IGF Factor 2012: Dear Esther

By Alec Meer on February 6th, 2012 at 9:55 am.

Hauntingly beautiful, exploration-based first-person ghost story Dear Esther (a lavish remake of the mod of the same name) is up for the Excellence In Visual Art, Excellence In Audio, Nuovo Award and Seamus McNally Grand Prize at this year’s Independent Games Festival. As part of our series chatting to the creators of (almost) all the PC and Mac-based finalists, today we talk to Robert Briscoe, lead artist on Dear Esther, about Stalker, Mirror’s Edge, making in-game exploration satisfying, why indie development should be taught in universities and his answer to the most important question of all.

RPS: Firstly, a brief introduction for those who may not know you. Who are you? What’s your background? Why get into games? Why get into indie games?

I’m Robert Briscoe, game artist, ex Environment artist on Mirror’s Edge and for the past 3 years Indie developer working on the remake of Dear Esther. I’ve always wanted to make games for a living, ever since I got my C64 and learned how to code hangman in basic . I think it was about creating something others could enjoy that appealed to me the most and it kind of became a passion in my life from a very early age. The indie thing evolved rather unexpectedly for me – originally Dear Esther was supposed to be a fun side project to keep my creative juices flowing whilst I took a year out to spend time back in the UK with my family, I never really expected it to turn into a full-blown indie project but I’m glad it has, it been such a great experience and I’m really excited to see where things go from here.

RPS: What are you most pleased with on your game? What would you change if you could?

I think, for me, what pleases me the most about the game, at least from an artistic standpoint, is the sheer amount of detail that’s been squeezed into the environment. I really think that details matter, especially in a game such as Dear Esther where you want to encourage and reward exploration. My goal was to make every area offer something unique to find and have every vantage point offer something visually interesting to the player to look at. I often find it really disappointing in some games where from a distance an area or structure looks really cool and interesting, but upon getting closer it end up being a bit barren, low-res and boring.

A big influence of this came from watching Tarkovsky’s Stalker and how his meticulous attention to detail helped create a such a great atmosphere. From a technical standpoint, it was a real challenge to do in source along with some of the huge open landscapes and I had to pull out every trick in the book to get it to work, but I think it was worth it.

RPS: What are your feelings on the IGF this year? Pleased to be nominated? Impressed by the other finalists? Anything you worry has been overlooked?

I’m both extremely excited and very nervous! I still can’t believe we got 4 nominations! I think this year’s IGF has some of the best games to date, just looking at some of the other nominees makes me feel extremely honoured to be among them. Fez and Botanicula look really fantastic and I’m especially impressed with To the Moon.

RPS: Which game (other than your own) would you like to see take the Grand Prize this year?

That’s a very difficult one to answer because I haven’t yet had a chance to play any of the other finalist’s games yet. Botanicula and Lume look very interesting though, can’t wait to play them.

RPS: How do you feel about the indie scene of late? What would you like to see from it in the near-future?

I used to make an effort to keep track of the indie scene but it has grown so much in the past couple of years that these days I find myself a bit overwhelmed to be honest, and that’s a good thing! I love the sheer variety of games that the indie scene has introduced, and especially the amount of creative, original stuff that’s out there – it’s a great source of inspiration.
What I’d like to see, well actually it’s already happening, but what I’d like to see more of in the future, is Indie Dev being taught as viable alternative to breaking into the videogames industry. I’d like to see more universities training their students to be more adept in actual game development tools such as Unity, UDK and CryEngine and pushing them to actually create their ideas rather than concentrate on the theory – Dear Esther is a great example of this process.

I’ve always believed with game development, the best way to learn is by doing, you can read all of the game design books in the world, but if you haven’t got the experience or knowledge to pull them off then it’s all just hot air. I’d really like to see more graduates coming out of Uni with ambitions of starting their own indie company with the knowledge they’ve gained in uni rather than chasing after the big studios. I find it kind of depressing when I see these talented students coming up with some really cool stuff for their final projects, only for them to be hired to work on World War Simulator 37.5.

