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Dear Esther: The Chinese Room Interview

Tom Hopkins

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With Dear Esther we can answer the question 'is story disposable?'

Published on Apr 17, 2011

For those that haven’t played it could you describe Dear Esther?
In a way it’s a ghost story, and in a way I guess it’s a love story and it’s told using game technologies. When it launched, people were saying was it a game or not? And I was like ‘I dunno’. Now I say ‘yeah, it is’ because what a game is has expanded so much, that it doesn’t seem to be any less of a game than a whole load of other things that are out there as games. It’s a game about love and loss and redemption.

How did it come about?
I was doing a PHD and looking at the relationship between content and gameplay in first-person games and analysing loads and loads of games in quite a lot of detail. It was throwing up loads of questions you couldn't answer because the games didn't exist - there was a lot of stuff going on back then about how important story was to games and how story on it's own wasn't enough to make a game engaging. It was all in first-person analysis. So my argument was how story is a gameplay device and shouldn't be separated from other parts of the gameplay.

Were stories in games as advanced then as they are now?
I finished it in 2008, BioShock was out, so there was fairly complex stuff. I was kind of saying that underestimating story was kind of a mistake. It might not be as critical as getting your weapon damage right, but it still can have a genuine effect on a player; you can use it to steer and manage expectation and things like that. We were basically hitting this thing where the games just weren't out there. I thought 'well there's only one way for us to know whether this stuff will working or not, and that's if we build it and see if it works. So we applied for some money, got some money and built the original three mods off the back of that. So I am a developer based at the university [of Portsmouth], and that's part of my job.

So that includes build new ideas into these projects?

Yeah. It's the usual kind of thing with research at universities - if you can generate the money to do it then it's a really serious way of researching things. So we can say 'we know this stuff works because we put it out in the community and out in the marketplace and people like it and it seems to work.'

How did a Dear Esther remake come together?
It went out in 2007, and then the final version of the build was out in January 2009. It was getting tens of thousands of downloads, which was amazing, and it won an award at Indiecade. Around the time I was at Indiecade, Rob (Briscoe) contacted me out of the blue and said ‘look, I think this is a really great idea, but it needs a real kick in terms of environment. We can do really great things with this.’ He said he’d worked on Mirror’s Edge and I kind of went ‘oooh’, and he said ‘do you mind if I rebuild it?’ so of course I said ‘yes, please do’ [laughs]. So it went from there, and he’s been rebuilding it for 12-18 months.

Were you surprised by some of the negative reactions to the remake going commercial?
A little bit, yeah. At least as many people, if not substantially more people have been really positive about it, and really for it. There were a fair number of people that felt genuinely aggrieved by it. We floated the idea of it going indie before we started negotiating [with Valve], we started negotiating off the back of an overwhelmingly positive response to going indie, and as soon as it was viable to tell people that it was going to go indie, we did. What else can you do?

Where will the profits end up?
It was research funding so it will benefit the university. What'll happen is part of the profits will feed into a research fund. With the game we're hopefully going to go into development on in the summer, the follow up, Everyone's Gone to the Rapture, I'm interested in whether you can use commercialisation to subsidise and self-fund research. It kind of happens in the indie Market all the time, you get some really experimental stuff. But for me there's not enough going on in academic research circles and I think we can go into some really high-risk blue sky areas and support industry and innovation that way. And if we can make money through commercialisation and pay for that research then it starts to make it a sustainable, viable option. I'm not personally going to get rich off of Dear Esther but hopefully it'll make us enough money to be able to carry on doing this kind of research.

Do you see this as an emerging way to get a project green-lit commercially?
I hope so. If we can show that it's viable then I hope that more researchers will start doing it, because traditionally games are seen as really expensive and complicated, but it's kind of surprising that other people haven't cottoned on to using mod tool kits and stuff like that to do content-based research because there's a lot of people interested in story.

Are there many other universities approaching games design in the same way as you?
What there are very, very few people doing is saying 'I've got a research question about games, and I'm going to build something to try and tackle that research question that also functions as a commercial game. The way we can answer that question is if we build it as a commercial game then we've got a way of saying 'yeah, that works' - and not in a lab, not theoretically, but out there in the real world. That's a really important way to get industry and academia working together. With Dear Esther we can say we understand development, we're actively developing and we know what it's like to work in this market right now. And we know what it's like when you're trying to protect your vision or idea whilst going through development hoops. With Dear Esther we can answer that question which is around right now, 'is story disposable?' Well it might be disposable, but equally Esther seems to suggest that gameplay might be disposable in some corners of the market as well. And that's an interesting question for industry, it's not just an academic question.

