It's been more than five years since Dear Esther launched, sparking innumerable unnecessary debates about whether or not the game was, in fact, a game. Dear Esther Live, on the other hand, is not a game (although it contains one).
Dear Esther Live is a concert event where a person plays the game in its entirety for an audience with live musical and vocal accompaniment on cue with the playthrough. The production has been staged twice so far to glowing reviews, once at the Barbican in London last October and again at the London Games Festival. The reaction to those performances convinced The Chinese Room to take the show on the road with a Dear Esther Live UK tour that will see a dozen shows from November through February.
Dear Esther composer and The Chinese Room co-founder Jessica Curry recently spoke to GamesIndustry.biz about Dear Esther Live, and to her eternal credit, did not immediately hang up on us when we asked if this was a walking simulator simulator.
"I think live-ness in itself changes everything in a really amazing way. Whenever I go see my favorite bands or I hear a piece of Beethoven when I go to the concert hall, it is just so immediately different and electric"
"I don't really like the term walking simulator anyway, to be honest," Curry said. "I think it's really reductive and shows to me how the games industry is usually rather unable to deal with quality and complex narrative within a genre. I suppose there are other reductive terms like chic lit in novels, so it's not just the games industry that suffers from it. Hopefully it will just be a wonderful, interactive, beautiful, profound experience, which is what has happened for audience members so far. It's just been so overwhelmingly meaningful, I think, for people as an experience, which is really beautiful as a composer to see that."
So what was the impetus for Dear Esther Live in the first place? How does a game benefit when you take the audience out of the player's role and put them in a literal audience instead?
"I think live-ness in itself changes everything in a really amazing way," Curry said. "Whenever I go see my favorite bands or I hear a piece of Beethoven when I go to the concert hall, it is just so immediately different and electric because you have these people that are putting themselves out there and risking themselves... The other exciting thing for me is that there are no two shows that are going to be the same because the game player--it's being played live on stage--is going to make sometimes infinitesimally different choices, and sometimes a really big difference in the pathway they take or where they choose to pause, and that's going to affect audience interpretation."
There's also the case to be made that in the transition from player to audience member, interactivity is not lost so much as it simply takes a different form.
"I think audiences change things, as well," Curry said. "It sounds silly, but I went to my son's play for two nights running and the audience reaction was so different. And it was just a little school production, but it really made me think about how the audience is so much a part of the live experience."
There's also a bit more interactivity involved with the performance itself. The person controlling the game playthrough (Chinese Room creative director and studio head Dan Pinchbeck in previous shows, technology and culture journalist Thomas McMullan for the upcoming tour) conducts the show in one sense, but Dear Esther Live also requires a proper conductor leading the musicians and acting as a sort of intermediary for what's happening on screen and what music needs to be played.
That unusual approach has produced a show with similarly unusual appeal. Curry said The Barbican (which plays host to the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Shakespeare Company) was thrilled to see Dear Esther Live brought in a new crowd, with 64% of the audience first-timers at the storied venue.
"As a composer, I'm very passionate about bringing music to new audiences. I think the classical world can be very elitist and very... not willfully threatening, but it's like if you've never been to an art gallery before, they can be really intimidating spaces," Curry said, adding, "The wonderful thing about music is that it should be so accessible and is such a beautiful art form. I didn't go into this thinking I must introduce non-gamers to the world of The Chinese Room, but what has been really nice as a by-product is that people who've never been to a classical concert hall before entered that space, and people who've never played a game before and aren't particularly interested in gaming came because they love music."
"[Gaming] is an industry that on the whole, I don't feel wants to change. Or it doesn't feel the need to change."
The concert is another reminder that although Curry stepped back from game development almost two years ago citing health concerns, publisher relations, and the industry's treatment of women, she's not gone from the field entirely. She's still at The Chinese Room and contributing to its upcoming VR game So Let Us Melt, and is still married to Pinchbeck.
"I'm never going to be completely removed from the process of making games," Curry admitted. "I'm talking to the [Chinese Room] team every day and making decisions, so it's disingenuous to say that I've stepped away from the industry. But I've reined in my public persona. And even that's really problematic because someone said to me the other week then they've won, that I've given them what they want. And I kind of agree with that. Yes, they did win. From inside and outside, I kind of allowed myself to be shoved out, and that isn't a nice feeling, either. So it feels like a bit of a lose-lose situation sometimes as a woman in the industry. You're a bit damned if you stay and damned if you go."
That said, she doesn't seem to have any second thoughts about her half-step away from games. When asked if she's seen the industry making progress on the way it treats women since her departure, Curry bluntly stated it hasn't.
"The more we're pushing for change, the more of a kickback there's going to be from people who don't want change," Curry said. "It's certainly not limited to the games industry. But I kind of despair sometimes, to be honest. It's been nice to be out, if I'm honest. I don't get daily abuse anymore, which is a great relief... It's an industry that on the whole, I don't feel wants to change. Or it doesn't feel the need to change. It's like any huge industry. There are amazing, inspirational, fantastic people who are pushing for change and advocating it and want it so hard, but it's still an industry to me that is absolutely rife with problems on both ends, in terms of the players and the people making it. I'm impatient for change."