RPS: And how does the future look for you, both in terms of this game and other projects?

I’m kind of undecided at the moment, to be honest I haven’t really planned for anything after Dear Esther is out the door, other than a nice long vacation somewhere sunny. For me it really depends on Dear Esther’s success; I’d really like to keep doing indie stuff, but at the same time, I’ve spent so long living off eco noodles and selling bodily organs to pay the rent that the novelty of being a starving artist has worn a bit thin. So if I were to take on another indie project I’d have to make sure I’m a bit more comfortable and secure financially beforehand. I’d really like to make a more authentic adaptation of Roadside Picnic (think Stalker without guns).

RPS: If you could talk to the monsters in Doom, what would you ask them?

Where can I find the nearest ASDA?

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Dear Esther will be released on February 14 this year. The full list of IGF 2012 finalists is here, and keep an eye on RPS for more interviews over the coming days and weeks.

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30 Comments »

  1. Jabberwocky says:

    That game makes my eyes happy.

  2. smeaa mario says:

    And the music caresses my mind.

  3. faelnor says:

    I’d really like to make a more authentic adaptation of Roadside Picnic (think Stalker without guns)

    I’d pay for that. Half my enjoyment in S.T.A.L.K.E.R is throwing bolts at anomalies (this may or may not be exaggerated).

    • kataras says:

      I would pay a bit more than you for that! Also you could just add maps to SOC or COP and just walk around.
      Half the fear and anticipation in STALKER comes from monsters or Monolith. I am not sure how exciting would be taking monsters and enemies out and leaving only the anomalies. Maybe if you made them invisible and the actor would have no detector?

    • robert.briscoe says:

      @kataras

      I don’t think i’d remove all of the monsters – more the ‘human’ element (coming across another human within the zone would be a rare event) So kind of a cross between Amnesia and Stalker

    • Apples says:

      The thing is that in Roadside Picnic and Stalker, the anomalies are much more frightening, because they are deadly or have horrible effects, are often invisible, constantly moving, disguised like normal objects, etc. In the game (or SoC at least), most are very obvious and even if you walk into one of the less-obvious ones it’s a bit of an inconvenience rather than “OH GOD OH GOD”, after the first couple of times anyway. This means the risk-reward balance is way off and you don’t really feel bothered by the landscape in the way that you should.

      Possibly increasing the variety and deadliness of anomalies (and removing the monsters and huge numbers of people, which I never thought fitted in the setting) would make it work, but on the other hand I feel like the gameplay would just be slow and frustrating. I can’t think of a really good way to make the Roadside Picnic/Stalker type of atmosphere work as a game, unless it were rather artsy and more about the experience than gameplay. That kind of thing relies too much on physicality and finality that is hard to replicate in games; you can’t properly make the player feel afraid for their life/livelihood/family, or let them make clever ways around obstacles, or let them wander vast empty but detailed spaces – at least not in a 3D game because they are too expensive and too slow to produce to cater for all the possibilities. But it can’t be a roguelike type thing either because the visuals are so important for the atmosphere.

      Which is probably why STALKER is actually a 3D shooty game.

    • David Shute says:

      STALKER: SOC didn’t really capture the feeling of Roadside Picnic for me at all (not a criticism, the game has its own thing going on.) I’ve always thought it would make a great roguelike (or roguelike-like, since I know how weirdly protective people get over that term) – something that captures the impenetrable weirdness, and terrifyingly random lethality of the zone.

      I liked STALKER: SOC loads, but the actual anomolies and artifacts seemed very mundane compared with the novel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roadside_Picnic#Artifacts_left_by_Visitors_in_the_Zones.

