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The 'walking simulator' that made it to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

Keith Stuart, May 23, 2016, 0:00 IST

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The intention was to explore the limits of the first-person shooter genre. This was the idea that drove a small group of researchers at the University of Portsmouth to develop the original version of Dear Esther in 2007. Set on a remote Hebridean island, the game offered no puzzles, no peril, no allies or enemies to interact with.

The player progressed through the haunted, barren landscape while a tragic story of love and loss played out around them. They walked, they listened, they watched.

It was minimal, it was experimental, but there was something about the game – its beautiful environments, its haunting soundtrack, its sullen, almost despairing atmosphere, that caught people’s attention. This was a genre associated with fast-paced blasters like Doom and Unreal, but here was a game about a man descending into grief, the nature of which remained elusive, but centred on the titular Esther. It generated enough interest that co-creators Dan Pinchbeck and Jessica Curry were able to set up their studio, The Chinese Room, as a commercial venture to develop a standalone version.

Almost a decade later, a sub-genre of experiential games, often dismissively termed walking simulators, has emerged from Dear Esther’s foundations.

Titles like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable and Firewatch, use a similar minimalist approach to game design, toning down traditional interactive elements to concentrate on story and environment. The emergence of this hybrid approach — part interactive fiction, part visual novel, part adventure game — has proved controversial and divisive. But with an era of consumer virtual reality fast approaching, it has also quietly become a staple. Dear Esther was at the beginning of this history — and now it is coming back. UK publisher Curve Digital is releasing an enhanced version of the game on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One later this year.“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” says Pinchbeck. “When we were working on [PlayStation 4 title] Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, it came more to the forefront.”

The team considered updating the game themselves, but realised it would detract too much from their current project. Instead, they decided to work with Curve, a small publisher that has specialised in updating and converting interesting, cult games to new platforms.

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