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Dear Esther Live - Interview

Posted on 17 August 2017

In Conversation with Jessica Curry and Dan Pinchbeck of The Chinese Room
Interview conducted by Mike Diver

I suppose the first question has to be the simplest, and the most pertinent: why take this show, this game, on the road?
Jessica Curry (JC): It’s the fifth anniversary. So we did the Landmark Edition for console (PlayStation 4 and Xbox One) in 2016, and we’d not really been thinking much about Dear Esther for the last couple of years. But going back into it, we were really nervous – was it going to stand the test of time? Would it not have aged particularly well? We all sat down with much trepidation to discuss this fifth anniversary edition, and we were so proud of it. It really did stand the test of time, and we were so pleased, and quite surprised about how passionately we still felt about it.

I’d been invited to do a week in London with the British Council, and talking to really exciting people like HOME in Manchester and the British Film Institute, about sound and image, and about how you successfully marry them. And I thought: hang on, we’re missing a trick here with Dear Esther, in terms of playing it live. It has so many advantages that way.

The show is comprised of a string quartet, piano and singer, so that’s really manageable in terms of touring. It’s one actor, which is fantastic. And it’s such a beautiful game. The visuals are so rich and exciting, and the writing is so good. I had this light bulb moment: why isn’t this a thing? Let’s make it a thing.

And during my week with the British Council, we went to the Barbican, and met their commissioning programmer, and he was amazing. He told me he knew nothing about games, but his job is to come up with beautiful new ideas, or make other people’s ideas fly, and he wanted to give this a go. The Barbican show sold out, and it was amazing.

Did you always feel, even when not focused on it, that Dear Esther was, or could be, something more than “just a game”?
JC: As creators, you’re always moving on. But what kept Dear Esther alive was the feedback we were getting from other people. We employ a young team at The Chinese Room, and they were coming back from Rezzed and other places, conferences like GDC, and saying: Dear Esther’s been referenced in five of the ten talks I’ve been to today. It has had a life for other people, and for the industry, I think.

Dan Pinchbeck (DP): I’d agree with that. It’s been amazing, seeing how far it’s filtered. People are writing PhDs on the game now.

When we started doing stuff, Jess and I, working in games, well, the idea of working in games for me was always exciting. We came at it with the sort of same approach that we’d come to other mediums we’d worked in – we wanted to tell stories through text and music. And it just seemed to be a really good fit. To take Esther out of games and back into that space, it’s a continuation of the process of thinking that’d led to us making games in the first place. It feels like there’s something exciting here, artistically. And I think Jess is very restless, artistically – where’s the next exciting thing? In a way, there’s a naturalness to this process, once we’d rediscovered it.

But the gap between our expectations for Esther, and what it’s become, they couldn’t be further apart. We’ve always been really proud of it. We would never in a million years have thought it’d have this kind of cultural impact, though. And that’s amazing. I think we both feel very proud of it, and feel very lucky. We made something with a lot of love in it, without expecting much. And to see it now held up, and referenced endlessly, it’s extraordinary.

Would you say that the Dear Esther Live experience isn’t explicitly “for gamers”? That much like the game itself, it’s ticking more than that single box?
JC: I’m really passionate about expanding audiences, and that’s one of the reasons why I do my Classic FM show, High Score. There’s a whole world of people who don’t know about the extraordinary panoply, and rich and diverse world, of video game music. And I want people to be able to experience that. Not to show them something, to say: see, I told you it was good. But to gently say: you’ve probably never heard this before. And I think it’ll be similar with the Dear Esther Live tour.

One of the things the Barbican were especially pleased with, when we had the show there, was the percentage of people coming that represented a new audience for them. I think it was 64%. They’d never been to the Barbican before. They’d never stepped through those doors before, but they found something that that felt really comfortable going to. Because these can be intimidating spaces. It’s like an art gallery – if you’ve never been to one before, you sort of imagine what it’s going to be, and that it’s not for you.

