This is the sixth article in the series The Academics Are Coming.

So this game. It had a dreadful. Slow. Pace. And it wouldn’t let me participate or edit its story in any way. Yet, the confident, rambling narrative and superb voice acting worked some sort of mad magic.

I wasn’t exactly onside with Lewis Denby when he suffered a life-threatening attack of hyperbole and said Dear Esther changed his outlook on games forever but, yeah, it was definitely interesting.

A Prose Poem

Back in 2009, Dear Esther was known only as a free, experimental Half-Life 2 mod created by Dan Pinchbeck’s studio thechineseroom. The studio had been formed to showcase experimental FPS designs relating to storytelling and had received a grant from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council to create three mods; Dear Esther was the third of these. (The other two were Antlion Soccer and Conscientious Objector.)

Pinchbeck, working towards a PhD, had been analysing a decade of FPS titles in an attempt to identify techniques of meshing game and story together. What Dear Esther did was drop all of the FPS game mechanics and leave the player with nothing but an island to wander. And a story told through semi-randomised audio clips.

A successful FPS is like poetry with a rhythm of action; heavy combat is punctuated with pauses for exploration or story. The metre is well-defined and, although most players don’t articulate its presence, they sense it. Dear Esther has no action and thus no mechanical rhythm; it becomes the FPS equivalent of a prose poem.

This concept – a game of narrative exploration eschewing agency – was a surprise success although it wasn’t obvious that it should be remade as a high-fidelity commercial title. Pinchbeck wrote about the project then moved onto something new. Something called Korsakovia.

If It Ain’t Broke, You Ain’t Tried Hard Enough

Because you can’t make new memories, because you can’t remember about the events prior to, to this, you are creating this to fill in the blanks. What I’m concerned about is that this new memory you are trying to make, or what you remember, this is just not real Christopher, it didn’t happen and this, what you remember, this is really worrying. So we’re going to try and go further back, before the world ended. Do you think we can do that?

Dr. Grayson, Korsakovia (Scene Three)

According to thechineseroom, Korsakovia asks “what happens when normal expectations of play are subverted and destroyed, so the player cannot rely on the normal cues or understanding of typical FPS play.” The answer – perhaps too obviously – was a lot of frustrated players.

Korsakovia appears to place you in the mental world of “Christopher” who is suffering from Korsakoff’s Syndrome which prevents an individual creating memories. The action is sprinkled with snippets of conversation with his neurologist Dr. Grayson. Throughout these exchanges, Christopher is always calm and helpful as if what he says makes sense; his word are mad, but his manner is not. The game is on Christopher’s side and reinforces his world more than Grayson’s; what you are participating in is Christopher’s exit from reality. Which makes it all the more interesting that much of the narration is delivered from Grayson’s perspective.

The game uses all sorts of tricks to mess with the player, to connect the unreliable narrator with unreliable gameplay. Some of this works brilliantly: the only nemesis in the game – monsters made of black smoke – are unreadable and terrifying. They also leap. But it goes too far: the levels become saturated with these monsters which are hard to eliminate and some are invisible; there are jumping puzzles; signposting is minimal.

Korsakovia is another Cryostasis. It delivers a brilliant and ambiguous story but burdens it with disastrous game design, although in Korsakovia’s case, this is deliberate. The result is that many players abort the game and don’t go back. I made it to the fifth or sixth scene and decided to throw in the towel; the time-consuming frustration of the game was too much for me. Which is a shame because Korsakovia’s storytelling is delicious and, like Dear Esther, fleshed out with excellent voice acting.

Sadly, Korsakovia is no longer playable as it was broken by a recent Source update. I consider this to be a grave loss.

Come Back

Robert Briscoe, a level designer who had previously worked on projects such as Mirror’s Edge, decided to overhaul Dear Esther to improve both its visuals and design. This Dear Esther remake became thechineseroom’s first commercial project and is now the talk of the town.

Dear Esther is spawning more conversations about what constitutes a game today than it did first time around, simply because it’s reaching so many more players. Its commercial success has provided thechineseroom with the reputation to take on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.

