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GDC 2012: Over-stimulation kills atmosphere, says  Dear Esther 's Pinchbeck
GDC 2012: Over-stimulation kills atmosphere, says Dear Esther's Pinchbeck
March 8, 2012 | By Simon Parkin

March 8, 2012 | By Simon Parkin
More: Console/PC, GDC, Design

Over-stimulation kills atmosphere. This was the key takeaway for Dan Pinchbeck, creative director at thechineseroom from his work on the experimental PC indie game Dear Esther.

"For a long while I believe we have been fooled into thinking that dead or empty space in games is a bad thing, like dead time on the radio or something," he said. "In reality, a lack of stimulation does not equate to a lack of experience. In fact, a lack of stimulation allows for other experiences to grow. You canít feel rage slowly and you canít feel loss fast. In Dear Esther, we found that the less hand-holding we did the more the experience intensified."

Dear Esther, an experimental ghost story originally released as a Source mod in 2008, was re-released commercially on Steam on Valentineís Day. However, the game initially was the result of a creative experiment by Pinchbeck and a team at the University of Portsmouth, rather than a commercial venture. One of the key innovations the team wanted to explore was story. As the player wanders a deserted island a story is painted as trigger points play one of four different voice over clips.

"It didnít matter to us that he player is following a logical chain through the story. Instead we wanted to infuse the player with ideas that we could then play off later in the game. Story became like an asset we could play with, particular symbols that we can use as mental and emotional assets that can be used to manipulate their experience. We wanted the player to feel more than understand."

The team used environments to contribute to the sense of storytelling, but again, this was characterized by a lack of hand-holding. "We are humans, we always look for reasons and causality," said Pinchbeck. "If you set things up, strange scenes and vistas, but don't necessarily explain them then players do a lot of work for you in terms of filling in the gaps. The more work the player does here the more they become invested. It also improves the post-play experience, where people talk about what they saw or did."

"Our findings were that it is incredibly important to create vacuums in the experience, places and pauses that players don't fill with boredom but rather fill with headspace," he said "It's here that they think and feel about the experience. When you create these spaces and allow players to think rather than do then we found that they have invested heavily in the game. People need time and space, moments of intensity and moments of quiet. The truth is that over-stimuation kills atmosphere."

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Yama Habib
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"Our findings were that it is incredibly important to create vacuums in the experience, places and pauses that players don't fill with boredom but rather fill with headspace," he said "It's here that we seem to have failed, and hopefully we'll get it right next time."


On a serious note though, there's nothing new about invoking intense emotion via a lack of experience. This is what makes Amnesia: The Dark Descent such a stellar game.

Honestly though, I feel as if Dear Esther was a day late and a dollar short in achieving this. I'd attribute it more the infamous game, "LSD", where you're given so little context as to the goings on that your imagination is actually stifled.

Chuan Lim
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Well any audience needs to be "attentive" for this to work -- whether it's through clutching at a narrative or seduced by audio -visual cues. I gather Pinchbaek is talking about Andrei Tarkovsky's notion of "sculpting in time" and in particular the idea that in cinema there is a threshold to the point where you can hold a static shot before it becomes boring. Keep going after this threshold, and then the viewer ends up looking 'inwards' for meaning beyond the dynamics of movement and continuity.

Bela Tarr's 7 -hour long "Satantango" is testament to this concept as shots seem to stretch out to almost 20 or 30 minutes in real -time, and it becomes quite hallucinogenic in a way because internalised perceptions of how rhythm & timing / cause or effect are supposed to work are completely shattered. It's not quite sensory deprivation but rather letting every single possible thing come to the fore whether in the mind or on the screen.


As a player I definitely look forward to this languid quality in games -- that they can escape action movie conventions and measurable goals to create a headspace which engages w/ other ideas. Non -interactive forms can engage self -reflexivity in quite sophisticated ways but it requires a great deal of faith in the observer or the one re -enacting your situations and ideas.

-- Chuan

Mark Venturelli
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Oh, I felt rage slowly alright. I got progressively pissed off as I was "playing" Dear Esther.