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During the summer of 2008, a Half-Life 2 mod changed the way I thought about games. Developed as part of a research project at the University of Portsmouth, Dear Esther featured no shooting and no puzzles. Instead, it simply presented a Hebridean island for you to explore, and an unusual story of motorways and science experiments that fell into place as you did so. Almost three years later, that humble mod has been signed by Valve for a full, standalone commercial release on Steam. It’s been rebuilt in its entirety by Robert Briscoe, one of the team behind the stark and strikingly memorable environments of Mirror’s Edge. And it’s stunning. The Source Engine – now more than six years old – has never looked so beautiful. I’ve played through a good chunk of the second take on Dear Esther, and it’s shaping up to be even more fascinating than the original. But almost as interesting as Esther’s story is the story of the game itself, and how it came to find itself on the cusp of a commercial release.
You wander the cliffs, caves and sheep-pens of a windswept Hebridean island. A single voice reads out fragments of letters, and through these you gain snatches of information about the island and other people who took a walk similar to yours. Their stories bleed into each other: the travel writer who visited the island in pursuit of a legendary hermit. The shepherd stranded here without friends or family, whose situation reflects the hermit’s. Dear Esther is about heavy subjects: isolation and tragedy tie the island’s visitors together.
Dear Esther, the sombre Half Life 2 mod where you steer a tortured man around an abandoned island listening to his internal monologues, diary entries, or whatever that constant talking is, has been quietly polished up by Robert Briscoe. He's released a ton of screens and a little walk-about trailer, showcasing his rendition subterranean world where you spend a significant portion in the middle of the game. It's gorgeous.
The first official Dear Esther trailer has appeared on the Dear Esther site, celebrating its four IGF award nominations and upcoming release on Steam on February 14. It offers a short but haunting glimpse of the island that you explore for the duration of the game. As you move over its hills and through its caves, you'll uncover scraps of narration that resonate with the environment, resulting in an interactive letter of "love, loss, guilt and redemption." It also looks as though it's going to be the most beautiful thing ever made with the Source Engine.
I'm not exactly sure what to call Dear Esther. Is it a game? Is it an "interactive narrative experience"? Is it something else entirely? Your guess is as good as mine, but I do know one thing: It's pretty damn great. Originally a Half-Life 2 mod, the absolutely chilling exploration-focused adventure is being remade as a standalone game. Better still, Mirror's Edge level designer Robert Briscoe has taken a running leap onto the project, which ought to give the game's hauntingly beautiful island even more personality. According to the maybe-not-a-game's official blog, it's releasing on, er, Valentine's Day 2012. Because nothing says smooches and other insipidly cute couple-y things like complete physical and mental isolation. So that's fun. You'll be able to pick it up for the piggy-bank-friendly price of $9.99 as well, so it's pretty much a no-brainer - if only to experience a game that's totally unlike anything else you've ever played. If you're interested, definitely check out Dear Esther's official website.
"Grief, loss, guilt, faith, illness... But it's also about love and hope and redemption" That's how Dear Esther's designer describes his game. Imagine a Source Engine title without any guns or physics puzzles. Dear Esther emerged from a research question proposed by Dr Dan Pinchbeck in Portsmouth University: "What would happen if a game was to focus purely on storytelling, to the exclusion of more traditional interactive elements? The project has gone from humble mod to commercial release on Steam, redesigned by one of the team behind the stark environments of Mirror's Edge. It's got potential to change how you think about games forever. Issue 224 of PC Gamer UK has an in-depth feature on innovative title, but we like you so much that we're giving away our interviews with the designer, developer and sound designer for free. Click more to get the scoop.
When Dear Esther turned a profit in six hours it was already obvious that it would exceed expectations. Dear Esther's Indie Fund backers were originally unsure about funding Dear Esther, but it looks like their faith has been well placed. It sold 16,000 copies on Steam on day one. A week on, it's sold more than 50,000. Developers, Thechineseroom made their sales public over on the Dear Esther blog, saying that the 50,000 figure is "an extraordinary amount for an indie release."
The finalists of this year's Independent Games Festival have been announced. A wide range of promising indie titles have received nominations including Dear Esther to Frozen Synapse, Spelunky and Gunpoint, made by our own Tom Francis, who is several feet behind me watching looking very happy and watching videos of bees. It's a fantastic line-up across the board. It'll be a very tough task for the judges to pick out victors. Until then, have a look at the list below, and let us know which games you think should take awards.