The new version is a definite improvement on the original for all sorts of reasons – map traversal is more classically linear now, preventing the player from missing chunks of narrative and the plodding nature of exploration doesn’t seem as pronounced as the original. And the submerged memory is simply incredible.

But what is Dear Esther’s thing? Much is made of it being a journey through a story, using environmental narrative to enhance that journey. That path is, more or less, linear and there’s nothing you can do to change that. But the story isn’t as “linear” as the virtual topography. Random chunks of narrative are hurled at the player at key spots and the purpose of the randomisation is not to provide alternative stories for different players or sessions but to contradict and undermine interpretation. I actually don’t know what I feel about that. It’s almost as if the game is coaxing me into making a story when one doesn’t actually exist.

There are times when ambiguity works and times when it does not. I enjoyed Lost Highway, Serial Experiments Lain and also the story of Korsakovia – yet in each case I couldn’t tell you what I had witnessed. Despite this, part of me wonders if Dear Esther is too abusive in its broken randomness; this is not a random story generator, but a program that attempts to destroy meaning. A narrative that commits suicide. Maybe learning what went on backstage is my actual problem, as all games suffer when you’ve figured out how they work.

Let’s just chalk it up as a weird one that is both loved and condemned. I just hope Dear Esther’s success doesn’t mean we have to forget Korsakovia’s failure.

Dan Pinchbeck talks to Electron Dance in two weeks’ time about both the significance and peril of academic game development.

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22 thoughts on “Dear Korsakovia

  1. I was interested in trying this, shame to hear it’s no longer functional.

    I feel like the biggest issue with playing against expectations in games is that there must be signposting, but the act of doing so simply reshapes expectations gradually, making it less impactful. I can write a screenplay that tells crucial story information in the scene headings if I wish and readers could pick up on it fairly quickly. If I make an FPS where all enemies must be harmed but not killed, I’d mostly just confuse the hell out of players and get called an asshole.

    Thumbs up for the phrase “narrative that commits suicide”, by the by. Puts a different spin on what is often considered a drip-feed tragedy.

  2. I’ve been steering clear of talking about Dear Esther because I’m confused about what to make of it. It’s interesting but it didn’t move me; I think I was being cautious on my first play, wondering if I was being exploited. It’s not that I want to call it out as crap, that this is an Emperor’s New Clothes moment, because I think Dear Esther is revealing in terms of what we can do with games. It’s a game that many, many players have been happy to buy it. But I thought I should take the plunge because Dan took part in the academic interviews.

    I forgot to add Tommy Rousse’s and Steerpike’s views on Dear Esther above (now fixed!). They are great examples of the confused response to the game. Steerpike actually likes it but comes unstuck when he has to think about actually recommending it.

    Beam, I’d say I’m actually happy with developer abuse – oh look everybody’s favourite sadist developer Pippin has turned up supporting assholery – but Korsakovia really pushes the envelope in terms of confusing the player. The “warehouse” section of the mod is notorious for that, a room where it probably lost most of its players.

    Also, writing this article pushed me ever closer to subscribing to Robert Yang’s Radiator blog. God damn it, no more feeds, please.

  3. Oh and I didn’t realise one of Dear Esther’s “ghosts” was present, watching me, when I took the moonlit screenshot above. Click on the image for larger size.

  4. @HM The warehouse section of Korsakovia was totally what broke me in the end — I really did like it a lot up to that point, but couldn’t stand it once I hit that particular wall. It still bugs me I never made it further, because I always see screenshots of amazing-looking bit I didn’t experience. Have to console myself with how awesome that towering, spinning pile of detritus was.

    You should totally read Robert Yang – he’s excellent!

  5. Pippin, didn’t know you’d attempted Korsakovia. There are lots of interesting little ideas- one section is a particularly claustrophobic set of passages and rooms, very narrow and dangerous. If you run into one of the collectors there, you just have no warning and little chance to get around them. It’s clever but also a bit frustrating: die, try again, die, try again…

    As I don’t believe I’ve seen you comment on Dear Esther before – what’s your view on it?

  6. I still haven’t played Dear Esther but own the new version so will likely take a look when I’ve finished Rayman Origins with the missus. Don’t want to be spinning too many plates.