It’s exciting that people who’ve never really heard game music before might come to these concerts, too, and that people who’ve never been to a concert hall before might get to experience that. I think it’s a win-win situation.

What were your nerves like before the first show, at the Barbican? Did they compare, at all, to any nerves you’ve felt in the production, and the completion, of games?
JC: There’s nothing as nerve racking as live. That instant feedback when something goes wrong – you’re there, the audience is there.

DP: You can’t patch a performance halfway through if you discover something’s gone wrong.

JC: The tech was the biggest worry on the night. We had world-class players and singers, so they weren’t going to go wrong. We were only wary of: is the computer going to blow up halfway through?

DP: There’s quite an elaborate backup plan with two PCs running the game simultaneously, with feed going out to six monitors from each. And if something does go wrong there’s a plan for switching it over, resetting one machine, getting back into the same place.

We’ve adapted the game now to dump in a whole load of invisible walls, but at the first Barbican performance there was a point where I was controlling the camera and walking very slowly backwards, and Jess was sat there in the audience going: cliff edge, cliff edge! So there are now things in place to prevent an accidental tumble to your death halfway through the show.

JC: That was enormously stressful. What we’re going to make more of on this tour is that not everyone realised that it was actually being played live. Gamers innately understood that, but other people who are used to film and music being played together, as the same every night, they thought they were seeing a pre-recorded playthrough. One of the most exciting things about this tour is that no audience is going to get the same experience. That playthrough can change every night, and that’s so unique to this tour.

DP: You’re responding to the conductor, and hearing the pace of the music, and that affects your playing. The narrator is there too, with different intensity. As a player, you’re performing, and not just as a function as the camera. That gives the show a special edge. The music is so haunting and so immersive. There was a point in the second concert, at the London Games Festival, where the conductor just hung a little longer on the last note, and being able to stop and let that play out before the camera moved again, you couldn’t do that with something like a live soundtrack to a film – you’ve got to be constantly driven by the visuals. But to have the visuals respond to the music is really exciting.

JC: It’s a unique relationship.

DP: It’s a dance.

What’s the preparation been like for the live show?
JC: The most beautiful thing, for me, is that the players on this tour played on the original soundtrack, so there’s a direct relationship there – they were there five years ago. As for “boot camp”, that was a frenetic day at the Barbican, the day before the show. I look back now and if I’d have known how much work was needed to get the show up and running, I might’ve had second thoughts about it. Obviously we had to do a special build of the game that contained the triggers for the conductor and the actor, and the musicians are triggered by the conductor. That was a hell of a lot of work.

And the cabling! The Barbican is world class, and it gets every kind of show in. I said to the producer there on the day of the rehearsal, “You must have had far more complicated shows in than this.” And she said: “Well actually, not really.” Oh shit.

DP: There must have been three miles of cables on that stage. It was coiled everywhere. It really brought home how much this is a live performance – it’s not just playing along to a soundtrack. There’s so much here that’s technically complicated. It was quite something. It made walking into the studio realise how much simpler that is.

Does taking a game, a show based on a game, one of your games, make you reconsider where The Chinese Room is, in 2017? You’re an indie studio, sure; but the company’s name means more than many other companies falling under that catchall. You’re bigger than your games alone, aren’t you?
JC: I have to pinch myself. Over the past five years I’ve been to places and done things and met people that I never thought I’d have done. Classic FM was another one of those moments. Like, oh my good, this is so weird, and so amazing. And the Barbican was. And the BAFTAs.

But it’s not without costs, certainly. We punch above our weight as a studio, and we can get tired emotionally and creatively. But it’s been an amazing five years. If we’d not made Esther, we’d not have made Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs; and if we’d not made that, we could never have got to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

Our latest game, So Let Us Melt, has been a difficult project in some ways. It’s a VR project. But it’s so different for us, and I’m so proud of it. It’s going to be interesting to see how people react to it.

Have you found that people have come to some of your games because of their music? Given how Rapture’s soundtrack won a BAFTA.
JC: Definitely. We hear from people who tell us they’ve never played one of our games, but they have all of the soundtracks.

