The gulls don’t land here anymore. Not on the desolate, mist-washed Hebridean island of Dear Esther. It’s a fascinating place to explore, one richly imbued with a relentlessly sinister character. It’s also, effectively, an amateur construction. Dear Esther emerges from the mind of Dr. Dan Pinchbeck, part of a research project at the University of Portsmouth, U.K. Dubbed “thechineseroom,” his team’s mandate is to investigate the nature of first-person videogames. Their method is to make games, then encourage players to deconstruct and analyze them and discover how they work.
“It’s a space where I can try out ideas and build games to test things out and release them into the public domain, where they can get played and critiqued and generally kicked around in the real world, rather than a purely academic setting,” Pinchbeck explains. “It’s driven by wanting to push at the boundaries of what you can and can’t do with first-person games, to investigate the outer regions of the genre that are unlikely to get explored by commercial developers and to create games which are driven by story and atmosphere over and above traditional FPS mechanisms.”
For budgetary reasons, thechineseroom have stuck to Half-Life 2 mods rather than standalone development, although that’s set to change: “We’re looking at creating fully implemented games for general distribution,” Pinchbeck says. But regardless of the limitations this imposes, the team’s most significant works – Dear Esther and its spiritual successor, Korsakovia – are astonishing, affecting and impressively innovative crafts. And aside from their experimentation with game mechanics, the theme that ties thechineseroom’s projects together is one of unusual, subversive horror.
“Games and horror are really natural fits,” says Pinchbeck. “My big interest in games orbits around ideas of ambiguity, the slip and crack of reality, the assumptions the player makes about the world and their avatar and how you can subvert them.” In Dear Esther, this takes the form of an unidentified main character, and a narrative whose fragmented presentation through randomized audio logs leaves the player unsettled, unsure and even confused.
Korsakovia, set primarily in an apparently abandoned mental institution, provides something more concrete. But its focus on the player character’s descent into madness means every one of its elements is questionable. As you journey around the hospital’s halls, segments of a conversation between you and your doctor play out, and the world around you begins to crumble and crack, tearing open holes to a second reality that may or may not exist.
“Games are all about power at one level,” says Pinchbeck, “and the player becoming more powerful or feeling powerful on a moment-by-moment basis is central to the traditional FPS experience. I’m interested in playing with that, and whether you can get a really different emotional or affective experience when you do.”
These tactics are at the heart of what Pinchbeck and co. have achieved with their mods. Korsakovia is a staggeringly affecting piece, free of jumps but packed with genuine chills. One of the research questions at the center of its creation attempts to examine how players responded to a lack of identifiable enemies; as such, the game renders all foes as lighting-fast, ear-piercing clouds of smoke. Seeing a pair of them circling the far end of a gargantuan warehouse and waiting for the inevitable moment when, acknowledging your presence, they dart towards you at an unfathomable speed is truly terrifying.
This sense of sheer terror is multiplied tenfold by thechineseroom’s refusal to stick to a typical videogame format. Although Korsakovia is the more gamelike of the team’s two main works, it’s still structured in a manner unlike almost anything else: The environment warps and changes, the level design intentionally points you in wrong directions and, generally, the atmosphere is crafted to be as suffocating as possible. Most modern games are keen to guide the player by the hand; Korsakovia is more interested in messing with your head, not just in the horrific storytelling but through the mechanics of play as well.
Dear Esther – which features no combat and no puzzles – is comparatively tame and certainly less overtly horrifying. But even it is full to bursting with spine-tingling moments. Despite being dubbed “an interactive ghost story” (“You don’t want to know how long I agonized over that,” says Pinchbeck, when I ask if he feels it’s an adequate summary), its submissions to horror weren’t intended to be quite so pronounced, but they’re still very much present.
“Unlike Korsakovia, which is self-consciously a horror game – an aggressive madness, a trawl through a disintegrating mind – Esther is about a slide into despair that we’ve all stood at the edge of one way or another,” Pinchbeck explains of the mod, whose abstract, dual-stranded story details a fatal motorway accident parallel to the bleak history of the island. “Esther for me is very sad – maybe even properly tragic. And that in itself is quite scary, because it’s about a situation that is horrible, rather than horror. It’s desperate and lonely and random and I think it maybe taps into a deeper fear of loss and being unable to rationalize a bad thing that has happened.”