This is cute, and kind of stupid: someone has done a speedrun of Dear Esther, the atmospheric FPS-without-the-S that, until now, we would have considered unspeedrunable. We can only speculate whether Simon 'default' Albacke Eriksson - discovered via Kotaku on the Speed Demos Archive - set out to subvert the art game by missing the point entirely, or if he simply wanted to see how quickly it could be over with, but he managed to finish the game in a not-too-shabby 23 minutes.
Everyone’s dead and there's no hope. It’s a premise that Dan Pinchbeck approaches with surprising positivity. Pinchbeck, creator of Dear Esther, is currently at work on a post-apocalyptic survival game, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, and his GDC talk took us through some of design principles behind it - starting with the notion that if the world has ended, at least things can’t get much worse.
A post on the Indie Fund site responsible for backing the development of Dear Esther says that the team have recouped their investment of $55,000 in just five and a half hours and is currently the third best selling game on Steam. "To be honest, we are a little surprised by how many people bought Dear Esther so quickly," say the Indie Fund. "We were expecting the game to have a niche appeal. In fact the situation is quite different." Dear Esther has so far sold more than 16,000 copies in its first day. The Fund were slightly reluctant to fund the game in the beginning because they were worried it go down well with Steam's mainstream audience. "We appear to have been very wrong about all this," they say. "We are happy to have been wrong." For our verdict on Dear Esther, check out our Dear Esther review.
Whether you're partial to the melancholy strains of Dear Esther, the thoughtful plinky plonky accompaniment to Indie Game: The Movie or the bluesy rawk of Shoot Many Robots, there's probably something in the latest Game Music Bundle to tickle your ears. You'll get the soundtracks mentioned above along with Spelunky and Retro City Rampage for any donation over a dollar.
Summer has always been a bit of a lull when it comes to video game releases. It’s the time of year where we hear more about the upcoming fall releases rather than actually, you know, playing games. Luckily, we have the Humble Indie Bundle 8 to keep boredom, UV rays, and those treacherous, shark-filled oceans at bay.
The studio behind Amnesia, Frictional Games, have been leading fans on the Frictional forums along a breadcrumb trail of clues over the last few days, a trail that leads to this announcement for A Machine of Pigs, due out in "FALL TWO THOUSAND TWELVE." The page also features the above bit of concept art, the last of a series of hints that suggests Dear Esther developers The Chinese Room may have some involvement with the project.
When clever ARG-crackers uncovered this message on nextfrictionalgame.com, the internet leapt to the conclusion that the next Frictional game would be called Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and that it would be coming out later this year. It was even rumoured that the game was being created in collaboration with Dear Esther developers thechineseroom.
The new Amnesia game, a horrifying collaboration between Frictional Games and The Chinese Room, will be released September 10. A Machine for Pigs is explicitly for pigs, but the devs have been kind enough to allow humans to buy it for $20/£13 on Steam and GOG. Pre-purchasing, however, brutally hacks 20% off the price, exposing the oozing, gelatinous innards of capitalism. Don't touch the wound. It bites.
Alternative headlines include "Dick and Dom SNUBBED in Online - Browser category", "Black Ops II not deemed most innovative game of the year - internet pitchforks rest easy", or just, "Journey wins pretty much all the other bloody awards, to the chagrin of PC-centric news writers". Still, there were some wins for games that PC owners could play. As well as Dishonored's top award, shiny trophies also went to The Walking Dead, XCOM and Far Cry 3.
IT'S HERE! After much anticipation, War of the Roses' Brian Blessed DLC pack has been released. The pack casts the cacophonous thesp into the role of narrator, announcing victories and defeats with his own unique aural assault. I've done you a disservice by not typing the entirety of this opening paragraph in all caps. TO THE VIDEO!
You can play free trials of 16 IGF-nominated games right now using cloud-streaming service, OnLive. For the next two weeks you can log in and play 30 minute demos of games like Dear Esther, Dustforce, Frozen Synapse, Space Chem and, as Tom mentioned earlier, the excellent FTL. When GDC kicks off next week all OnLive games formerly nominated for IGF awards will be discounted by 75% There's a list of links to the OnLive demo page for each IGF nominee below. You'll need to sign up for a free OnLive account first to get access.