Dear Esther

Sumo has bought The Chinese Room.

The Crackdown 3 developer said it had acquired The Chinese Room, the studio behind Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and Dear Esther, from founders Dan Pinchbeck and Jessica Curry.

Brighton-based Pinchbeck is on board as creative director of The Chinese Room, while Curry will continue her career independently as a composer, Sumo said. Pinchbeck added he's now working on new concepts. In a blog post, he said The Chinese Room is talking to potential partners about a new game, "something bigger"... "something that takes a more traditional game genre - no, you don't get to know what just yet - and lets us spin our worlds and stories on top of that. It's going to be very, very exciting."

Read more…

Dear Esther

The Chinese Room cofounder and composer Jessica Curry summarises her initial pitch for a live performance of Dear Esther in a typically humorous manner: "I've had this possibly really bad and commercially unviable idea—how would you feel about it?!" She was speaking with the Barbican's Contemporary Music Programmer, Chris Sharp.

The idea came during a Film, Archive and Music Lab (FAMLAB) week Curry was attending. "They were talking about composers and how they work with silent film in terms of putting that into a concert experience," she says. She began to ponder that in relation to her expertise in videogame music.

Sharp has previously summed up the Barbican’s work as ‘Slightly Insane Ideas Made Reality’, so Curry’s proposal would seem a perfect fit for that remit. "They were amazing from start to finish," she says of the Barbican. "They were really creatively on board with it but also incredibly practical, because what we quickly discovered is that it was technically really challenging." 

One of the key challenges was that the live performance would require Dear Esther to be rebuilt. The most obvious reasons are that, for a live show with live narration and music, the existing music and narration needed to be stripped from the game. "I thought it can’t be that hard but you know what it’s like with game development—you change one thing and everything starts crashing around you!" says Curry. The game was five years old by then and The Chinese Room had to relearn the processes and idiosyncracies of the original in order to tweak it. "The QA involved in that was massive because so many dependencies had changed," explains Curry.


The conductor and actor also needed the game to provide cues for the different pieces of music or segments of script required. That meant re-evaluating how the tripwires in the game—the triggers for things like segments of dialogue—worked. In the original game the idea is that you get a different experience each time you play because there are a huge number of possible permutations. 

That’s fine when you have code handling those responses. When it’s a human on stage the limitations are different. Fellow Chinese Room cofounder Dan Pinchbeck thus needed to create a version of the script which catered to the limits of a human performer and to the fact that attendees would likely only attend one performance. 

I ask about the logistics of the tripwires given you’d need to factor in a few extra seconds for a human to respond to a prompt from the game. "Now you’re beginning to understand the fresh hell I led everybody into!" laughs Curry.

It wasn’t just figuring out cues and removing elements of audio. Invisible walls had to be added a week before the initial show to prevent the player falling off cliffs during a performance. There was also a long discussion about whether to keep or remove the game’s loading screens.

Curry tells me it was a conscious choice to leave the loading screens in. The idea was "to not apologise for it being a game" and instead to celebrate it. That’s how it worked for me, but others found it jarring. It’s a peculiarly technological moment in a very human performance. 

In general, decisions about what to change and how were governed by whether they helped create a live version of the existing game experience rather than a separate, perhaps more theatrical, entity.

That said, in game form Curry had been able to exert absolute control over how Dear Esther sounded at any given point. As a live performance, she had to figure out how to separate out the elements so they still worked cohesively but could be differentiated by the listeners. Each venue also introduced differences to the sound and the team had mere hours to figure out how to adapt each night. 

Having an experienced crew helped, as did a sound engineer with both live expertise and a more detached perspective: "Sometimes, because I knew the soundtrack so well in my head it was almost like I couldn’t hear a new version of it," Curry says.   

Centre stage

The human player is another performance element which has changed over the tour. By the final UK date the PC monitors had gone from being side-on to facing the audience and the player was now lit in the same manner as the musicians. Curry and the team are still tinkering with that presentation for the international dates.

Live performance also introduces the possibility that part of the show will break. As a result there are two projectors and two computers in place, plus a screenshot to cut to in the event of some tech failure and emergency music specifically written by Curry to cover downtime. 

Stresses aside, the resulting Dear Esther tour has been a rewarding and rejuvenating experience for Curry. The close-knit team offered a protective, nurturing environment, and the instant positive feedback of a live audience enthralled by her work has been a delight. 