    Korsakovia lost me somewhere around the bit where you have to ascend a spinning pile of junk. I fell, then fell some more, then fell a little bit more. Actually, I might have stopped playing when I arrived on a rooftop crawling with smogs. I can’t remember, but either way I was impressed with how well it managed to frustrate me. I consider myself a pretty patient guy but Korsakovia really hit a nerve.

    I’m with Beam: thumbs up for the phrase “a narrative that commits suicide”.

  7. By the way Pippin, I just took a look at your site and ‘Let There Be Smite!’ had me laughing out loud. Terrific!

  8. @HM
    Hah, not much of a comment though. Haven’t played the new version… it’s a tiny bit hard to get worked up about it to the extent it’s largely graphics, and I’ve seen awsome graphics before in my life. (That said, they do look *really* nice.) I have a place in my heart for Dear Esther, but it also really, really bored me a lot of the time I was playing it. It’s a really nice thing, but for my money none of the part quite sustain it perhaps. The narration is ambitious, but I found the language pretty stilted and trying a little too hard a lot of the time. The landscape is great, but it’s just “there” most of the time (the only thing I’m genuinely excited by is the screenshot of a kind of motorway underwater in the new version – amazing). And the gameplay… well, it isn’t there so no really need to comment.

    Totally glad it exists, but not that interested in it. Korsakovia was way more intriguing, for my money. And all that said, Dan is awesome and we can only hope he keeps doing what he’s doing.

    @Gregg B
    Hey thanks! I’m all about the lols!

  9. I did make it to the end of Korsakovia after a lot of swearing and pain. I wrote up a thing about it back when I first played it, it made me kinda angry. Not so much the bad design (lord knows I’ve played worse free HL mods), but the way you could see something good in there obscured by it. Most of my memory of it is going back and forth through the apartment building section – the rooms were all slightly modified copy/pastes of one another and they hadn’t bothered to light any of it so you got the whole thing through the narrow tunnel vision of Half-Life’s flashlight, which after an hour or so causes actual physical nausea. Korsakovia and Dead Island share the joint honor of being the only two games that have ever made me throw up.

    I’m not so sure about all of the bad design being intentional. Some of it definitely is, but some of it felt just untested to me. The climax of the game, for example, is this amazing looking visual section of twisted hallways and floating debris stretching up into the sky. As you progress through it, the narration picks up speed and intensity – from a story point this is a rising action, the buildup to the final climax. The game at this point is a long, long series of jumping puzzles where your jumps are thrown off by invisible flying monsters that hit you in the air, making your actual experience of this section – where the pace should be picking up – an hour long slow slog in which progress is gained one inch at a time. It’s sabotaging itself at that point in a way that feels entirely unintentional, and I think the thing that got me about it was how clearly I could see what it was going for, and how much I wanted it to succeed.

    For all that, it does make me really sad to learn that a source update broke it.

  10. Heh, I didn’t think “a narrative commits suicide” was one of my best sentences but as some people seem to like it, I’ve laminated it in a tweet this evening.

    @Gregg: “Let There Be Smite” is one of my favourites.

    @Pippin: The new Dear Esther is simpler to navigate and there is definitely a heightened awe factor. There are lots of new monologue snippets in there and the ending is better executed. “Ghosts” work differently from the original mod and you need to be sharp to find most of them. There are lots of extra minor details in there as well. But if you weren’t blown away by the mod I don’t think you’ll be won over by the commercial release. By God, it is pretty though. I’m definitely looking forward to Dan’s future projects as well; there’s something strong and confident about his work which bodes well for the future.

    @Switchbreak: You’re right about some of the bad design being accidental, Dan P has admitted elsewhere that they dropped the ball in certain places. I think one problem was Korsakovia was a massive project – longer than Dear Esther and more challenging – and so the small team of thechineseroom just didn’t have the resources to iron everything out. I love the story though, it was interestingly bizarre. The script can be read online but it’s not as interesting as hearing it in situ, with static cutting in and slicing up the sentences. WAKE UP CHRISTOPHER WAKE UP. There are a couple of Let’s Plays on YouTube if anyone wants to experience it.