    • kataras says:

      @briscoe: sounds good, I think removing humans would amplify the sense of loneliness. However I wouldn’t want to face any of the mutants without a gun of some sort. Unless the only way to kill them would be to fool them into anomalies? Or they wouldn’t be so hostile till you invade their ‘turf’ or something? Either way, I would be very interested to see how it would come out.

      @apples: try some of the mods, the anomalies are not an inconvenience anymore! You fall in most of them and you re dead regardless of the suit or artifacts you might have equipped. Having said that, in Narodnaya Solianka there are so many anomalies in the levels, it is just ridiculous. It forces you to be more tactical but it can be so frustrating.Your right though, they would have to be invisible, moving and a lot more deadly.

    • faelnor says:

      CS and CoP took a step in the right direction with the witches’ circle in red forest and other unique anomalies. This is something of which I’d like to see more, a core of slow exploration evoking looming menace that would be more environmental than confrontational, piecing a few puzzles together and using/building rudimentary tools to get through, being soaked in an atmosphere of strangeness more akin to Amnesia: The Dark Descent in the zone than to S.T.A.L.K.E.R without guns.

    • pants says:

      A cross between Amnesia and Tarkovsky’s exists in the excellent Finnish movie Sauna.
      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1124394/

      Highly recommended to anyone who like Tarkovsky and/or Amnesia. It’s basically a compelling horror movie done in the style of Tarkovsky.

  4. Snids says:

    I tried to watch Stalker but it is literally the slowest thing ever. Combined with the knowledge that it’s 5 hours long I just couldn’t do it. So I watched generic fast edited Hollywood movie 3 instead. That one by the director intellectuals hate.

    • Sic says:

      Stalker isn’t slow.

      Try watching Satantango.

    • Oozo says:

      Funny. I came here to mention Satantango as well. I wanted to say that it’s not only slower, but also longer, though. Oh, and equally awesome.

    • Stuart Walton says:

      I don’t think the film would work if the editing was punchier. The journey the three characters take through the zone would seem trivial and their actions and reactions would appear quite flippant. The pacing makes every moment where something does happen much more significant and the moments between carry far more tension. It takes a director with either a lot of bravery (or pretentiousness) to attempt it and it takes some amazing acting to sell it.

  5. HexagonalBolts says:

    Tarkovsky’s Stalker really is an incredible film, in fact, all of his films are amazing. They’re extremely slow paced, the plot is not meant to be easily understood, but they are astonishingly beautiful. I’d thoroughly recommend watching them if you’re in the mood for having your mind boggled and seeing something beautiful for a few hours. You can get the full boxset of his works for £40 from Play.com.

    Here are some example scenes:

  6. Post-Internet Syndrome says:

    You didn’t talk about Mirror’s Edge at all!

    • Andy`` says:

      Random trivia (if I remember it right): on a box in a van in part of the Stormdrains level (the van being around one of the circular pits, the exit one I believe, near the door) is a little decal with the level name of one of Mr. Briscoe’s source engine levels on it, dm_depot I think.

      Sometimes I hope I’m not the only one that saw it, because I don’t want to think about what that might mean >_>

  7. Apples says:

    Why does everyone seem to be talking about Stalker recently? Or is it just a coincidence? I watched it myself this weekend after hearing it mentioned numerous times. (Liked it, but not so much the ending – I thought it took away a lot of ambiguity if his daughter had powers since it meant the Zone must have some literal ‘magical’ significance. Without that it could have meant that the Stalker fabricated almost the entire concept of the Zone. Or maybe I’m wrong? I’m not such an expert on films)

    I would also like to see a version of STALKER without guns. I keep trying to get into SoC but once I load my save I instantly remember why I stopped playing – pinned down under a truck, surrounded by enemies vastly more powerful than me, going after a macguffin so I can go to the next area full of vastly-more-powerful-than-me soldiers. Why!? It’s beautifully atmospheric until all the guns start blazing. I’d love a sort of atmospheric post-apoc survival game (probably in 2D) with barely any guns. If you find a gun it should be important, not just force you to do a five-minute inventory shuffle so you can fit in your new massive rifle along with the other five expensive guns you want to keep.

