So firstly, we can really test these ideas in the market place, which will be really interesting to be able to say to industry, "Look, this stuff is important, and gamers are interested in it." -- because it's no longer this academic experiment, but a commercial game. Also, part of the profits will feed into a research fund to support future games, so we are moving towards a model where research is paying for itself. That's a completely new and exciting venture for games research, to not rely on subsidy, or at least not as much. Sales depending, of course.
How will the commercial release differ from the original mod?
There's a huge difference in terms of level of detail and subtlety in the environment, lots more to discover and explore. To put this in context, the final level is almost twice the size of the mod version. As a game environment, the quality is extraordinary. Rob's work makes Crysis look like Minecraft. Obviously it's not just a tech demo, but as an engaging, immersive world, I think Dear Esther will be one of the most amazing game environments of 2011. So there's lots of new things to explore there, and they have a real impact on the interpretation of the story.
We have new script and voice overs going in, to expand the original, and a brand new soundtrack. Jessica Curry is back on board to re-orchestrate the whole music and audio score, so there's a massive boost in quality there. That's really exciting because the original was so amazing anyway, so it's going to be as extraordinary as the environment. And on top of the new soundtrack, there's more ambient audio details, so the whole world is deeper and richer than the mod was.
I think the bottom line is that the mod was an experiment that did fantastically well. The new version is a fantastic game.
When do you expect to release the commercial version, and through what distribution channels (i.e. Steam only, or other digital portals/retail box)?
At the moment, we're still saying Summer 2011, hopefully around June-ish. There's still a lot to do, though. It will be available through Steam initially, for PC. If it makes enough, we would love to port, but I think that gets filed with retail release as a lovely idea we are a long way away from at this point.