The Art of Dear Esther – Building an Environment to tell a Story

The Art of Dear Esther – Building an Environment to tell a Story



right so today I'm going to be talking a bit about the art of dear Esther the environments of the game and how the environments are an important part of the storytelling process of the games but I think the first thing I should really do is just kind of go over the concept of dear Esther and some of the history behind it and its origins just so that you can get a better idea of why the environments was such an important part of the storytelling process of the game so they are Esther started out life as a source engine Maude in 2008 and was originally conceived by Dan Pinchbeck as a an experiment to see what would happen if you stripped out traditional gameplay from a first-person game space and instead just try to use that space to do something different outside of the normal traditions of gameplay and in this case it was just designed to see if you could use that space to tell like a deep and big you a story about a dying man stranded on an Edwardian Island coming to terms with a tragic loss and to kind of tell this story just through exploring the environment and being absorbed in there in the story itself and as a research project it actually did pretty well it got released and it got 50,000 downloads within the first six months and gained quite a cult following in the modding scene it's kind of around this time that I stumbled across it myself and although I found it really captivating really inspiring I couldn't help but it wasn't feel that it wasn't quite fulfilling its true potential especially being built upon this idea that it's around exploring the environments and telling a story for the environments so in the original mod you had this fantastically engaging voiceover narrative the places you explore throughout the island and that not only gives you glimpses into the protagonists past and his reasons for being on the island but more importantly more interestingly for me was that it gives you all these glimpses into the history of the island itself and its past habitants and all the various plagues and misfortunes they've that have plagued them throughout the history of the island and for me this was the this is the most interesting part is that they experience because all of these little bits of information that we're coming through in the voice narrative were really helping me to build this world in which the story takes place but the problem I saw the original mod was that this kind of visual detail that was coming for it that this audio detail that was coming for the narrative really wasn't being represented with the environments and as a result there was this kind of real disconnection between the visual experience and the auditory experience and as an environment artists the henna felt really drawn to this project because I felt that you know I had this theory for a while that you know the backdrop that the environments their games shouldn't just be just a backdrop a passive thing in which a game takes place and here are so a great opportunity to make that make the environments more a backdrop and make it like an immersion tank to really draw the player in and make it integral part of the storytelling process and today I'm just going to take you through some of the processes that I went through in order to achieve this and also some of the philosophies and some of the lessons that I learned along the way and I think one of the most important lessons that I learned that really sort of made the impact on me as an artist and the project in general was early on when I was kind of wrestling with the idea of how was going to create this really immersive world and I just kind of started out into the slightly naive belief that you know in order to achieve realism Idul to achieve immersion you needed to be as realistic as possible we need to create this like really believable world and at the time I was working with the Source engine and as some of you may or may not know it's it's not particularly designed to work with large outdoor environments and as a result I kind of ended up having to cut out any normal maps any fancy shading and it went straight back to only being able to use diffuse maps on the textures and as a result in some of the early art tests which you can see here the terrain just look really flat and unconvincing and just it became quickly apparent that realism just wasn't happen and in retrospect is probably one of the best things that happened to the project and myself as an artist because it really forced me to go back to the drawing board and kind of reassess what this idea was what really made immersion and what the qualities were that made immersion and I kind of started looking into other mediums and more prominently paintings and just trying to get some inspiration and see see if this kind of immersive quality was evident anywhere else and I start to be drawn towards this kind of impressionistic style of painting there was just something about it something about this mix of the real and surreal this detail and perceived detail that you see in some of these paintings that I thought really mirrored sort of dear Esther's strange and ambiguous story but not only that I found some of these paintings like so atmospherics so immersive and so so absorb if that I really just felt inspired to kind of take just just to study these images and try and take some of the qualities that made these made these images even though they're not representations of photo reality and adapt that into my work see if I could create this kind of a massive quality in it so the first thing I try to do is just kind of identify some of what I fought with the key qualities of this oppression istic style and for me it was kind of this really strong sense of lighting that kind of creates the atmosphere in some of these paintings is kind of like soft Carlos's like really soft lighting and I really like this idea of evoke emotion over recreating reality so only creating enough detail and enough fidelity within the image to kind of bring across the the impression of that sit in the emotion of that scene and I also liked the idea of using the color palette to reinforce this kind of emotional quality and get this the atmosphere and mood just through the colors and the end of the picture so I went back to my original art test and I try to adapt some of these qualities into my work and just try to make it a lot more softer and I made the lighting more ambhi and just just a kind of embrace this kind of flatness that was there before and tried to make it a lot more painterly in style and already it was starting to come together and look a lot more of a beautiful interesting place to explore and this kind of really inspired me to continue on later on in level in the development when I realized that breaking three of these boundaries of this realism really allowed me to play with the some of the designs of the island and the colors and there and the the the kind of symbolic imagery that's in there which I wouldn't have been able to do being stuck inside this kind of realistic realm and it really helped towards the end of the game but is this kind of real twist on there on the story and things become a