Whether the success here is transferrable to other live games events is a difficult question. Dear Esther is about 75 minutes long, was made on a tight budget with one narrator and few musicians, and is the product of a studio that’s interested in removing traditional ‘play’ elements from games. It’s suited to a live show in ways that hundred-hour epics with action sequences and full orchestral scores aren’t. Regardless, Dear Esther’s live tour was a technologically fascinating and emotionally rewarding experience. 

Dear Esther - (Rick Lane)


Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.>

Watching walking simulators evolve from the waffling emptiness of Dear Esther into remarkable narrative adventures like Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch has been one of my favourite spectator sports as a games journalist. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of the better stepping stones on this long and winding road. It has players assume the role of psychic detective Paul Prospero, who arrives in the gorgeous Red Creek Valley on the trail of a missing boy. (more…)

Dear Esther - (Alice O'Connor)

The Chinese Room, the studio behind Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Dear Esther as well as Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, have laid off their development team and are “going dark” for a bit while they figure out “what happens next”. Financial and personal pressures were too much, see, so they’re taking a break. When they come back, they say, it won’t be to make walking sims. I don’t know why they mention walk ’em ups after Pip and I settled once and for all that Dear Esther and Rapture are not walking simulators, but there you go. (more…)

Dear Esther

The Chinese Room—the studio behind the likes of Dear Esther and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture—has laid off all but three of its staff, "going dark for the next few months."

As outlined in this blog post by co-founder Dan Pinchbeck, the decision comes as a result of development, financial and health complications—the sum of which made running the studio in its current form untenable. Now, just Pinchbeck, Jessica Curry and Andrew Crawshaw remain, with all residual staff parting ways following the launch of its Google Daydream VR venture So Let Us Melt.

"Lay-offs are never pleasant, particularly when you're all trying to wrap a game. We did our best to try and help the team secure new positions, and then we all—the whole team—threw everything we had at wrapping the game," explains Pinchbeck. "It didn't feel fair to anyone, least of all people who had spent a year working on a project, to have its completion and release overshadowed by news about the studio closing, so we've held off on the announcement until we felt we were clear of all of that."   

Pinchbeck continues, suggesting this isn't the end for The Chinese Room but that it's "just a pause" in its lifeline. Pinchbeck, Curry and Crawshaw are still working on The 13th Interior, and its other project Little Orpheus will enter its prototype phase later in the year. Pinchbeck says he and his team will still be around, but just not as a fully-active development team for the foreseeable future.  

"We’re essentially artists, Jess and I, who made a hit game without realising it, and became a studio faster than we planned for," Pinchbeck adds. "And it’s been an amazing few years where we’ve made and released games we’re very proud of, and we’ve worked with great people and made great friends. But we’re makers, fundamentally, and our roles were increasingly making it very difficult to be practically involved in doing the things we love and we started the company to be able to do. We’re taking time to figure that out; how we get to be creatives, not managing directors. 

"That’s a whole other job and skill set and lots of people do it really well and love doing it. But it’s not for us—it just led to stress and burn-out and a desperate need to actually make stuff again—whether that’s art, music, games, writing. So this break is a chance to reconnect with all of that, and we figure we’ve earned that time… Is it the end of The Chinese Room? No, I don’t think so. But it’s the end of a chapter, and we hope you can all be patient with us whilst we figure out what happens next."


Dear Esther

Our assumption is that big publishers are looking at the success of PUBG and working out how they can take a piece of it for themselves. In a lot of cases, the potential exists within games that are already out there—pretty much every open world game with a competitive element could borrow the format of a shrinking competitive space, randomly distributed weapons and dozens of players, to variable results.

Some would suit it better than others, though. Here are nine games where we think a battle royale-esque mode could be explored to great effect. We'd love to hear your suggestions in the comments, too. 

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

MGSV has the tools, maps and precise combat for a great battle royale game. The layout of both open worlds has a variety of towns, roads, cliffs, tunnels and open areas that would lend themselves well to large scale firefights with a shrinking combat radius. There's a huge variety of weapons that could be taken from the game's upgrade tree, alongside unusual MGS novelties like the Hand of Jehuty. The more open layout of the Angola-Zaire border map would probably be a better fit than the tunnel-y Afghanistan environment.

