Gaming Writer Galen Reich had the chance to interview producer Laura Ducceschi about her current project, Dear Esther Live
Dear Esther Live is a live performance of the seminal ‘walking simulator’ game, Dear Esther. The gameplay follows an unnamed protagonist who is exploring a deserted Hebridean island, while the narration explores excerpts of letters he has written to his wife, Esther. Featuring the score of BAFTA award winner, Jessica Curry, and with live performances by many of the original musicians, the Chinese Room’s game is going on tour across the country. I was fortunate enough to be given an interview with Laura Ducceschi, the tour’s producer, to talk about the performance.
So Laura, you’re an artist and a creator, and in this context you’re the producer of Dear Esther Live. What makes this something that gamers and music-lovers alike should go and experience?
From a gamer’s perspective, I don’t think that there is a project quite like this. I think that gaming soundtracks have gained a lot more attention, but I think that you would be hard pressed to find a performance where the gaming element was realized in real-time in front of you. It also means that no two performances are ever the same.
It’s always quite difficult to say to a music audience ‘come to this, you’ll love it’ because, for those of us that haven’t really played games, it’s hard to understand what this project and the gaming world have to offer. Sometimes contemporary classical music can be nice, but it’s not always really emotional, so I suppose with this project I heard the soundtrack first and thought that it was so beautiful, atmospheric, and emotive. The work that I produce is very much at the juncture where sonic and visual worlds come together, so when I experienced the gaming technology I was just utterly moved by its beauty, it feels as if you are inside the game, you’re having this really immersive experience.
I see it a lot like theatre, as the gamer is realizing it, he’s making all the decisions on what route he takes, when he does and doesn’t move, and so forth. And there’s something about that as an audience member, you’re playing a part, you’re involved in this, your imagination is required for your experience of this project.
I think that it’s exciting for both parties, it’s the coming together [of music and gaming] that makes it special.
The ideas for this project started with the Chinese Room and Jessica Curry, but what was your role in developing the initial idea to the show in its current form?
In one sense, this particular project was kind of straightforward, the soundtrack was written as a complete soundtrack, the performers that you’ll see are most of the original players who recorded that original soundtrack in the studio, and the arrangements are exactly the same as they are in the game. The big challenge was “how do you realize the game in real time”.
When this went up at the Barbican, it was very demanding for the gamer because, as he’s taking his character along in real-time he’s going along ledges or thin paths, he can fall and die, which isn’t great! So there was all of that consideration and it was decided that the game would be altered. The coders built walls in the game so that, while there are still lots of options for the gamer, he can’t fall off the cliff and die five minutes into the performance!
My role is very much about maximizing the potential in what you’re experiencing and a lot of that comes down to technicalities, it’s very much about the equipment we’re moving, how we set up the stage, where everyone is positioned on the stage, how it communicates, and how it works seamlessly… although it’s normally about what people are going to eat *laughs* which is really important actually. Hungry players are never great players!
That sounds like a really good tip for anyone thinking of going into production!
From a technical point of view, the performance features a gamer, a soprano, a string quartet, a pianist, a sound artist, and a narrator all on stage together. How on Earth do they all keep pace with each other?
It would be messy to have all the players improvising within the gaming soundtrack, the composition wouldn’t be as it was intended to be heard. So what we have is that the players (musicians) all have a visual monitor, the gamer decides when and where he goes and there are then 16 triggers built in to the game so as he passes a trigger, that will then cue to the visual monitors and direct where the music is going for the next sequence.
When you do something like this live you can really be much more dynamic, so the electronics are sampled in real-time along with the classical instruments and also the sounds within the game. So within the engineering we have shown that you can really play with the dynamics in the show. I think that a piece like this requires that it be very artistic and dynamic, because it’s not static, it needs to be maneuvered from scene to scene according to what’s happening, to give it that immersive feeling.
The idea of a live and immersive performance of a game isn’t something that we see very often in large theatres, and certainly not with such an acclaimed team. Can you see this happening with other projects?
I really hope so, we premiered this project at the Barbican and the audience looked different from your regular contemporary art audience. It was really nice to see a young audience in the room, because quite often when you go to a classical event you see an older demographic. In speaking to the Barbican after the show, they said that 67% of that audience was completely unknown to them. Now (if you come from an arts organization) you’ll know what an incredible statistic that is. Art spaces are always talking about reaching out to new audiences and diversifying, but usually when they promote a show there’s such a danger that its promoted to people that they already know.
When we were planning the tour we spoke quite a lot about what sort of spaces to use, and we really debated this: do we go to quite worn venues or to slightly industrial ones or do we go much more into the gaming world. We finally decided on the concert hall route because we felt that this project really deserved it. Usually when you look through programs for contemporary art spaces you’ll see theatre, dance, film, classical, contemporary music, and folk, but you probably won’t see gaming. There’s quite a lot of snobbery in classical music, but this is a contemporary classical soundtrack and it’s also gaming music. Some people will think “It’s gaming music, it’s not really classical music is it?”. So what we wanted to do was to treat this as fine art, make a statement, and say “You know what, this belongs in a grand concert hall”.
So yeah, I really hope so, I hope that it opens a lot of minds to the incredible artistry and incredible, finesse that exists within gaming and help arts spaces and festivals to go down a route that’s new and unfamiliar to them.
And finally, how would you describe the experience to someone in just three words.
Immersive, Emotional, and Beautiful