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."