Released ten years ago today, Dear Esther is a landmark indie title. The game, which sees players explore a blustery and foreboding Hebridean island while a nameless narrator reads fragments of letters written to his deceased wife, was acclaimed for its radical reinterpretation of first-person gaming, and played a significant role in the emergence of the genre that became known as ‘walking simulators.’ Eerie, beautiful, a touch aloof, it ranks alongside the likes of Braid, Fez, and other high-minded games that helped legitimise indie gaming during the rise of Steam and Xbox Live.
Yet while Dear Esther was praised for its bold and lofty vision, the roots of the game were far more practical than might be apparent at face value. “My first and overwhelming passion in games is first-person gaming,” says Dan Pinchbeck, founder of The Chinese Room, and producer of Dear Esther. “Dear Esther was a way of making a first-person game that I don’t think I could have done any other way at that point.”
It’s this pragmatism, as much as the ideas behind it, that paved the way for Dear Esther‘s success, and ensured its legacy. Before its commercial release in 2012, Dear Esther famously began life as a mod for Half-Life 2. Working on the game as a research project at the University of Portsmouth in the mid-2000s, Pinchbeck wanted to capture the quiet, contemplative moments that he’d experienced in other first-person game like Half-Life 2 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl. “The initial starting point for it was this idea of going ‘Can you take those bits where the kind call-to-action falls away, so you’re just left with your thoughts and your feelings?’ Pinchbeck says. “Those are really amazing, powerful moments in games, when it just falls away, and you go, ‘Okay, I’m here.'”
Many of Dear Esther‘s defining features arose through chasing that goal with the basic tools The Chinese Room had available. The Hebridean setting was chosen because it suited the assets available in Half-Life 2‘s SDK, while the game’s fragmented narrative – inspired by the work of William S. Burroughs – deliberately avoided a coherent plot with neat conclusions in favour of a more thematic, poetic ambiguity. “It’s saying, well, here’s all the bits, you figure it out,” Pinchbeck says. “There’s no right and wrong. There’s just the story you tell yourself with these things.”
Even Dear Esther‘s most controversial creative choice – the ruthless cutting out of any traditional player/world interactions, stemmed from grounded design decisions. The less complicated a game, the less that can go wrong during development. But also, letting players fiddle with the environment would only serve to pull them out of the moment that Dear Esther was striving to create. Pinchbeck states that The Chinese Room wanted to “take the gameplay out of the system and out of the controller and move it into the player’s head.”
It was this decision, perhaps more than any other, that would cement Dear Esther‘s legacy. When the commercial version released in 2012, the game’s lack of interactions saw it mocked by some sectors of the community as a ‘Walking Simulator’. Intended as a derogatory term, developers would eventually come to adopt and own it as a legitimate descriptor for the genre.
Pinchbeck states he was “never bothered” by these criticisms of Dear Esther. “It’s a strength if you absolutely hate some stuff that’s being produced, because it means there’s a broad enough church out there.” What interests Pinchbeck more is how walking simulators themselves responded to Dear Esther’s creative choices.
In essence, Dear Esther‘s mechanical reticence created a space many subsequent walking simulators would try to refill. Games like Gone Home, Tacoma and Firewatch gradually reintroduced the tangible objects, player interactions, and plot-driven stories that Dear Esther deliberately avoided. Pinchbeck points to What Remains of Edith Finch as an example of how the genre has changed. “Bits of it are a walking sim, but it’s also basically a bunch of emotionally-oriented minigames with a single-story thread through them,” he says.
Edith Finch is also significant because, where Dear Esther began the conversation around walking sims, Edith Finch, for the moment, has ended it. No game of its ilk has made an impact in the same way since. Pinchbeck believes this is because games in general have become better at exploring the niche Dear Esther carved out. “It’s almost like walking sims got folded back into the design mix,” he says. “You’re getting things like ‘story mode’ in SOMA, or AC Valhalla, where a lot of the light little story things you’re doing, they’re just stories. They’re not even any particularly mechanically challenging gameplay, and there’s just an opportunity to wander around the world with stories being told in it.”
It’s a trajectory The Chinese Room’s own work has followed. After completing Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the studio found itself at a crossroads. In 2017, struggling with the stresses and demands of game development, Pinchbeck laid off the studio’s staff and pondered closing The Chinese Room entirely. The next year, he sold The Chinese Room to Sumo Digital and began rebuilding it, culminating in the release of Little Orpheus, a light-hearted mobile platformer that was well received on Apple Arcade, and launches on Steam in early March.
Today, The Chinese Room has 81 employees, and is working on two very different projects. Pinchbeck won’t state explicitly what those projects are, but he says they are “bigger titles” in “more traditional genres” that are “trying to maintain that indie spirit at the centre in terms of experimentation.” Given Pinchbeck’s fondness for first-person shooters, about as traditional as gaming genres get, it would be surprising if one of those two projects wasn’t some form of FPS.
It might seem an odd move for a studio that made its name by pulling first-person games away from shooters, but while Pinchbeck is clearly proud of the work The Chinese Room has done in the walking sim space, he’s never viewed Dear Esther as some ideal manifesto for game design. “I don’t spend a lot of time looking back,” he says. “It’s been quite funny coming around to ten years, it’s been one of the only times I’ve really looked back and gone ‘Oh, yeah’. You almost forget you made it.”
Taking a moment to reflect, however, Pinchbeck believes that Dear Esther happened at the right time to capture people’s imaginations, as Steam opened up large swathes of new players to new experiences, and people’s ideas of what games could be were in flux. “You make your own luck, to an extent, but we were also very lucky. And I think it’s important to stay humble about that, of going ‘Things could have been very different,'” he concludes. “There’s probably an awful lot of Dear Esthers out there that didn’t quite fall together in that kind of way.”