Perhaps using the Fulton system could bag you bonuses, like vehicles, temporary AI companions, helicopter support or weapon drops. You could be rewarded for taking down targets without killing them, or for sneaking up on enemies. There's a bunch of potential, there, and all of this sounds better than signing into MGSV for the first time in three months to find out which of your FOB bases have been robbed.—Samuel Roberts

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag

Okay, the open world component of Black Flag isn't multiplayer, but imagine if it was. Imagine having that gorgeous set of islands and glittering blue oceans in a battle royale contest. Do you steal a boat and try to keep to the open waters, sniping other players with mortars? Perhaps you would prefer to stalk Black Flag’s intricate islands where you can air-assassinate players that get too close. I like the idea that the shrinking danger zone would force players into different modes of traversal across land and sea. You lose the thrill of looting houses for hats, but the thrill of being a pirate and thus having a cool hat already surely makes up for it. Perhaps the boats-only, multiplayer-focused Skull and Bones can scratch the itch.—Tom Senior

Dark Souls

PvP duelling in Dark Souls is already excellent and Lordran is a fascinating interlinked map. The shrinking boundary system would be difficult to implement in Dark Souls’ twisting, tiered map, but you could switch off zones in waves. Being told to get out of Darkroot in five minutes would be a good test of your map knowledge, and it would push you into desperate scraps with other fleeing knights. I like the idea that the final duel could take place in Lordran, The Undead Burg or—god save you—the narrow walkways of Blighttown.—Tom Senior

GTA Online

I can't think of a game that would suit a battle royale mode more: empty out Los Santos, spread players across the map, then dot weapons behind buildings, drop cars in the middle of empty streets where players can fight for them, and make military helicopters so rare and hard to reach that tens of players die just trying to steal them. And yes, the shrinking combat zone would be perfect with this backdrop: you could isolate the final showdown to one city block, or to the beach, or to Vinewood Hills. There's even an existing Freemode Event, Penned In, that shrinks the play space as competitors try to force each other out of it in vehicles.

I'm convinced Rockstar will add this to the game's roster of Adversary Modes eventually, if they can make it work on the technical side. Every Bullet Counts shows how they've been thinking more about survival-type modes for GTA Online. Surely a full-on battle royale mode is how one of the biggest multiplayer games in the world gets even bigger.—Samuel Roberts

Far Cry 5

This is another one that I think is likely in some form, maybe as DLC, since the game's still in development. Far Cry 5's easy movement, wilderness-meets-small-town setting and range of vehicles would be spot on. In my hands-on with the single-player at E3, I sent one of my AI companions up to the top of a church to man the tower as a sniping spot. Approaching a point like that in a battle royale mode would be incredibly tense. Depending on the size restrictions, you could even let players throw in their own arenas via the game's map editor.—Samuel Roberts

Ghost Recon Wildlands

Ghost Recon is still awaiting its 4v4 PvP mode, so anything approaching a battle royale-type option seems unlikely in the near future. Like MGSV, though, Wildlands has the tools and vehicles to create some interesting open world encounters, even if you might need to resize the map a bit to make it work. The existing co-op format of Ghost Recon would really suit squad-based play, too.—Samuel Roberts

Neptune's Pride

This competitive real time strategy game is probably brutal enough without the inclusion of a battle royale mode, but if I was going to move the battle royale format into a different genre, this is how I’d do it. As the hours pass the constricting death zone forces players to invade each other’s territory, and you have be ready to abandon your planets and move your forces at a moment’s notice. Admittedly this favours players who happen to own the territory that becomes the final showdown zone, but other players fleeing the border would naturally pool resources to take out the embedded player. It could lead to some frantic, climactic final battles and creates a high-stakes end game that strategy games tend to lack.—Tom Senior

The Division

In reading about The Division's existing survival mode, I stumbled across this nice and sincere petition to get a battle royale mode added with version 1.8 of the game. Alas, this hasn't happened yet, but the existence of such a petition does suggest that at least 200 players would love to see what this would look like in The Division's abandoned Manhattan city blocks.

