Computer game played live as an innovative music theatre experience

Dear Esther

Jessica Curry, The Chinese Room

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Dear Esther is being hailed as one of the most innovative computer games of the last ten years. The game is poetic, symbolic and understated, and explores themes such as love, loss and redemption. A walk through the beautiful deserted landscape of an uninhabited island in the Scottish Hebrides is mysteriously connected with a traumatic car accident and an existential crisis. Brought to the stage – both the game and the music are played live – the video game takes on new and unexpected musical theatre aspects. Jessica Curry’s cinematic music plays a big role in the dreamy, desolate atmosphere and makes the beautiful natural landscapes even more scintillating. Together with Oikospiel II: Heat Cantata, Dear Esther is one of two works exploring live video games as music theatre.

background information

Dear Esther. The morning after I was washed ashore, salt in my ears, sand in my mouth and the waves always at my ankles, I felt as though everything had conspired to this one last shipwreck. 

I remembered nothing but water, stones in my belly and my shoes threatening to drag me under to where only the most listless of creatures swim. 

These are the opening words of the computer game Dear Esther, created by the British game development studio The Chinese Room. Dear Esther’s release in 2012 caused a minor revolution in gaming: it is perceived by many as the mother of all walking simulators. This term was originally intended as a criticism, but the creators of the genre and its enthusiasts have embraced it. Walking sims are games in which the pace is scaled down from ten to two and the possibilities for interaction are limited. Atmosphere, music and symbolism take the place of speed and action. Instead of trying to kill as many zombies or enemies as possible, the most important thing is the narrative experience, the telling of a good story. 

Dear Esther does this with immense verve. The beautifully constructed landscape and compelling music, especially composed for the game by Jessica Curry, form the background to a metaphysical thriller. The story starts on the beach of a deserted island in the Hebrides. The gamer explores the island and with the help of a voice-over gradually begins to understand what is going on. Memories of a car accident, a hermit’s book, and several mysterious discoveries on the island, which on closer inspection seems not to be so uninhabited, come together in a dream-like story about a man at a turning point in his life. Mortality, hope, love and redemption are the themes of this unusual game. 

The game had an enthusiastic reception, won a number of prizes, and reached hundreds of thousands gamers. It was also nominated for five BAFTA awards. After an initial limited release for Windows PC, the game was eventually made available for all important computer platforms. In October 2016 Curry’s soundtrack for Dear Esther had a single live performance at the Barbican Theatre, London. During this concert a large screen behind the orchestra displayed the progress of the game, played live on the stage by a gamer, giving the audience more or less the same kind of immersive experience as gamers have. After last year’s Barbican performance the show successfully toured the UK. This year it can be seen at the Holland Festival. 

The game was edited and re-designed for the tour to form an essential part of the concert/art experience, which includes a live play-through of the game by freelance writer Thomas McMullan. This captivating show takes the audience on a journey that features Curry’s score alongside the visual and aural components of the original game. It is a brilliant celebration of video gaming, which places its immersive multimedia elements front and centre. A voice actor brings the spoken word component of the story to life while a string section and a soprano provide the musical accompaniment. 

According to Jessica Curry, composer and co-founder of The Chinese Room, Dear Esther ‘really has stood the test of time. Going back to it, we still felt so passionate about it. We realised that we’re missing a trick here, in not playing it live, as it has so many advantages that way.’

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biography

The Chinese Room is a British video game development studio, founded by Dan Pinchbeck and Jessica Curry, known for their creation of several walking simulators. Their Dear Esther (originally a

mod for Half Life 2) was a cult hit in 2009. In 2013 a re-make of the game, created in collaboration with video game developer Robert Briscoe, was given a wider release. Dear Esther was nominated in five different categories for the British Academy Video Games Awards. A show based on the game, with live music and voice-over, had its world premiere at the Barbican in 2016. After developing Dear Esther the studio created a number of further games including Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (survival horror) and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture (metaphysical thriller). The Chinese Room is presently taking a break from studio work to gain the space and time to reflect on future artistic developments. 

Jessica Curry is a composer and co-founder of the gaming studio The Chinese Room. Her work has been performed in a wide range of venues including the Barbican, London, the Sydney Opera House, Great Ormond Street Hospital, The Royal Opera House, Sage Gateshead and Durham Cathedral. In addition to composing the soundtrack for Dear Esther, she has also composed the soundtracks for the games Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Curry presents a programme about game music on ClassicFM. In 2016 her large-scale work The Durham Hymns, in collaboration with the British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, had its premiere in Durham Cathedral. 

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Credits

game
The Chinese Room in samenwerking met Little Lost Poly
music
Jessica Curry
conductor
Iain Farrington
gamer
Thomas McMullan
producer
Laura Ducceschi
production manager
Kevin Taylor
foh engineer
Simon Wheeler
av engineer
Christian Mock
with support by
Jessica Curry is supported by PRS for Music Foundation’s International Showcase Fund
performed by
Iain Farrington,
piano
Ferdy Roberts,
narrator
Joanna L’Estrange,
soprana
Laurence Bush,
electronics
Chris Worsey,
cello
Rachel Robson,
viola
Tom Piggott-Smith,
violin
Natalia Bonner,
violin