It seems that these days, it's usually indie games that push the boundaries of this medium and have gamers and audiences asking "But is it a game?" ("Is it art?" being a close second). Early 2012 saw the release of two such titles, Journey and Dear Esther. Of the two, Dear Esther certainly has the less traditional origin story. One of the many mods based on the Half-Life 2 engine, it was developed as a research project at the University of Plymouth. The title's gameplay was equally unusual. The player is dropped on a barren island in the Hebrides and left to explore the surroundings, while a male voice-over reads out random letter fragments to a woman named Esther. With no threat of death, no tasks to be fulfilled, or choices to be made, Dear Esther instead aims to capture gamers' intrigue simply by letting them figure out or just interpret the fragmented narrative that hints at a tragedy preceding the events in the game. Not surprisingly, such disregard for the conventions most video games are built on wasn't welcomed by everybody, but the critical reception of Dear Esther upon its re-release in 2012 was largely positive, with reviewers praising the game's emotional impact and intense atmosphere. Commercial success was in store as well, as the title sold over 16,000 copies on Steam within six hours of its release. At the 2012 Independent Games Festival, Dear Esther was nominated for four awards and took home the prize for "Excellence in Visual Arts."
One of those nominations went to Dear Esther's soundtrack, composed by Jessica Curry (ultimately, Botanicula won "Excellence in Audio"). Befitting the game's unusual origins, Curry's background isn't that of your typical video game composer. A graduate of Screen Music at Britain's National Film and Television School, Curry's body of work includes arts installations, film soundtracks and cross-media projects, such as Perpetual Light: Requiem for an Unscorched Earth, written to celebrate mankind's continuing survival of the nuclear threat, and The Second Death of Caspar Helendale, a requiem of sorts for a Second Life avatar, performed at London's Royal Opera House. While Dear Esther would be Curry's first game project, it's easy to see how her eclectic and intellectual background must have seemed like a perfect fit for the title's experimental inclinations.
Curry worked closely together with the game's lead developer Dr. Dan Pinchbeck, who involved Curry from the inception of the game in a close creative process. This process would see Curry's compositions not only reacting to Pinchbeck's designs, but also in turn feed back into the feel and tone of the game that was still being developed. In retrospect, Curry noted in interviews that this being her first game soundtrack, she benefited "from not really knowing what I was doing!", tackling the project by taking "a much more linear approach to the score" that came out of her background in film scoring. Curry's aim was for the music "to add an emotional dimension" to the game a crucial task, given that Dear Esther's challenge-free gameplay doesn't reward the player with a sense of odds overcome, but instead must satisfy gamers by delivering a memorable experience. For the release of Dear Esther's overhauled version in 2012, Curry was given the opportunity to re-record her score with live musicians at Pinewood Studios. The results of these sessions were made available in early 2012 across various online music stores.
If the above introduction has made Dear Esther's soundtrack sound like a high-brow experience, a difficult to approach piece of modern art, don't turn your back on this highly original piece of music yet. It's true, the music isn't out to please soundtrack fans that look for hummable melodies and propulsive rhythmic gratification. Instead, Curry is content to move Dear Esther along at an often glacial pace, working only with a few instruments string quartet, two pianos, a female vocalist and sound effects to create minimalist ambient music that seeks to make its mark through its textures. To make such an approach work, artists need to display their creativity when it comes to crafting these textures and, fortunately, Dear Esther utilises a relatively fresh approach that sets it apart form the pack. Its idiom is anchored in post-romantic classical music: in other words, expect a whole lot of dissonances and harmonies that will strike many listeners as unusually or quite experimental. Such an approach to a Western game score was highly unusual in 2008, and it's still a rarity four years later. While the Dead Space and BioShock games have popularised the use of dissonances in game scores in recent years, they embedded their discordant material in far more melody- or rhythm-driven environments than Dear Esther does.
To see how Curry applies her exploration of unconventional harmonies and timbres in a more ambient environment, listen to "Always (Hebridean Mix)", at nine minutes Dear Esther's centrepiece. The track opens with otherworldly, floating chords from the string instruments, interrupted several times by surging, hissing sound effects. Vocalist Clara Sanabras enters the fray, her material as slow-paced and sparse as the instrumental background, and her serene voice adds a haunting spirituality to the composition. The next few minutes are a testament to Curry's impressive skills at calibrating the interplay between only a few musical ingredients to achieve stunning effects. All the listener gets to hear are sustained, otherworldly chords from the string instruments, but these lingering notes manage to create a spellbinding, fascinating aural landscape that catapults listeners as long as they listen closely into the dream-like world with remarkable ease. The piece reaches its emotional climax when Sanabras' words change from 'dream' to 'never' on an ascending two-note motif and the music for the first time on the album turns uplifting and redemptive.