lot more dreamlike and surreal we shall come to you later in the presentation but just to sum up this point I really felt like I learned that kind of realism isn't the holy grail for immersion it's it's in fact realism doesn't have anything to do with it it's not the fidelity of the content that matter at all to me it was actually it turned out that it was the message and experienced it betray for the content that really matters in terms of immersion so speaking of that content I think it should really just quickly talk about how was built to connect the story back to the environment and I think the best way to do is just kind of show an example scene from the original mod and show how it's built up and and improved upon in the remake and some of the most important steps in the process in order to kind of build this connection back up so here we got a scene from the original mod in which the the rate of references at several points in the story where he says he describes a shipwreck in a bay in the pollution that's been caused to the island and a damage done by it and also the various supplies that he's looted from it and it's a really good example of where the narrative details didn't match up to the visual details but there was this kind of real disconnection between the auditory experience and a visual experience and it was also an area that had that ended up having a huge potential to expand upon storia just through the environment and just through this one narrative detail but first the connection really starts at the beginning of the the kind of building of this terrain at least it did for me because in my mind this terrain is kind of like the stage in which the story takes place so this I like to think of a certain certain amount of things that to do before I well well I'm designing the environment so for me I wanted to create something within the terrain that would be unique to this aspect of the story and in this case I wanted it to kind of frame it within the story so that when they talk about the shipwreck they could identify it within the environment and not only that but I wanted to expand upon the game experience as well so I wanted to expand enough upon the idea of exploration and offer something that was interesting to explore and I kind of came up with this idea of these huge sand dunes that just stretched across the bay just to make it a lot more interesting to explore and just kind of give it you the shipwreck this noon a unique identity when it eventually comes in and this comes in in the next stage where you start to add in the details and this is the stage where you really start connecting the story to the environment or at least I did as you can see in a small corner there you can see the picture of the original scene from the mod and you just have this kind of little trawler with a few boxes floating around it which represent the pollution on the island and but here I've really tried to up the scale of the of the scene really try to make it a more poignant dramatic aspect of the story just so that the environment is really you know it becomes an integral part of the story within the environment there but not only that I just made sure that the details of this piece were actually consistent with the story as well because this can be a real immersion breaker if you don't really think about these kind of this depth within the art of the environment so in this case it had to be a fairly recent wreck in order further pollution still have a holding for their supplies to still be salvageable but going beyond this I actually expanded upon this aspect of pollution to try and expand depth to the story and I did this by just making the pollution caused by it just evident all over the island so it vests the soil the sand and the grass and it's just everywhere and it really emphasizes the that the feeling that this island is kind of this miserable place this unpleasant place to inhabit and again I just expanded upon this I get it dear further by adding in other shipwrecks to the island some of them more recent and but more importantly some of them much much older and what this does is just to suggest that you know that these shipwrecks these kind of disasters have been plaguing the island for hundreds of years and it just adds adding depth to that one narrative detail and again it's just building upon this this idea that the island is this really cursed place and what these details do is just add consistency to support the reality of the game world the reality of the story and so it's just it's it's more about building a past as well as a present which i think is a really important thing and finally I just decided that later on in the development to try and connect the protagonists to the island the character that you're portraying in some way through the environment and I started to add in all these little small details that connect to him that are randomized and just just serve to reward the exploration aspect of the game so every time you play it you get slightly different objects born and these just served to offer a connection to the protagonist past and these are just a few examples of some of the items that you can find just around the shipwreck area so you've got like the jaws of life partially burnt car seat and a defibrillator these are almost kind of slightly out of place and they just served to to kind of link back to his past they kind of like give you a glimpse into this tragic event that led him here in the first place but there's also other details that are outside of this as well that kind of expand upon the story that's not portrayed throughout the right of itself for example in the lower left-hand corner here you have like some burnt divorce papers and full closure on an on a mortgage and it's kind of just served to to kind of offer a slightly different interpretation of the story in the background behind it so the reason for doing this is kind of to make the protagonist not just this presence on the onion so you're not just this person just floating around but you're actually part of the history of the environment as well it's kind of like making him part of the island itself and I think there's just moving on from that just a little bit I just want to talk about one one other thing that I thought was really instrumental in kind of bringing the immersion of the game up to a whole new level and it was something I almost missed as it I was pretty much through the second level of the game and I was the whole world that everything was really coming together the story was being really becoming connected to the environment but there was this real invisible barrier this real disconnection between the visual experience still and I couldn't quite figure it out and one day I had this screen shot open and I was just kind of looking at it and just thinking well looks fine I can't really figure out what it is and I picked up my mouse and I tried to move it around this screenshot no it's like the first lesson I arcade this is just caffeine deprivation but it suddenly occurred to me that the reason I couldn't discern this between the actual game itself was that everything was just completely static there was no feeling of dynamism in the world there was no feeling that this was a living breathing space