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 can't feel rage slowly and you can't 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 Valentine's 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 didn't 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."