Sonica: Dear Esther Live @ Tramway, Glasgow, 3 Nov
Whether or not you’ve played the videogame before seeing Dear Esther Live is irrelevant; it’s simply stunning on the big screen
There’s a precedent for live performances of videogame soundtracks, from big orchestral revues like The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, which brought a “greatest hits” of the beloved series’ tunes to the Clyde Auditorium last year, to 65daysofstatic touring their score – Music for an Infinite Universe – to the universe exploration game No Man’s Sky. Dear Esther Live, however, is something else entirely. Featuring in this year’s Sonica festival, Dear Esther Live is part concert, part performative installation and a wholly novel way to experience a videogame. It successfully transforms a solitary experience into a theatre-filling spectacle and at the same time opens up the wonder and artistry of The Chinese Room’s inaugural work to those unfamiliar with the likes of Steam or unpracticed in the esoteric technique of operating two thumbsticks simultaneously.
Dear Esther is a first-person journey along the beaches, through the caves and to the summit of a deserted Hebridean island. In voiceover monologues full of poetic riddles and biblical allusions, an unseen narrator provides a history of the island and its previous inhabitants, stories that speak of illness and untimely fates. The narrator has come to the island following a car crash involving Esther, the intended recipient of his messages, perhaps in an act of self-exile. His dialogue is wandering and incoherent, clouded by fever, painkillers, or possibly guilt. The island is similarly mysterious, littered with little shrines of candles, its cliffs and cave walls bearing obscure luminescent diagrams and words. Both, it seems, are hiding a secret.
In Dear Esther Live, we witness the entire game unfold on a cinema-sized screen, played in real time by a performer at a desk located stage left. Beneath the screen is a string quartet, a pianist, a synth player and a conductor, while a soprano and the narrator, Ferdy Roberts, occupy either end of the stage’s front. In a way, there are two conductors; Thomas Blunt leads the musicians in the traditional fashion while Thomas McMullan guides the performance as a whole, his progress in the game triggering signals on monitors positioned next to Roberts and Blunt that tell them when it’s their cue.
It’s awkward, at first, to watch someone play a videogame in front of a live audience, especially one as slow and meditative as Dear Esther. Inevitably McMullan explores the island differently than any of us would individually, in partly due to the time constraints of a public performance. While tonight’s playthrough lasts just over an hour, any given player’s experience could easily stretch to twice or three times that. While we might wish to spend a whole five minutes rooting around the lighthouse where the game opens, McMullan offers it only a cursory glance before ploughing up the path ahead, and much of the opening section is spent shouting down this backseat driver’s impulse.
Once we’re over this hump however, the performance comes into its own. Dear Esther Live is best understood not as a substitute for actually playing the game yourself but as a way of expanding your appreciation for the work as a whole. Dear Esther was initially a research experiment conceived by then-academic Dan Pinchbeck, who reckoned he could create a more immersive and emotionally involved videogame experience by minimising the interactive components of his game. This live performance, then, is that proposition taken to its logical conclusion, and what it hammers home is that the “game” part of Dear Esther is only one piece of a multifaceted artwork, no more or less important than any other.
While Dear Esther was always a looker, it’s simply stunning on the big screen. Its otherworldly cave sections are especially striking, glistening with an eerie blue light like nowhere in our real life Hebrides. Traversing these landscapes secondhand affords more opportunity to drink in their beauty, especially in the hands of a pilot with as elegant a touch as McMullan. He glides through these spaces with a practiced grace, framing scenes like a cinematographer.
Jessica Curry’s haunting BAFTA-nominated score swells at all the appropriate moments and is performed flawlessly, but what proves most interesting about the presence of the live musicians is how little they actually play. Their silence throughout most of the performance draws attention to how sparingly Dear Esther deploys its soundtrack, which in turn makes its appearances all the more impactful. A little disappointing, perhaps, is how faithful the live score is to the recorded one, to the point of using samples to convey the creepy processed strings and some of the other uncanny effects heard in the game. Given that the novelty of this show stems from its recasting of Dear Esther in a new light, it seems a missed opportunity not to have reinterpreted the sounds in a way that could be performed live.
Without a doubt though, the star of the show is Ferdy Roberts, who plays the part of the tormented narrator with equal parts passion and despair. While not quite rendering him sympathetic, Roberts' committed rendition draws us fully into the character’s mind, immersing us in the kind of obsessive theorising and illogical analysis that only make sense to those under emotional duress. Particularly impressive is his interplay with the musicians, his voice booming in accordance with their louder outbursts and matching pianist Iain Farrington’s ragged playing with an equally disarrayed delivery. Interactivity zealots take note; we’re not even controlling this videogame character and yet we are them, such is the quality of Roberts' performance.
Whether or not you’ve played Dear Esther before seeing Dear Esther Live is irrelevant. Ultimately, it’s a different experience that’s valuable on its own merits. Those who have visited the island before will likely gain a deeper appreciation for its craftsmanship, this live presentation a welcome and deserved victory lap for a seminal work of the medium. Those who haven’t will likely leave curious to take the trip for themselves.