Who's interested in the results of your research?

A lot of the people that are interested in the results are in industry, as much as in academia. It's a bit fast and loose in how we analyse the data, but what you can't argue against is it's existing out there in the world, and it's valid as a game, so gamers responses to it are valid as a game. There's a lot of catch up work to do, but at least if someone is interested in the idea of whether you can have a game without gameplay, just pure story, Dear Esther will exist for them to study. It's design exploration really, rather than formal analysis.

How big a consideration is the engine when creating a project like Dear Esther?
If you’re going to mod, then Source is the biggest community to mod into, and it’s probably got the most diverse portfolio of mods as well. The Doom 3 mod we built because it was based on the gameplay of Doom 3, we basically stripped out the environments and changed some of the coding on it – which is a lot more work than it sounds. If you’re going to work in mods, it’s got to be Source in terms of the spread and size of the community. There’s other stuff – I’ve always wanted to mod S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – finally the tools are there but I don’t know if we’ll have enough time to do it.

Does Dear Esther’s overhaul show what Source is still capable of, visually?

I think so. Rob and Jack Morgan, the programmer have worked really hard in terms of optimising it – they’ve kind of squeezed every inch of power they can out of places that are not really used by Esther. I’m never sure that engines show their ages really, because... I’m writing this book on Doom and I’m playing a lot of Doom at the moment. It’s just a great game. It doesn’t matter that it’s an old engine - it’s just a brilliant game. We’re looking at possibly using Unity for the next project, and yeah, it’s not CryEngine, but it does the job you need it to do and it boils down to: is the gameplay good? Is it an engaging experience? And if it’s those things... look at Minecraft – it’s not exactly visually beautiful, but it’s a great game and that’s what really counts.

What, in your professional opinion, are the best first person-games?
I’m a huge S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fan. I just think the world is so enormously engaging and cool.

You’ll be looking forward to the sequel then?
I am. I really hope it goes in the right direction. The zone was so fantastic in Shadow of Chernobyl, and then Clear Skies turned into this kind of macho Call of Duty-lite, which was just awful. And then it swung back in the right direction with Call of Pripyat. I hope they keep swinging back. It was just so dark, and scary and weird... and really hard which I really liked as well. There were no heroics in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. I remember hiding behind a rock waiting for it to go dark in realtime, which is just so absurd in a first-person game, but I love that. I’m playing a lot of open world stuff at the moment as well. I’ve just finished Assassin’s Creed II - I’m well late, I’m just about to start Brotherhood. I’m getting much more into that kind of passive background world and less about the central plotline... it’s about how rich and how deep and can we make the world around it. It’s just somewhere I want to spend time in; it’s really interesting to me.

Is it an area you think you might experiment in?

Yeah. The project that we’re hoping to hear back on - Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture - is going to be an open world game. It’s all about abstract, passive background narrative, so there’s no plot as such, it’s just about being in a world, and trying to hold people in that world for a certain amount of time. The idea is it’s completely non-linear, so it’s a non-linear Dear Esther effectively. There are triggers and landmarks, so depending on where you are at what time in the game, different things come out. But there’s no formal path through the game at all, and the idea is you can never exhaust the game in a single play through, you can only exhaust about two-thirds of it. So you have to replay many times. It doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end but it definitely starts and it definitely stops, but between then, it’s how much can you give over to the player and keep it being rewarding, which is... interesting.

Is this the next step in your research?

I think so. Partially also it’s designed to be a commercial game, so it’s designed to see specifically whether you can use commercialisation to support research. But it’s also a natural lead-on from Dear Esther... Esther seems to suggest you can have really abstract, non-linear-ish story but in a very linear game, so the natural extension of that is going well, how does that work in a completely non-linear, open world game, and I’m really interested in that as well from the point of view of the background narrative in non-linear games anyway.

What you tend to get in stuff like Fallout 3 and Prototype is technically a non-linear world but it’s seeded with linear narratives. Can you have a background wash of narrative which is utterly non-linear? And to what extent does that work? It might work. It’s definitely high-risk [laughs]. But it should be interesting to find out. It might, hopefully, as well as being a good, engaging game, have some things in there that are useful to industry as well, to go ‘actually you can do that, or try that’.

 

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