  11. I’ve never played this game, and I probably won’t ever do it, but I have the feeling my opinion would be similar to yours. I have divided feelings for ambiguity. I loved Mulholland Drive, but I hated Vanilla Sky. There’s this RPG Maker game that is kinda famous, and it’s only a narrative (no real game mechanics other than some item fetching) with lots of ambiguity. Lots of people loved it, I hated it. Its name is The Mirror Lied. I basically don’t like it when the story is intentionally ambiguous, and the player has to CREATE something out of it, not DISCOVER. It’s like the game is being lazy. Or maybe I’m lazy.

  12. At least in theory I’m all for ambiguity in games (I don’t want to say it hasn’t frustrated me in the past!).

    To my mind, the video game player’s (by which I mean our) lack of tolerance for ambiguity and generally alternative forms of gameplay is likely the most problematic issue that games face today – it’s incredibly limiting on what we’re “allowed” to make.

    I guess the same is true of cinema etc. to some extent? Most people hate art-house films etc. But I feel like it’s really bad with games – or maybe I’m just too close to it.

  13. I love ambiguity but there’s a line beyond which I think the author is just messing me around without any point to it: Dear Esther hovers on that line for me. It’s that sweet spot where understanding seems just out of reach which makes me giddy.

    I liked a lot of the ambiguity of BSG series 1 but all the revelations destroyed the mystery and replaced it with junk (in my opinion, not Tap-Repeatedly Steerpike’s obviously). I thought the unexplained nature of the game Loved which was discussed during A Theoretical War was also great. Braid has some goodness in there but it seemed a mess; I gave up trying to understand it. I adored the subtle ambiguity of Cryostasis (you don’t notice it until you’re deep into the game) which works beautifully.

    I remember having debates with friends in my teens about how I didn’t want answers and story served up on a plate, whereas the counterargument was that entertainment was “entertainment”. If it was hard work then it wasn’t entertainment. Sounds like “it ain’t a game, if it got no game” to me.

    (I now realise this article would have been a whole lot better if I’d made shades of ambiguity its focus.)

  14. Strange how the conversation here has shifted towards what was being discussed in the Bit of a Rebel comments; artistic intention and ambiguity verging on inscrutability.

  15. I played The Mirror Lied after I heard about To the Moon, to get a taste of the designer’s work. I didn’t quite hate it, because I felt that there was something there, but it didn’t capitalize on any emotions it generated because it withheld anything that could be considered concrete. Even before the ending, any sense of apocalyptic dread is gone and you feel more like you’re satisfying your character’s OCD (but also less interesting than THAT sounds). And how one fails to capitalize on the house catching on fucking fire is a bit beyond me.

    I heard To the Moon was quite a nice story, though.

  16. “Sadly, Korsakovia is no longer playable as it was broken by a recent Source update.”

    Waaah, sob!

    Maybe this one will get a commercial re-release as well? Or at least an un-breaking? One can hope…

  17. @BeamSplashX – played neither myself. To the Moon was an IGF finalist so I probably will get round to it… one day… in the future.

    @Ketchua – I’m having trouble digging out evidence that Korsakovia is currently broken apart from the history page on thechineseroom’s site. Maybe I should install it and see what happens. Great comment by the way, I’m sure I saw something similar on Twitter.

  18. So Dan Pinchbeck has confirmed on Twitter that Korsakovia “would pretty much need a
    complete re-build and [we] just don’t have time at the moment.”

    Personally, I don’t think it’s likely we’ll see a Korsakovia repair job but it’s just possible we’ll get a BSG-style re-imagining. I’m not sure there’s enough mileage in it for Dan if he goes back. (Note that the Dear Esther remake wasn’t Dan’s idea either, that was originally Robert Briscoe’s solo project. Any takers?)

  19. @HM: Well it was a heavily premeditated comment.

    I do understand where he’s coming from. Time is limited. Whether to go back to restoring an old project or to push forward is hardly a choice. Somewhere down do road, in 15-20 years – sure, why not? But now? When he can be making stuff like A Machine For Pigs?

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