It’s a remarkable achievement. Since its release in 2008, the modding communities have been awash with speculation as to the minutiae of the narrative, and even the more mainstream gaming press has been eager to discuss Esther‘s themes. Mirror’s Edge Level Designer Robert Briscoe liked it, too. Under Pinchbeck’s watchful gaze, he’s currently remaking the whole thing from scratch, and the early screenshots look astounding.
The community’s reaction to Korsakovia was more mixed, with many players criticizing some of the mod’s intentionally confusing level design for being frustrating rather than intimidating. The frequently brutal difficulty level also raised many eyebrows, especially given the lack of a fail state in Dear Esther. Tellingly, though, it was the mod’s atmosphere that won a majority of players over. “It really seems to have scared the living Jesus out of a lot of people,” says Pinchbeck, “precisely because it didn’t do what it was supposed to do. It didn’t make you feel powerful, and every achievement was pretty immediately undercut with a sense of failure, or had no reward other than an increase in stress. Nothing made any sense at all, and the narrative compounded this sense of total freefall I wanted the player to have.”
It’s a brave route to take. But then, as they’ve so deftly demonstrated, thechineseroom have never been averse to playing with their audience’s mind. There’s method in their madness, too, as Pinchbeck believes these techniques of trickery could be used to more effectively tell horror stories within the interactive media.
I ask him about his views on the current state of horror games. Over the past several years, themes that were previously constrained to a very specific genre have begun to cross-pollinate, and we’re seeing an increase in the use of such ideas outside of traditional survival horror. But Pinchbeck isn’t convinced it’s working. “I don’t think horror is taking any real direction, and that sat behind quite a few of the decisions about Korsakovia. It’s been a long time since a game actually genuinely scared me, and that’s a bit sad. I can’t think of a game offhand where I’ve not wanted to turn the light off afterwards.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are the occasionally really brilliant moments in games: the Poltergeists’ first appearance in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the phone ringing once in the school in the first Silent Hill. Dead Space was a great, fun game and freaky in parts, but generally speaking, we’ve moved right away from horror to action in pretty much all our major horror franchises, and they are poorer as a result. Resident Evil 5? Alone in the Dark? They’re just lame compared to their predecessors.”
Pinchbeck’s noticed some parallels between the games industry and Hollywood’s recent output. “What gets described as horror these days is basically just torture-porn,” he muses. “I find that boring, personally.” Similarly, he says, videogames are moving in what he considers an unwise direction, with the notion of true horror – conveyed through strong storytelling or by fully utilizing new, innovative ways in which the player may interact with the work – being dropped in favor of action games with a vestigial horror influence. He’d prefer to have seen Dead Space‘s opening lengthened, he tells me. The almost immediate introduction of an enemy meant the horror of wandering through a lonely, desolate ship was quickly lost.
And that idea seems key to how affecting thechineseroom’s mods are. By ignoring the usual player expectations of first-person videogames – that there’ll be a plethora of monsters to kill with big, bad guns – Pinchbeck gives his chilling stories space to breathe. And through limited or otherwise confounded interaction, his twisted environments are carried to the forefront of the entire experience. That’s the sort of thing Pinchbeck feels is missing from the genre, and from commercial games as a whole.
Indeed, Korsakovia was designed partly as a reaction to just that. “It was about trying to recapture an edge,” he explains, “to make something that was really bleak, nasty, frightening, confusing and just plain wrong. Horror operates on what you don’t see, and the rush to slap our viscera and zombie hordes out on display at every opportunity is definitely tied into the fact that horror games just aren’t frightening anymore. Frankly, I’d love to get let loose on the script for a full-on survival horror game, as to me, this is the really easy stuff, and it’s amazing that it’s being done so badly in so many commercial titles, especially as we’re now doing so much other stuff so well.”
Perhaps Pinchbeck will get his opportunity. His track record is proven, and while both Esther and Korsakovia have received some criticism, his urge to think outside the box of FPS design is admirable. It strikes me that thechineseroom are doing something utterly different than any other developer that springs to mind – something that deforms typical first-person gameplay into an aggressively unique style, one that slowly but surely creeps under your skin.
I pressed him for some concrete information on his upcoming work, but he wouldn’t budge. He could only tell me that he has two ideas in progress, and that he’s hoping to make an announcement in the near future. Of these two ideas, he says, “one of them will definitely be a horror game.” Let’s hope that’s the idea thechineseroom run with, then, as with the resources available to commercial developers, Pinchbeck and co. could go on to create something seriously, frighteningly good.
Lewis Denby is editor of Resolution Magazine and contributor to modding blog UserCreated. He sometimes sleeps with the light on.