    • kataras says:

      You don’t have to engage them all the time, sometimes you can just run away and hide somewhere safe or run to their enemy group (ie duty-freedom etc). Also, I think in STALKER the most important thing is to engage from a distance. In close distances proceed very slowly, crouched and leaning behind things, otherwise you are usually screwed.

    • Apples says:

      You have to sneak into this solder-infested place, though. Which I partially managed, but then couldn’t find any good way to continue into the actual building I needed without being spotted, even when crouching with night-vision goggles in the dark. I’m not very good at sneaky things, so it’s partly my fault, but it’s very frustrating to HAVE to do it to proceed.

    • kataras says:

      Yeah I remember that part. I think I took out the guards on the elevated posts first, then jumped on the roof of one of the small hangars (or whatever they are), killed everything that moved and slowly made my way into the building… That took me quite a few tries though. I can’t remember if it was with a mod or not, but once I also made it inside just by getting out of the grate and legging it into the building…

    • DocSeuss says:

      I was actually thinking about this a few months ago, when planning this indie game I’m working on. One of the ideas was a post-apocalyptic game where a gun would be something that you as a player treasure so much that you’d kill for it. A scenario I had was you finding an abandoned school, getting taken captive by the people living within, and they’d take your gun. Of course, you’d want it back because, hopefully, you’ve formed an attachment with the gun, and because these people have basically sentenced you to death (they’re in denial about it, though). Then you have to break back in the school and get your gun back.

      Ultimately, that idea and the System Shock/Half-Life hybrid failed to interest the people I’m working with as much as the other game, so we’re working on it now. Bah. I really wish I had three teams of people so I could work on all of ‘em.

      I really want a game with a much more meditative pace than STALKER’s lazy (in a good way) loot crawl.

  8. DestructibleEnvironments says:

    I look forward to buying it on steam. Good luck to youse!

  9. zairekaboom says:

    Atmosphere and exploration with random elements… All my favourite game-stuff crammed into one game. Buying this immediately when it becomes available.

  10. MichaelPalin says:

    Will it be at some other DD that does not force an activation based installation? At this point I don’t know if that even exist with all the fucking DD going the Steam route, but there is at least dotEmu and gog.com and I still have to check if Gamefly is client based “DRM-free” like other “DRM-free” sites.

    Or, more fundamentally: Do you believe it is in the indie spirit to make your audience dependent on a distributor to play your games? Shouldn’t a thing called Indie Fund care about the independence of their audience and not only of their developers?

    • Rattlepiece says:

      It’s not that bad.

    • bear912 says:

      I’m sorry to break this to you, but it’s based on a licensed Source Engine. It is, therefore, extraordinarily unlikely that it is even possible for the game to be sold without requiring Steam, at least not without breaking some major part of the licensing agreement for the engine. Until Valve decides that Source doesn’t need to be coupled with Steam, you may be able to buy the game elsewhere, but I’m pretty damn sure you’re not going to be able to play it without Steam.

      Though I can’t say for sure, as I’ve never licensed the Source Engine myself, I feel fairly confident that selling Source Engine games that don’t need Steam to run is not kosher.

  11. Hamasaki says:

    Why such a desolated and solitary game has that release date (Valentine’s Day)?
    /forever alone

  12. MythArcana says:

    Steam exclusive release? Well, that ends that for me.

  13. fupjack says:

    I always thought exploring abandoned structures and finding caches of stuff was part of the charm of Stalker. That certainly doesn’t need guns. I would totally buy that as a game.

    Figuring out how to climb to the top of the bell tower in the Bar area, or how to get over the fence in the Wild Territory, were neat goals. A game involving those sort of goals would be fun. Odd, and I’m not sure how easy it would be to plan out as an actual game, but it’s always easy to wish for something you don’t have to do yourself. So I want it!

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