When Dear Esther was released, it offered no goals, puzzles or explosions, instead it computer games could be truly cinematic. Last year, composer Jessica Curry found a less traditional avenue to mark the fifth anniversary of this genredefying title she’d created with her husband.
Developed by Brighton-based studio The Chinese Room, the premise of Dear Esther Live is simple. A single player travels through its narrative, observed by a concert hall audience and accompanied by a live score from a piano quintet and soprano. It’s a bold and ingenious way to celebrate a game which has won significant critical acclaim. “It’s surprising how it has embedded itself into gaming culture,” Curry tells me. “We were thrilled for our first game to have such an impact, it changed our lives completely.” Rather than being based around action or increasing difficulty, what draws the player into this absorbing and stunningly detailed world is the quality of the narrative, and the emotional nature of its music.
The game abandons you to travel across a bleak and desolate Hebridean island. It’s startling, inspiring and unique. Qualities underpinned by Curry’s fabulous score. This ebbs and flows, dependent entirely upon the actions of its protagonist. She says people had spoken to her about performing it live, and it felt like a natural progression to take it into a concert hall. Onstage at the show’s debut performance at London’s Barbican Centre, the BAFTAwinner suddenly wasn’t so sure about her creative gamble. “I sat there on the first night, thinking it could be an absolute disaster. It was so quiet when the game finished, then it got this absolutely rapturous applause.” The warm reception has led to more shows, including a performance at Brighton Dome on Fri 2 Feb. Like the game redefined expectations of interactive story-telling, the show has changed opinions on what is possible in a traditional classical environment.
She enthusiastically talks about the diversity of the audiences. This would range from Dear Esther super-fans, to older people who had never played a game, to hardcore gamers who’d never attended a classical concert before. “I’m really into that idea of new audiences and giving people new experiences.” Live playthroughs of music to films are common now, but she’s developed something which is different every night and allows the audience a deeper understanding of how the visuals and music work together.
The games industry still has many issues regarding diversity and representation. Protagonists are overwhelmingly male, heterosexual and white, reflecting most of the industry creating them. Curry points towards the seismic changes occurring in wider society with gender equality and expectations. “That’s happening in the games industry as well. Women are grabbing hold of that technology, writing and creating experiences about their own lives.” Previous sexism in gaming has been a barrier to entry for a lot of women. So, it’s interesting The Chinese Room welcome an above average proportion of female and older players. Possibly this is because they design more emotionally intelligent worlds. “I think women, I know it’s a big generalisation, are looking for more complexity with what they’re playing. There are companies responding to that, but it is a massive problem which I don’t have an answer to.” Ostensibly money talks, and developers can’t afford to ignore half of the population. The colossal success of Horizon Zero Dawn, and its female protagonist, is evidence of the markets ability to embrace a female-led title.
Before forming The Chinese Room, Curry never felt there was anything for her amongst the games world. Closer inspection revealed there’s many exciting and beautiful titles which are trying to advance what can be done on a computer or console. She’s playing her part to further the ambitions of videogame soundtracks with her regular show on Classic FM – High Score. It’s a program which has helped figures in the station’s 18-35 listenership to rocket. She happily confirms the music is getting better and better, and the understanding of how to write interactive music is becoming so more complex. “It used to be people like me, who were trained in film music, who were turning their hand to it. Now young people are coming out of colleges having trained to write music for video games. That’s really exciting, they have such an innate understanding of the experience.”