Inside Dear Esther, with Producer Dan Pinchbeck

dear esther, hermit
Abandoned home, possibly of the hermit who once lived on the island.

Dear Esther is a haunting, visually stunning first-person ghost story with layers of symbolic meaning. Originally released in 2008 as a mod for Half Life 2, it has been since remade and now contends for the big prize in this year’s Independent Games Festival. See what producer and writer Dan Pinchbeck had to say.

Game On: Tell me about yourself. How'd you get started on the road to game development?

Dan Pinchbeck: I’m the Creative Director of thechineseroom, which is an indie studio based in Brighton, UK. I've been playing games since my first Atari2600 and ZXSpectrum, back in the stone age, but only started developing professionally a recent time ago. Back in 2007, I was working at the University of Portsmouth, doing a PhD in first-person shooters, and put together a mod team to try out in practice some ideas about different things you could do with FPS gameplay. We made a couple of mods and Dear Esther was one of those. It was massively more successful than we ever dreamed it would be, and that pushed us on to make more, professionalising the team and eventually going solo from the University (we still work closely with them, but we're a separate company now). In 2009 we started collaborating with Rob Briscoe on the Dear Esther remake and the company has gone on from there.

Game On: What is Dear Esther?

Dan Pinchbeck: Dear Esther is a first-person game set on a deserted Hebridean island out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean somewhere. There's no traditional gameplay as such: you explore the island, triggering fragments of voice-over which begin to spin this strange and unsettling story. It's very ambiguous- you don't really know who you are or what is happening, and parts of the game are randomised, so it keeps changing as you replay it. We initially wanted just to see if you could basically ramp down all of those loops of gameplay you normally find in a first-person game almost completely and whether it would still be an engaging, rewarding experience - and it certainly seemed to work for players - the original mod racked up over 100,000 downloads and a couple of awards.

Why play it? Well, it's pretty much unique - both in terms of the experience, and the production. It has an emotional depth that is still quite rare in gaming, and it just feels very different to most other things out there. Players tell us it's very powerful and moving, and a really beautiful experience that stays with you long after you finish playing. We've got a really, really dedicated fanbase out there and it really seems to have hit home with lots of people. So even if you just want to try something new, it's won over even the most hardcore shooter fans (Rob and I are both hardcore shooter fans too) and just seems to engage people from across the spectrum of gaming.

It's also really amazingly realised, and I can say this because it's mainly the work of two really super-talented people so I'm not just bigging myself up! Rob Briscoe's work with the Source engine is extraordinary - the island is just one of the most impressive works of game art ever made. The world is drenched in atmosphere and has this wonderful sense of life and place - not many games get that same sense of place I don't think. And then Jessica Curry's soundtrack is just fantastic - up there with the best game music ever made. The production quality is just massively high throughout - it's a AAA game wrapped around a experimental core, which is really unusual. Then you've also got amazing voice-acting from Nigel Carrington. I wrote the script, so I'm not going to bang on about that, but lots of people seem to think that's pretty good too. So it's this mix of something which is delivered to a massively high standard, and is really different and unique too. That seems to be quite a cool combination.

Game On: What tools or training did you employ to create Dear Esther? How long did you spend working on it?

Dan Pinchbeck: Most of what you experience with Esther comes down to Rob's genius, frankly. He's an extraordinary artist and has wrung more out of the Source engine than any of us thought possible, He started work on the remake in the autumn of 2009, so it's been just over two years. Everything that went into this is more or less self-taught, just spending time figuring out how to optimise things for the game, a fair bit of talent and a lot of hard graft. I should also mention the other people on the team who worked really hard too: Jack Morgan our coder and Sam Justice, our audio wizard. There's a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff going on that makes a real difference. But there's no magic dust in here, just a lot of hours sweating over the build engine.

Game On: What are you most proud of Dear Esther for? What do you wish you could have done differently?

Dan Pinchbeck: That's a really tough one. I'm most proud of the team. I just think they are incredibly talented and it's been a real honour to work with them. When we launched the trailer, I checked the link through to YouTube and then just sat there and thought "We made this" and couldn't quite believe it. I think Dear Esther works because it's such a seamless fusion of play, visuals, audio, music, story... you don't often get such a well-balanced mix, and I'm really proud of that.

In terms of doing things differently - well, I think we got lucky. We were lucky to pick up Indie Fund as investors and without them we couldn't have done it. I've learned a lot about running the production side of things, and it's raised the bar for me in terms of our next games and what I expect from them. I think I started this process as an amateur developer / academic and now I'm proud to call myself a writer/producer. So there's a shitload of stuff I'd have done differently in terms of learning my craft as a professional game developer, but not a thing I'd change about the game.

Game On: How do you feel about the Independent Games Festival in general, and this year in particular? What are you excited to do, see and play at the show this year?

Dan Pinchbeck: The IGF is one of those things that just makes the world a better place! It's still the best showcase for indie developers and it's taken really seriously across the industry, so it's hugely important. You just go down the list of finalists - and honourable mentions - each year, and it's a roll call of phenomenal games, amazing talent. And this year is actually quite daunting in terms of the quality of the selected games. To be a grand prize finalist alongside Fez, Spelunky or Frozen Synapse... that's quite an achievement regardless of who wins what. I'm holding out for Art or Audio, just because I want Rob and Jess to get the kudos they deserve, but we all feel like losing to any of the other games would still be quite an honour, in a weird way. And I've got to shout out to Doug Wilson for J.S. Joust, which is the most ridiculously cool and brilliant game ever made for a motion controller. That's the dark horse this year I reckon. Not as many people have played it, but everyone who does becomes an instant fan. I'll be playing a lot of drunken Joust this year.

Shipwreck near shore of Hebridean Island.

Game On: What might you say to someone eager to dabble in indie game development? Any tips or warnings?

Dan Pinchbeck: Oh wow, great question. OK. I think everyone should go for it, no holds barred, and just follow an idea even if it sounds fucking crazy at first, because the great thing about the indie scene is there's an amazing tolerance for fucking crazy ideas. I love the scene because it combines this really anarchic sense of play (and being playful as a developer too), with a community that is so passionate, and well-informed, and supportive, and that's a real credit to everyone in it.

I guess my warnings would be - well, you will be judged on your product, not your personality, and that's absolutely proper and right. Make something and use that to show people how good you are. Don't expect to be able to just shout out you've got a great idea and have people fall over themselves to talk to you, because being a developer takes graft and actually producing something. And if it's really hard work to go from idea to game, it's at least as difficult to go from game to market. And that's good, because it's kind of a natural darwinian process, that thins out the number of people and games so only the most dedicated actually see the whole thing through to getting something out on sale - and it being so difficult to do that is why the scene is so strong. So be ready to work really hard, fight for your ideas, push yourself and if you don't totally believe in your game, then ditch it, find something you do totally believe in and go for that.

Game On: What makes the official game (which is available on Steam, for $9.99) a better experience than the free HL2 mod?

Dan Pinchbeck: It's a better experience than the mod because... well, the art and audio is just on a different level. It looks and sounds better than a lot of AAA games, and that's not just a pretty facelift, the quality of presentation makes a profound difference to how immersive the experience is. The maps are bigger and far more detailed, with lots of new details to find - including lots of environmental details that change the reading of the story, so it's now really worth spending more time in the world. The caves section is completely different, and the final level is nearly twice the size of the original. It's really quite different. We've also added a fourth voice-over cue to each trigger, so there are new story combinations that in some cases quite radically change what seems to be going on. And the new soundtrack is just stunning. So you can get a sense of how the game is from the mod, but it's a shadow of the new game. Think of it as a demo.

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