and this was really I think what would this last disconnection was was being caused by and so hopefully this will work play video okay here we go yeah so I started to add in all these like little random elements to kind of really bring in this movement and it's organic feelings the world so you've got this wind blowing and the grass blowing in the wind and got all these leaves being picked up by that and you've got the kind of cloud scrolling along the sky you've got the the water flowing into the bay you've got the waves splashing against the shore you've got mist evaporating from from the water you've got all these different elements to kind of create this this kind of real organic feel to the world and it just makes it much more it made it much more of a believable world it just really it really just jumped the immersion level up massively and it's just I think it was such an important part of really making it the world this kind of believable place so finally there's just one last thing I think I should talk about and it's probably one of the more complex things that I used to tell the story within the game and there's something that called subliminal signposting so subliminal signposting is just quite simply a way of using the environment to unconsciously guide the player through some of the more figurative aspects of the story which are not directly conveyed through the narrative and the most of these signed posters can usually be symbolic in nature you can use them to kind of navigate the play around the environment which is kind of the more traditional way to use subliminal signposts so like using the aerial to guide the player in the right direction but I've used them a lot more I think a lot of better examples are some of the more symbolic ones and these are used to kind of portray some of the some of the contagion is kind of state of mind his for his feelings his memories and emotions and really build upon the possibility of the island or parts of the island being kind of unreal or a delusion of his imagination conjured up in a kind of fever or kind of a purgatory and I think this is most prevalent during the caves level of the game where the protagonist is kind of at its height of his delusion he's broken his leg he's got this infection and he's been taking all these painkillers and he's kind of reached this cushion no when he descends into the caves and I really wanted to create here like it's some kind of subtle break from the physical reality of the previous levels and kind of make it more of a symbolic journey for his own body his own mind and his inner psyche and just as because he is a turning point in the game where he kind of comes to terms of the events that happen which I thought was really fitting so as a result they're a really number they're really quite a number of prominent subliminal signposts here and so for example with this in this level in one of the first scenes you come across one of the first rooms you come across is this room here and this is just really representative of his heart which is one of the most important things of the stories of some motion it's the it's the turmoil and it wasn't supposed to be representing any kind of literal sense or physical sense it's just there to serve to make an impression so this this this is kind of like very loose colors as lists of colors the shapes and everything that dad and really designed to just bring this oppression across and I think in this case I chose this one because there's a little bit more literal if you focus on the blue colors in the scene you get this kind of very loose blue outline of this kind of heart shape but later on it can be even even more subtle than that and you've got other areas such as this this kind of is towards the end of the cave level where you kind of go into this cave as always writings and stuff around the walls this is really symbolic of his kind of inability to figure out the events that happens this kind of fractured state of mind that led him here and is kind of tormented mining and the infection and various other things and it all leads up to this this probably most poignant scene in the game which is kind of like a mix between the kind of literal signposting and there's symbolic signposting I mean it's literal in the case that you've got this kind of it's hard to see here but it's disliked this car wreck but it's symbolic in the fact that it's submerged beneath the bottom of the ocean and it looks like it's been submerged for decades and it kind of representative of his kind of repressed memories of this this event and has come into terms of these memories so it's a good example of where the it can kind of really represent these kind of thoughts and feelings and I think the last really strong image comes at the end of the cave level when you're exiting out and you're exited into the next level and this whole room is just designed to look like this giant eye and you're going through the iris of this eye and it's you know again it's not not completely literal but in this case it's kind of bit more literal but it's very symbolic of this kind of exit of the of the inner psyche and back into some kind of reality and it's it's I didn't want to create this kind of like really surreal like literal representation of all these things and a level I didn't want to do kind of a max pain event where you're following a trail of blood around I still wanted to maintain the reality of the game well done it built up so doing it in a subtle way really kind of just creates this idea that the people can interpret it however they want they might take something else away with it and they might just think it's a case but at the end of the day it's kind of it's a nice way to communicate the emotional aspects of the story so yeah just to conclude I really believe that choosing an art style shouldn't really be an aesthetic choice it should really be a choice of being able to define your experience and support the goals within that experience and it can also open up opportunities for you to communicate with your audience in new and interesting ways and in this case choosing the impressionistic style really allowed me to express the Unreal and the surreal aspects of the story and really play with with that within the environment but not only that but it's not just about creating a physical landscape for me it's also about creating an emotional space in which the player can navigate and using that space to really define the experience so all these details the small the large the literal the figurative are really the the glue that adds depth to the story in the environment and really helps to create this immersive world it's full of mystery just waiting to be explored and if there's any questions hopefully I've got time thank you you

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5 thoughts on “The Art of Dear Esther – Building an Environment to tell a Story

  1. Why put a black box around a grey box around what I actually wanna see?
    My screen's not infinitely big, you guys

  2. Dear Esther isn't a game. Depressive victim mindset simulator would be a better description. Who thought this would be a good idea? Don't we already have enough negativity surrounding us?

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