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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Prevision: Proteus

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Platform: PC
Developer: twisted tree games

There was a promise made when we exhorted primitive pixels on a blank screen. A suggestion induced by the watercolour illustrations of videogame packaging. It was that the metaphors would transfer from the box art, through the television and into our hands. The pixels were indifferent however. They could instigate panic and excitement but not subtler shades of emotions. The atmospherics were not as convincing as we were led to believe, not as they were depicted in the watercolours.

Aesthetically Proteus could be mistaken for belonging to that era, nestled somewhere between the Atari 2600 and the Commodore 64; struggling to convince its user of its assets and virtues…but Proteus doesn’t struggle, Proteus has realised what was promise in those primitive pixels.

Your starting point is a sleepy eyelid; it unseals revealing a first person perspective, a pixellated ocean and a distant (randomly generated) island. It is intensely familiar yet uniquely poised; as you drift ashore you think of Minecraft and the elder scrolls, but with your first step onto the sand, that all falls away. You are greeted with a paroxysm of sound and the subsequent minutes have you wandering through trees to a deluge of phonic tonal fluctuations; ethereal blips and beeps derived from the environment.

The Island generates a cosy feeling of refuge, facilitated by the harmonics of nature’s chanting. Melodic frogs hop around donating playful tunes, mischievous creatures chat and retreat into the earth as you approach them. The only ominous find is blackened castle ruins with their crazed organ accompaniment; the walls cannot be breached; you only regulate the crossfade of its noise.

As you explore more of the island, it is natural to wonder about an objective. You realise there has not been any tangible interactions, in terms of collectibles or goals. But then it dawns on you; perhaps the objective is discovering your auditory perception of the world. “Each element in the world could have a “voice” that would combine to make a shifting soundscape as the player explores.” explains creator Ed Key. “The music forms a kind of subjective reaction to the world. We (David Kanaga generates the soundtrack) also modify the world according to the shifts in subjective experience of the player’s “character”.”

The goal I had been looking for was with me from the start. Under further analysis Proteus has mechanisms of sounds and they craft a type of phonology; relationships of audio forming the components of a language. A language that the ignorant or impatient might admonish because Proteus eschews many traditional game elements.

Ed felt that a lot of these elements were detrimental to the experience; “Players and developers often feel like there should be “enemies” or scores. The point about enemies and challenge has been evident in some players’ reactions to Fez. Basically I think that if you’re making a truly experimental or heartfelt game you should just follow it wherever it takes you and don’t add elements just because of expectations. Add things when they make sense to what the games means to you.”

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My epiphany with the function of Proteus suddenly opens up all sorts of questions; what happens phonically when I stand in the ocean while it is raining? How is the ambience of a mountaintop affected when I am engulfed in a cloud? They are questions that you set yourself, not obligatory but compulsively so.

The most significant question I asked was; what are those large stone edifices for?

Walking by them releases a boom of reverberation that harmonises with the syntax of the landscape. It is like an outpouring of musical notes; resonating upwards as a hard wind blows through the island. As the sun sets, the sounds you have released congregate around a formation of rocks, they pirouette before you. It is one of those moments that only this medium can induce; a spectacle of pure amazement. The skyline fast-forwards in a rapid advancement of a day and night cycle; precipitous clouds shoot pass, the rise and fall of the sun applauding you as you step into the swirling mass of sound, and as you do; the season changes.

Summer bristles with a buoyant hand clap, as intonations bounce around the terrain. There is a confident swagger in the parade of birds and the screaming of bees, flowers sway in unison. This season literally bursts through the screen; both visually and phonically it feels like a solstice which you want to be infinite. But you know nature’s portal collects somewhere on the island. There is that desire to see what the next state of the terrain is like and when you enter; autumn’s sombre mood is a stark contrast. The oranges and browns of the fall bring a tone of sadness. Proteus switches to being contemplative, there are few animals here and those that you find are absorbed in foraging. Winter is even more despondent, with no signs of life it feels initially suppressive. Low laying clouds try to reach out to the floor, the urgency to scramble to higher ground is irascible but then the snow comes, a calm washes over you.

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There are certain moments when Proteus doesn’t feel like any other game, it shows you the rare minutiae of life; the feeling of watching snow gliding to meet an ocean turned to ice or salmon pink clouds illuminated by the winter sun above. These instants are neither searched nor scripted; they just happen whether you are there or not.

Ed has observed that when people explore; “various trails (literal paths and those created by animals) overlap through the terrain and interact with the positions and views of landmarks to create a kind of “flow” through the world.”

You get a sense of this flow even though you are not bound to it. Screenshots or even watching the game in motion is unrevealing. You must navigate them yourself to understand, with your eyes and ears.

The influences that helped create Proteus are varied but not responsible for its uniqueness. Ed personally cites Brian Eno phonically, and an animation by Yuriy Norshteyn called hedgehog in the fog. “Purely by structure, I think Nifflas’ “Knytt” was very important to me. That simple exploration with no obligation to fight enemies or solve puzzles felt really bold. Graphically I think I was a little inspired by people like Cactus who make fantastic, garish, bold, low res graphics that have a ton of personality and style.”

At the time of writing Proteus is not yet complete but I asked Ed about his plans for the future. Is he looking to challenge conventions or build on existing foundations within the medium? He talks about Himalayan expeditions, the hardships of covering immense distances and scaling huge mountains. It makes me think of journey but its linearity does not fit in from what I have experienced on this pixellated island. It felt like an escape, perhaps from the monotony of life, but maybe it is an escape from the trappings of the videogame. The guns, the fetch quests and the boss fights are not evident here. There are not many places you can find that outside of Proteus.

Pre-order Proteus here

This is early experimental gameplay footage