It seems like a reformatting of the existing survival mode would do it, too—a shrinking combat region that pushes all the players closer together for a final showdown can only add more energy to the game's PvP options.—Samuel Roberts 

Dear Esther

You linger on the shore of a hebridean island and meditate upon the exact positioning of a stone. The narrator speaks poetically someone's childhood memories of riding buses in Islington. The story is inane but you detect an underlying note of tragedy in the narrator's delivery. As you look out on the infinite dark ocean sirens break the silence. "Proceed to a safe zone immediately or face obliteration," says the narrator. You amble very slowly up a gentle walkway in an attempt to scale the cliff face and move inland, and realise with horror that there is no run button. The shriek of the sirens is overrun by the drone plane engines. The attack planes are coming. “Why can’t I go faster!?” you scream at the monitor. “I just want to listen to a bit of poetry and some nice music!” Dear Esther battle royale does not care what you want. Heavy machine gun fire tears into the beach. The end is here.—Tom Senior

Dear Esther

Last year, The Chinese Room released a console version of its flagship non-combat exploration game Dear Esther—named the Landmark Edition—and suggested it would one day land on PC. It's now doing exactly that, the developer has revealed, and will be completely free-of-charge to owners of the original on Steam as of 6pm GMT/10am PT tomorrow.

With it comes remastered audio and developer commentary for the game which is widely considered to have sparked the 'walking simulator' genre. It's been ported from the original Source Engine onto Unity 5 and has additional accessibility options, large subtitles, a crosshair, multi-language options, and a smattering of trophies and achievements.  

Since the launch of the 2012 original, a number of similar games have come along—not least The Chinese Room's own Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. Of the former, Chris described it as "a trip through a brilliantly conceived landscape that rewards attentive engagement with a moving story."

Here's the launch trailer for the game's PS4 variation:

In a blog post, The Chinese Room also promises a mega-exciting announcement which will be made at 10am PT/6pm GMT when the game launches. "[We] can't say more now," reads the post, "but follow us on Twitter because you really don't want to miss the boat on this one and it's extremely time sensitive." 

Dear Esther - (Alice O'Connor)

The ‘Landmark Edition’ of seminal walky story Dear Esther [official site] will launch tomorrow, developers The Chinese Room have announced. It’s basically the same game, but remade in the Unity engine with a few tweaks and a director’s commentary. It’ll be free for everyone who already owns the original Dear Esther, and it sounds like it’ll be separate rather than strictly an ‘update’, preserving that Source engine version and mod heritage. That’s nice. … [visit site to read more]

Dear Esther - (RPS)

Alice and Pip have been off wandering their way through digital worlds from Proteus to Sacramento and are now hobbling towards a shared definition of a walking simulator. Find out what conclusions they’ve reached and why their definition categorically does not include Dear Esther!>

Pip: Alice, when I asked you to recommend me your favourite walking simulators so I could go on some digital expeditions what would you say were your criteria?

Alice: That they surfaced readily in this trash heap of a memory? Which meant they struck me for some reason. I think I picked walking simulators with a spread of form and tone, all quite different but all games where you can mostly just walk around. Some fun! Some colourful! Some spooky! Some so linear they’re literally on rails.

… [visit site to read more]

Dear Esther

Dear Esther may very well be the most famous walking simulator ever released, and also one of the best. Its 2012 release made enough of an impact that a remastered version called the Landmark Edition is in the works, and in October people who live in and around the great city of London will have the opportunity to enjoy it in an entirely new way: As a live on-stage performance.

Starting on a small beach, with only a brooding cliffs and a small lighthouse in view, BAFTA-nominated narrator Oliver Dimsdale takes you through the game, journeying from the desolate Hebridean island to a car crash on the M5, a crisis of faith of a guilty heart, the lost shores of a dreamed shoreline and a final ascent through the waters of madness to the release of flight, the play's description explains. With the playthrough of the game on-screen accompanied by live narration and a live performance of BAFTA-winning composer Jessica Curry s powerful score, the story is even more brought to life here.

I would absolutely attend this play if I could. I very much enjoyed Dear Esther in videogame form, and the chance to see a live performance by Jessica Curry, who composed and performed its soundtrack, would be worth the price of admission entirely on its own. And I think that having the interactivity, such as it is, taken out of the audience's hands will result in a very new sort of experience, too. Say what you will about walking simulators, but losing all control of your actions within the game world to basically be caught within another person's dream and to be forced to simply watch and listen may well lead to a very different perspective on what's happening.

Sadly, I won't be anywhere near the UK when the players hit the stage, but maybe someone will sneak in a camera. Dear Esther will be performed at 7:30 pm UK time on October 14, at the Milton Court Concert Hall. Tickets are 22.50 plus booking fee. Full details and links to book tickets for those of you who will be in the neighborhood are at


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