Wednesday, 29 May 2013

How it Sounds | Dear Esther

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Dear Esther was originally released as a mod for Half Life 2 having been built in the Source engine. It rapidly drew attention to itself and became a critically acclaimed experimental first-person game. Dear Esther was created by Dan Pinchbeck, writer and producer of, the seven person team, The Chinese Room. The reasoning behind this unusual game was to show what a video game really can do.

"Dear Esther is a poetic ghost story told using game technologies. You explore a deserted island, uncovering a tale of love, loss, grief and redemption, delivered through stunning voice-over and soundtrack and set against one of the most beautiful environments yet created in a game." (

I personally picked up a copy from the 2013 Steam Indie Spring Sale, for around £1.50, as per recommendation from fellow author Achidi Frick. He often informs me of any interesting soundscape/sound design/audio in video games thanks to my near obsession with it. I have to thank him once again for my introduction to this beauty.

Moving away from the stunning visuals, you can see those yourself just from searching the game and from the images within the article. We are looking toward the beauty in the Sound. I will say that although Jessica Curry's score is exceptional and superb for the game, I'm probably not going to discuss it here on out as I want to focus on the diegetic and non-diegetic sounds excluding the score/soundtrack, the true Sound Design.

Image courtesy of Strategyinformer
From the blustery coast to the dank caves, Dear Esther stimulates the ears not quite like any game I've experienced before. As we enter the world we can do nothing other than wander it, searching for scraps of prose to unlock the horrors that preceded us. The coastline beginning opens us up to the wind whistling by and the waves crashing below.

After just over 2hours of gameplay I came to the conclusion that the environments of Dear Esther are built on stereo location recording for the ambience, the 'room tone' if you were. This became apparent as I rotated the protagonist showing no change in directionality from the wind and sea. The same occurring later in the game as we find ourselves in a labyrinth of wet caves. The dripping never really seems to come from anywhere but the environment is just producing it. I'm not saying this is/was a bad approach, what better way to replicate reality than sample it? The only element that dropped me back into reality was the lack of directional variation. Apart from that it really does sound like you are at the seaside.
Yet again the abandoned shack at the beginning of the game really did feel drafty... superb capture of an environment and extremely immersive.

Footsteps. The only real downfall in the audio department. I didn't feel they were a big enough focus. It seemed as though the developers simply assigned a cycle of footstep samples and left it at that. Textures didn't seem to influence the tone of them and there was no impact on the acoustical space.
As you walk through a cave you hear your crunching footsteps around you, the sound bouncing off the surfaces back to you. This doesn't happen within the experimental game but the footsteps seemed slapped on top. Perhaps they were more of an afterthought?

Image courtesy of

Despite the mild let down in the foot department, the voice was incredible. Nigel Carrington gave a compelling performance throughout this indie title. Well suited to the passages of prose it was well recorded, processed and mixed into the game. Plenty of punch and low end and enough rasp to create the eery British tone that Dear Esther wreaks.

Dear Esther isn't brand new, the full title was released in 2012 with the original mod about in 2008. I'm grateful The Chinese Room experimented with video gaming. Not just making a generic shooter. They thought about it, took care in their sound to make realistic sounding virtual environments and acoustic spaces. I am forgiving of the slight let downs in the game as it is only an Indie game. Hopefully instilling inspiration into indie developers to take time in their games. Dear Esther may only be 2hours long but its detail and unique depth have made it one of the modern greats.

Thanks for reading,

Rob Tyler

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