DP: We get quite a lot of mail from much older people. We heard from one person in their 90s. Often, people will play the soundtrack to their parents, and that’s a way into it for them. It helps them understand that games are not just all shooting and killing. Gaming is a shared language. A lot of people are yet to realise that games can engage you emotionally. When you’re using music as a route in, that’s a great way of showing that there is something you can relate to. It helps to break down that barrier.

JC: What I wanted for Rapture was this message of love and hope, and that we only have each other. I actually get contacted by people asking to use the music at their weddings. And, of course, they can.

How do you feel about anyone using the music from your games in a new context? So, removed from the games themselves, set to something completely different?
JC: A piece from Rapture was used on Top Gear, for a rocket launch in Kazakhstan. And it was brilliant. It was great to see it recontextualised. We were just sat there giggling, because the Rapture music is so filmic, and the music supervisor from Top Gear loves it.

So I personally like it when it gets reused, because it gives it a new life, and brings it to new people. I don’t have a problem with that – I’m not to precious about it. Get it out there.

Do you feel there’s still some snobbery about game music, “versus” that found in film and TV? As in: this is from the games world, so it’s not as, I suppose, “legitimate” as the music you’d hear in a film score?
JC: It’s really variable. Some places like the Barbican and Classic FM are welcoming games music with open arms, realising that it’s bringing in new audiences. They’re genuinely enthusiastic about the music that’s being played. But I think there’s still snobbery about games. This has been an ongoing conversation with BASCA, who run the Ivor Novello Awards, and the British Composer awards – there’s no category at either of those for games music. And they are very anti-games music. So are the Proms. When we were nominated for ten BAFTAs for Rapture, I got in touch with Front Row on Radio 4, thinking they’d be excited that a British company had achieved this; but they just said, “it’s games,” and they weren’t interested.

But I think it’s changing. The groundswell of influential people, like the London Symphony Orchestra, one of the top orchestras in the world, they’re recording games music and playing it live. And that sheer weight will bring the last detractors around into the 21st century.

We need more breakout composers who’ve come from the game world first, don’t we? People like yourself.
JC: Definitely. You’ve got people like Olivier Deriviere now, who are doing really interesting work, interactively, and there are people coming through who haven’t come from film, who’ve come into this area specifically wanting to be a video game composer. There are now courses on it, so that’ll change even more.

Whether or not there’ll be an acceptance of it, though… This is a really interesting question for me, because I think, without doubt, that video game music has so many more technical restraints on it than TV or film music; so I personally listen to more film music than I do game music. I think film music, contentiously, is still stronger, on the whole. Because in a 70-hour game, the music has to sometimes be a bit bland, in order to be dissected across all the scenes. In film, you score to an hour and thirty, and it’s precise, scored for every moment. Video game music has to cover so much ground, and I think it sometimes suffers for that.

DP: We don’t make things easy for ourselves with the music. The most important thing about this kind of music, the music we’re using, is its emotional range and depth, and if that creates extra work for us in implementing it, so be it. But I think it preserves a compositional quality to the music that is getting less unusual, but it has been unusual in video game music in the past. The flexibility, adaptability and dissectability are paramount – and if that impacts on the compositional quality or the emotional depth, then those are usually necessary sacrifices.

But Jess works from the other direction, preserving the compositional aesthetic. And that’s why the soundtracks for our games are up there in terms of anything else. I’m so proud of them.

It’s interesting, that we came from nowhere, particularly Jess with her music. She didn’t get to have a reputation as one of the best composers in games because she had an agent, banging drums and hanging out banners or anything like that; it all came from fans, from word of mouth, from this upswell of people going: there’s something really special about this music. And I think that’s because it’s uncompromising. This music understands the medium, but it also doesn’t make those compromises to the medium. If we truly want to pursue artistic excellence, that’s going to involve extra work, rather than sacrificing the quality of what we’re trying to make.

To find out more about Dear Esther Live, and book your tickets click HERE