Blurring the lines between computer games, art and film

October 3, 2008 // 3:01 p.m.

Companies: #thechineseroom

"Anyone who says games cannot be art needs to play this. I'm speechless..."

A deserted island, a lost man, memories of a fatal crash and a book written by a dying explorer. It may sound like a film plot but this is the premise behind a unique computer game which is winning accolades from the computer games community.

'Dear Esther,' is the brainchild of Dan Pinchbeck, Senior Lecturer in Computer Games and Interactive Media at the University of Portsmouth. It crosses the line between ghost story and computer game, fascinating players in a way that has them hooked from the start. Since its launch on the 25th July, it has been downloaded over 3500 times.

"It may look and feel like a computer game but it is something quite different," said Dan. "Fragments of story are randomly triggered by players moving around the game, making every experience unique. Forget the normal rules of play - if nothing seems real here, it's because it may just be all a delusion. It's deliberately ambiguous and because of that I didn't expect the reaction to be so positive but people love it."

The game, which is voiced by a professional actor and has an original score, is one of three to emerge from the Chinese Room ( ), a research project set up at the University of Portsmouth following an Arts and Humanities Research Grant. It was recently selected for the Animation Exhibition at the Prix Ars Electronica competition, a prestigious international digital arts showcase for 'cyberart.'

The project is designed to addresses questions which cannot be answered by current computer games in the marketplace. Dan said:
"Historically, there has always been a difficult relationship between story and game play. We wanted to investigate this using 'first person shooter' (FPS) games and experimenting with very different types of stories and ways of delivering narrative. The result is something unlikely to come out of the regular computer games industry," said Dan.

Dan used existing computer games as a basis for his new games, a process referred to as 'modding.' The games developer modifies an original game to create a new version or an entirely new game which can become even more popular than the original. 'Mods' can continue the success of the original game and people say they have become an increasingly important factor in the commercial success of some games.

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Dear Esther has its origins in 'Half Life 2' although Dan says it is now virtually unrecognisable from the original. Another of Dan's games is a version of 'Doom' which removes the players' ability to kill the creatures which attack the player.

"The resulting game is less violent but just as intense and more difficult to play," said Dan. And it changes the political dynamic for the player."

A key factor in the project was that we would release the games over the internet, into the "modding" community. "We wanted the games to be played and responded to by the gaming community outside an academic or research context. The feedback has been overwhelming. "

One player had this to say: "This is excellent proof that the medium of video games can be far more than just action and linear paths. It's completely unlike anything I've played before."

Dan said that having his finger on the pulse of current industry trends is crucial for his students.
"Our graduates understand exactly where the gaming industry is at and where it's heading which is vital in this field."

The final word should go to the player who left this comment after playing the game for the first time: "Anyone who says games cannot be art needs to play this. I'm speechless."

The three games are available to download free from or via
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