Visionary: Dan Pinchbeck (Dear Esther)

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Epistolary first person adventure; Dear Esther has surpassed the 100’000 sales mark and has been a huge success. I asked creator Dan Pinchbeck about his future projects; the wildly ambitious Everybody’s gone to the rapture and Amnesia: a machine for pigs, a collaboration with Frictional games to produce their next asphyxiating horror.

Dear Esther has clearly proved that it is commercially viable to create something neoteric in an over saturated genre, especially one that typically has a gun on the screen. Was there anything in Esther you wanted to explore further or has your vision been fully realised?

I think you always have things you want to do, but they are not always suitable for a particular game, and you have to draw a line. So for me, Esther is finished- everything that needed to be there to make it work got in, and I wouldn’t add anything else (originally, Rob had added in some more traditional gameplay but they got removed again as he figured it diluted the experience too much). But you get a load of new ideas about the next game whilst you are finishing one off, so there’s quite a bit of new things going into Rapture, many of which were inspired by ideas from Esther – things that wouldn’t work in that context, but were clearly good avenues to explore.

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Something I found really intriguing was temperature fluctuations in Esther, both visually and phonically. The tones of Nigel Carrington’s voice provides a type of warmth in response to the cold landscape. The soundtrack also shifts between callous and friendly depending on your location and its temperateness. Was this deliberate in order to make the audio and landscape coalesce into one?

I guess, although it’s often much more of an instinctive thing than that, particularly if you are working as a team. You always try and create a journey that has arcs, and diversity to it, and so inevitably, you are looking at how you fuse all the aspects of the production to both enable that, and enable the elements to play off against each other. I think that both Jessica’s music and Nigel’s voice-over add a great deal of warmth to the experience, certainly a very human emotional depth, which contrasts to the often stark beauty of the environment. The island is captivating in it’s desolation, the voice personalises this loneliness and the music gives it this flow. So yeah, deliberate, but very instinctive. You tend to not say things like “this area needs more warmth” or “should be more callous” but you kind of talk in slightly more abstract terms about those things.

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Everybody’s gone to the Rapture is the spiritual successor to Dear Esther, which is based around six characters in the moment of an apocalypse. Will these characters be explored through dialogue or through the narrative of the landscape and will they meet each other?

All of the above, and can’t say right now about the last! We’re keeping that sense of holistic storytelling from Esther- it’s what games do really well, but one of the differences is that these are distinct, separate characters – you really believe and invest in them as people, and they have individualised relationships with the landscape and the player. And maybe each other. That’d be telling.

You are trying to engage the user in an open world setting with no control of what the user will do. Will you be employing an adaptive soundtrack, similar to what Ed Key has been experimenting with in Proteus, and how will you lead us to explore?

Yeah, not generative, but responsive, a multi-layered composition that has a great deal of control over the interpretation of the dramatic experience. It’s a huge challenge, as we’re looking at a soundtrack that is as deep and cinematic as Esther, avoiding being more abstract, keeping it quite narrative and focused in tone. That’s really, really hard to do – we’re lucky to have such a great composer with Jessica. As for exploration, it’s always a big challenge working signposting in an openworld. It’s involved a lot of testing, a lot of trials, making sure there’s always a visual point of interesting, an event, something leading you or rewarding you wherever you go and whatever you do. That’s often just a case of pushing through it, trying a lot of things out, tweaking and polishing. Unglamorous donkey work really.

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You are also creating a follow-up to Amnesia (Amnesia: a machine for pigs). What are the lessons you have learnt from Korsakovia and the Conscientious objector that you are applying to this new entry?

Well, I think the key thing we got from Korsakovia is that the unknown is far, far scarier than anything else. So not falling into the trap of telling the player too much, trusting their ability to cope with abstraction, ambiguity, confusion. And in a similar way to Esther, that often the most frightening levels are those where you are waiting for something to happen, and stringing that sense along for as long as possible. That’s an old trick really, but it works super-well, and where Korsakovia failed was not following that rule enough. But the visceral, strange, confused sense of story in Korsakovia is something we’ll certainly mine for ideas. Conscientious Objector is a different one really, for me, it’s a really funny, not scary as such. But the sense of powerlessness of the player made it pretty frightening for lots of people, and that’s a direct fit with the type of gameplay ideas that are classic Amnesia.

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Amnesia had such a brooding, suppressive feel to it. How are you delivering that atmosphere yet creating a unique experience for people who have played the original?

That’s a really hard question to answer. Again, it’s a lot of donkey work, just refining and testing. We’re definitely bringing our own stamp to it, but I can’t really talk too much about that without giving too much away.

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You ask a lot of questions, of your-self and of your audience. Do you think it is important that consumers keep their minds open to new ideas? At times it feels like we are in a perpetual groundhog day of people buying and playing the same things.

I actually think it’s a pretty exciting time. Quite niche, different games are doing really well at the moment – like Journey, Esther, Proteus, and you also have things like Antichamber coming, a new Tale of Tales game… there’s a lot of experimentation and a real hunger for it, so there’s definitely a fair bit more going on than is often talked about. And I’m a complete AAA junkie. I love the groundhog day in many ways, I like the experiences I get from AAA titles. It’s not a problem for me. I’m playing Mass Effect 3 and Prototype 2 at the moment and loving them both. Games so often get accused of being derivative, but seriously, turn on your TV, go to a cinema, open a book, listen to an album. The overwhelming majority of any media form is a variation on an established theme. It’s OK. We don’t need to panic about that. But an open-mind in any situation is a good thing, or you are going to miss out on cool stuff and have a boring life.

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Because of the history within first person perspectives, it is easy to forget that it is simply a viewpoint of a space. Do you think consumers sometimes have expectancies of what should be put into these spaces and what they should do in them?

Sure, although I think it’s important to respect the fact that FPS games have been honing a design template for over twenty years (well, the first FPS was in the 1970s, but let’s stick with Wolfenstein and Doom). There’s a very particular experience about first-person, the way it pitches you into the action, into the world. It’s very very good for certain types of experiences- visceral, emotional, tense, filled with sudden moments and spectacle, and although that derives from the viewpoint, it’s also a way of maximising what it gives you. So FPS games are not so good at platforming (Korsakovia is a case in point) which leads to a certain type of play, of approach to play, which helps define the kinds of experiences, worlds, etc, you have, and that’s something to remember. And it’s also fundamentally about simplifying an environment in the classic design template, and shooting is the simplest, most rewarding way of doing this. The act of exploring, shooting from a first-person perspectives has such resonance because it’s phenomenally powerful and effective. So it’s not wonder there are expectations around that. Most of the deviations from that pattern have been less effective.

Who else is examining the fabric of videogames and what was the last game that generated something you had never experienced before?

Wow. Ummm. Lots of people, I don’t know if I could begin to answer that. There are obvious more radical studios – Tale of tales, Stout games, Ed Key, Die Gute fabrik, Ice pick lodge, Bennett foddy. Too many to mention. I’m not sure about the last part of that question. I don’t go looking for new for new’s sake. I’m much more drawn to games which deliver a great experience, even if it’s a variation on an experience I’ve had many times before. Mass Effect 3 is a brilliantly crafted game where I care about the characters, I’m drawn to the world, I’m hooked on the leveling up and I love the action. That’s plenty for me. I’m happy with that. It doesn’t have to be radical or innovative or even inventive to be worthwhile and enjoyable for me. I loved Rage.

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One response to “Visionary: Dan Pinchbeck (Dear Esther)

  1. Pingback: Prevision: Among the sleep | Interactive visions

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