"Always (Hebridean Mix)"'s deliberate pace and austere demeanour dominate the whole album, but Dear Esther never turns into a drag, partly thanks to Curry's knack for ear-catching orchestrational details and her sense of how develop a piece despite its minimalist roots. "Twenty One" and "The Bones of Jakobson" are good examples of both characteristics. The two pieces derive a good part of their development from how their opening repetitive piano motifs slowly grow in complexity, before the second piano joins in and complicates the pieces' initially minimalist material. Curry writes the two piano parts so that they subtly clash both harmonically and rhythmically never in such volatile fashion that it would push listeners away, but still enough to make you listen closely as you wonder where the piece is headed next. All of this music is clad in a sound that not only places the instruments in a very reverberant acoustic space (similar to the BioShock scores) to emphasise the prevailing sense of loneliness. The album recording purposefully also puts the instrumental forces at a distance from the listener, making them sound as if they're emerging from a vision or imaginary world a brilliant way to emphasise the game's blurring of reality and dream, and surprisingly effective in an album context as well.
In fact, the immense emotional effect that Dear Esther has on the listener is what turns it from a technically highly accomplished work into a touching work of art. If creativity is one requirement to make a texturally-focused mood piece like Dear Esther work, the other component needed for success is that the music creates an atmosphere that is consistently engaging. And on this account too, the title is a resounding success, a great example of perfectly executed minimalism that is atmospheric and deeply moving. While Curry's compositional style might be angular and unfamiliar, those willing to let themselves sink into the title's music will find it a haunted, memorable world upon itself, filled with feelings of regret and sorrow that are amazingly palpable. As sparse and austere as this score might be, it's this restraint that makes the bittersweet emotions at the core of each composition so powerful. Even when the soundtrack is at its most brazen or melody-deprived, as on "Golden Ratio" and "On the Motorway", the music doesn't fail to deepen Dear Esther's anguished mood. Even shorter tracks such as the four "Remember" cues make their mark and have a place on the album. Reminiscent of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, the way the choir's 'remember me' on "Remember (Jakobson)" sounds as if it resonates from the deepest, darkest cave on the title's island will stay with you for a while.
This balance between emotionality and austerity, between warmth and abstraction imbues Dear Esther with an emotional intelligence that is rare in game scores. Its reliance on dissonances and ambient musings doesn't make it emotionally less accessible. What it does complicate instead is the music's emotional resolution, and that makes the soundtrack so fascinating and rewarding. Take "Moon in My Palm", the soundtrack's lushest and most harmonically resolved piece. Just when you start to enjoy the comfort of the track's surprisingly melodic strains, the chromatic, intertwining violin lines don't outright destroy the sense of tonal and emotional security, but still make you wonder where the journey will be going. There is no clear sense of which emotion be it relief, sadness or insecurity the composition tries to communicate primarily. Instead, the piece creates layers and layers of emotional meaning that are much more satisfying than a clearly delineating "this is sad music for a sad situation/location" approach.
Similarly, "Standing Stones" is one of the most melodic pieces on the album, but the various polyphonic melody lines continuously embrace and shy away from each other, their harmonies constantly changing between consonances and dissonances. The result is music whose emotional expression isn't easily put into words, but it's this ambiguity that will have you come back for repeat listens. And this ambivalence also brings Dear Esther to its satisfying, if not necessarily conclusive finale. On the closing track "Ascension", the piano material ventures into Major key territory for the first time on the album. This rare glimpse of optimism is emphasised further through a yearning violin line, fuelling the hope that "Ascension" might bring peace to the troubled world of Dear Esther. But then the eerie, pleading 'remember me' chants of "Remember (Jakobson)" return and the listener realises that the ghosts that haunt the protagonist aren't that easily banished. This is no ascension towards the light, but towards an unknown, frightening destination. And when the piece finally ends with a voice insisting 'come back' and a single piano note turning into an ominously flatlining sound, Dear Esther's music leaves us with the same rewarding challenge as the game itself: to figure out what it all meant, and what to make of the torrent of emotions this experience has evoked.
Dear Esther might challenge you with its minimalist design, its unrelentingly sombre mood and its liberal use of dissonances and extended harmonies. But don't let that scare you away, as this is one of the most emotionally satisfying and multi-layered game soundtracks to come around in a while. The means this album uses to create its remarkably strong atmosphere may strike some as cold and inaccessible, but take your time and you will discover how the title draws into its immensely touching world of loss and remorse. It's not a fun ride and it won't leave you with an easy, definite sense of resolution after the harrowing journey it's taken you on has concluded, but Dear Esther is all the better for its tonal and emotionally ambiguity. There's a spiritual dimension to this music that makes the soundtrack an immersive experience like few others in the realm of Western game music.