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IGF Factor 2012: Dear Esther

thechineseroom does the chat

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.

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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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