Dear Esther, a commercial refurbishment of a celebrated Half-Life 2 mod, has been making headlines this past week. Partly because of rapid sales that saw its modest team recoup its investment in a matter of hours, and partly because nobody quite knows whether it's a game or not. Abstract, opaque, heady - few games have ventured into the territory that Dear Esther prowls so confidently, and fewer still find an audience.
What is certain, however, is that its moody narrative is etched into a landscape of unusually sumptuous design. We sat down with Rob Briscoe, a former Mirror's Edge artist and the man behind Dear Esther's high-fidelity visual refit, to talk about his tricks and tactics in wrangling Valve's Source engine.
Q: Why pick the Source engine for this remake? Did you discuss using another?
Rob Briscoe: At the time I started it, there wasn't much of a choice to be honest. There wasn't a Unreal Development Kit, Unity was still in its early stages. This is just before Christmas 2008 - there really wasn't much around at the time. It was really more about picking the engine which had the biggest modding scene. And there wasn't much competition - Half-Life 2 had the biggest installed base. But we also had a dedication to the modding scene from the original as well, which was born out of the Source engine modding scene.
But I have to say I did consider it around the time that the UDK got announced - which was around the time I finished the very first level. August 2009, I think. It was very tempting, particularly because I'd been working with Unreal for quite some time with Mirror's Edge and stuff, and I knew what it was capable of. I had been struggling with the Source engine a bit, at that point. But I think it got to a stage where I'd established the art style and look of it in the Source engine - and at the time it was just a fun side project that wasn't actually intended to go indie at that point either, so it just made sense to stick with Source.
Q: How did the idea of a remake come about if not as a commercial venture?
Rob Briscoe: I was planning to take some time out from the games industry after Mirror's Edge, just to spend some time with my family in the UK and plan my next move. The remake of Dear Esther really just came out of me wanting to do something creative to keep myself fuelled in the mean time. But I was only planning to do it for a year to start with.
Q: When did it crystallise into a commercial project?
Rob Briscoe: When I was about half way through it. I had just finished off the caves level and I'd shown off a bunch of media from that, and we'd been getting a surprising amount of feedback from the modding community saying that we should really be taking it to Valve to get a licence to make it into a standalone game.
I was against that to begin with, because it was just a fun project I was doing in my spare time, and to take it commercial would turn it into this really big serious commitment. But then I thought, yeah, if there's any possibility of getting a licence then it might be worth doing. Dan [Pinchbeck, designer of the original mod] then approached Valve to see what our chances were, and fortunately they really, really liked the project. It took us quite a while to negotiate something with them that was indie friendly. But as soon as we'd sorted something out with them we took it from there.
Q: Can you say what sort of licensing deal you got with Valve?
Rob Briscoe: No, we're not allowed to say, because they do it on a case-by-case basis. Ours was quite a special case because we had no money. We were like: please can we have your engine? We'll be your friend. I think they took pity on us and ended up giving us quite a good deal.
The mix of real and surreal defines Dear Esther. There's no HDR, motion blur or JJ Abrams lens flare. It's a very naturalistic but painterly look
Q: They won't make that mistake next time.
Rob Briscoe: Exactly. It still cost us quite a bit of money. We still had to go out and get funding, but they were genuinely quite supportive of us.
Q: How did using the Source engine shape the aesthetic of Dear Esther?
Rob Briscoe: The aesthetic was really set by the technical limitations of the engine, initially - and that was probably one of the best things that happened to the project.
Originally, I was under the illusion that the only way to build upon the mod, and really draw people into the visuals, was to make it as photorealistic as possible. And I hit a bit of a snag early on in the Source Engine - I couldn't use any normal mapping or anything like that on the outdoor environments, because it was a performance killer. The Source engine just doesn't do outside environments very well, and this led me to rethink the photorealistic approach, and I ended up going back and doing a much more illustrative approach.
I looked at a lot of impressionist paintings and I really liked the mix of real and surreal and mix of detail and perceived detail. And it's so easy to lose yourself in those paintings, it made me realise that immersion doesn't have anything to do with photorealism at all. So that's what drove me to the visual style - the mix of real and surreal that defines Dear Esther. There's no HDR, motion blur or JJ Abrams lens flare. It's a very naturalistic but painterly look.
Q: The palette, particularly of the outside areas, is interesting. At a glance the colours are quite muted, but closer investigation reveals quite saturated purples and greens.
Rob Briscoe: Definitely. From a distance you have those muted colours of the landscape, but then you have this vibrant colour in the sky, and as you get closer to the details you find colours hidden in the landscape, creating a contrast with the desaturated look of the middle-distance. It makes the world come alive on inspection. And that look has been born from the limitations of the Source engine, and it probably wouldn't have happened if I'd gone straight for the Unreal engine.
Q: Is that true of the level design as well? They're very economic. You're often moving round and round them, rather than along a long linear path. Was that to conserve geometry?
Rob Briscoe: Yeah, again, technically Source forced me to do a lot of cheating, in both the visuals and the level design. The whole island had to be designed so that you can't see certain parts of it when you're in other parts, so you've got this kind of occlusion going on. But that did allow me to be a bit more creative with the environments as well.
I don't think the symbolic, surreal second half would have been as easy to pull off if I'd gone for photorealism. Here you've got a dreamlike quality. You're not quite sure if the island's real or a figment of the protagonist's imagination, so the art-style does play into that.
Q: The lighting in the caves is striking - how much of that was texture trickery?
Rob Briscoe: It's a bit of a mix. The actual lighting itself, again, was born from technical limitations. I keep saying that, but I can't avoid it. In Source, you have a limitation where if you have normal maps on an object you can only have three lights on that one object. And each one of those rooms in the cave is actually one giant model, because another limitation is that Source doesn't do a lot of models very well. It has no instancing, so every time you put a model into the game, each one is getting drawn separately on each pass. So you can quickly use up a lot of performance. Without instancing you're basically piling on a load of CPU time.
They actually improved a lot on this with the newer engine, but by that time I'd built it all. So every area is just one giant model, and that forced me to think about how to light it in the most effective way with as few lights as possible. So generally in every scene you have just one very strong point light which directs you to where you want to go, and the colour projects the atmosphere and warmth of the room as well.
Another important part was filling in the gaps between the really bright areas and dark areas - I used a lot of reflections. They are a really important part of filling in the detail. I got the idea from watching a lot of film noir at the time. They do a lot of scenes through reflection of light, and silhouetting. It really helps to set the mood of the seen, and allows your eye to fill in details where there are none.
There's a lot of perceived detail in there - there's not actually lot of detail in the models - but it's the reflections and the normal maps and the silhouettes that makes your brain think there's a lot more detail in there, and hide repetition.
Q: How did you approach the creation of flowing water for the underground stream and waterfalls?
Rob Briscoe: Valve introduced something with Left 4 Dead 2, which we got in the Portal 2 engine: a technology called a flow map that basically allows you to control where the water flows [by skewing and scrolling a normal map]. A lot of the stuff you see in the caves - the river, the big waterfall at the end - that was achieved entirely through using that new shader they have in the engine. It really adds a lot, especially for the ocean as well, where you've got this big flat open stretch of water.
One of the problems I had when we were still using the Orange Box version of Source, before moving on to the Portal 2 version, was trying to hide this really repetitively tiling normal map for the ocean. I tried to do that with the sea foam you see, the breaking waves, but it was still very apparent. But with the flow maps you can create this nice flowing surface that doesn't have any repetition at all.
Q: How did you convey the illusion of an actual horizon when looking out to sea? I couldn't see the join between the level geometry and the skybox.
Rob Briscoe: That was one of the trickiest things to do actually. No matter what you do there's always going to be a slight transition between the real geometry and the skybox. A lot of that is covered up with fog and some very careful placement. It was a real pain in the arse to do, I have to admit. It's mostly in the texture work as well. I had to flatten out the waves when they came to the seam. There's a lot of trickery, like any game. We did it a lot in Mirror's Edge. You cover these things up with other bits of detail to fool the eye.
Q: The plunge-pool moment - when you are transported back to the motorway, underwater - how was that achieved?
Rob Briscoe: Technically, all I did was teleport the player to a different section of the world. I had this giant M5 built in a separate part, and flashed the player over then transported them back again. It's not as impressive as it might seem. But it was still a technical challenge to have this massive motorway area, which is actually built twice. There's two alternative scenes that you can experience there.
It's such a good time to be an indie developer. The market for it has opened up hugely, especially on PC. We became profitable in five hours
That's probably the most significant thing which can change in the environment. A lot of the other stuff is very small and integrated into the environment. In the lighthouse you might find a picture of a woman, or a map on the table, or a leaflet for a food convention - there's quite a lot of variation in the visual details. You might go through the game and not see any at all. You would then get a very auditory experience rather than a visual one.
Q: Was the thinking to get players to play it again, or to give different players different experiences?
Rob Briscoe: It allows people to have their own interpretation of the story and to have their own experience. There are some things in there which go beyond the storytelling details - there are ghosts, figures that appear that give an interesting twist - whether that's supernatural or surreal.
Q: I wondered if I'd imagined it the first time I saw one. You always end up losing sight of them as you get closer to them, and then when you turn the corner they are gone.
Rob Briscoe: Yes! I just wanted it to be a subtle suggestion, something unsettling that you see out the corner of your eye. And that's one of the things I've enjoyed reading about on forums. People saying, "I got really freaked out. I thought I saw something weird reflecting in the water in the last level. What the hell was that?"
And someone else will come along and say, "I didn't see any of that - what are you talking about?" And it creates a really nice discussion about the game. And that's true of the voiceover too, which, as in the original, is partly randomised.
Q: Do you and Dan have a definitive, canonical interpretation of the story?
Rob Briscoe: No, no. We designed it intentionally to be ambiguous. There's no right or wrong interpretation - it's all about being able to bring a unique experience and interpretation to each playthrough. That was a big part of the remake.
Q: So what's next for you?
Rob Briscoe: I'm still deciding what I'm going to do. Dan's got a couple of really interesting projects on the go, but I haven't been able to get involved yet because I've been so tied up with Dear Esther. So I'm going to wait for the dust to settle and see what opportunities are available. I'd love to continue doing indie stuff, or even start my own small studio, but it's hard to tell at the moment.
The game's doing well, but whether that's enough, we'll have to wait and see. It's such a good time to be an indie developer. The market for it has opened up hugely, especially on PC. We were all surprised about how well it's done on PC. We became profitable in five hours!
Q: Would you consider bringing it to consoles?
Rob Briscoe: Oh certainly, it's something we'd love to do. We have to talk to the right people about it first, but I think that'll be a hell of a lot easier now that we've established there's an audience for it.