SPE­CIAL RE­PORT

How The Chi­nese Room re­built Dear Es­ther for a live tour

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The Chi­nese Room co­founder and com­poser Jes­sica Curry sum­ma­rizes her ini­tial pitch for a live per­for­mance of Dear Es­ther in a typ­i­cally hu­mor­ous man­ner: “I’ve had this pos­si­bly re­ally bad and com­mer­cially un­vi­able idea—how would you feel about it?!” She was speak­ing with the Bar­bican’s Con­tem­po­rary Mu­sic Pro­gram­mer, Chris Sharp. The idea came dur­ing a Film, Archive, and Mu­sic Lab (FAMLAB) week Curry was at­tend­ing. “They were talk­ing about com­posers and how they work with silent film in terms of putting that into a con­cert ex­pe­ri­ence,” she says. She be­gan to pon­der that in re­la­tion to her ex­per­tize in videogame mu­sic.

Sharp has pre­vi­ously summed up the Bar­bican’s work as ‘Slightly In­sane Ideas Made Re­al­ity’, so Curry’s pro­posal would seem a per­fect fit for that re­mit. “They were amaz­ing from start to fin­ish,” she says of the Bar­bican. “They were re­ally cre­atively on board with it, but also in­cred­i­bly prac­ti­cal, be­cause what we quickly dis­cov­ered is that it was tech­ni­cally re­ally chal­leng­ing.”

One of the key chal­lenges was that the live per­for­mance would re­quire Dear Es­ther to be re­built. The most ob­vi­ous rea­sons are that, for a live show with live nar­ra­tion and mu­sic, the ex­ist­ing mu­sic and nar­ra­tion needed to be stripped from the game. “I thought it can’t be that hard but you know what it’s like with game de­vel­op­ment—you change one thing and ev­ery­thing starts crash­ing around you!” says Curry. The game was five years old by then, and The Chi­nese Room had to re­learn the pro­cesses and id­iosyn­cra­cies of the orig­i­nal in or­der to tweak it. “The QA in­volved in that was mas­sive, be­cause so many de­pen­den­cies had changed,” ex­plains Curry.

Rewired

The con­duc­tor and ac­tor also needed the game to pro­vide cues for the dif­fer­ent pieces of mu­sic or seg­ments of script re­quired. That meant re-eval­u­at­ing how the trip­wires in the game—the trig­gers for things like seg­ments of di­a­logue—worked. In the orig­i­nal game, the idea is that you get a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence each time you play be­cause there are a huge num­ber of pos­si­ble per­mu­ta­tions.

That’s fine when you have code han­dling those re­sponses. When it’s a hu­man on stage, the lim­i­ta­tions are dif­fer­ent. Fel­low Chi­nese Room co­founder Dan Pinch­beck thus needed to cre­ate a ver­sion of the script which catered to the lim­its of a hu­man per­former and to the fact that at­ten­dees would likely only at­tend one per­for­mance.

I ask about the lo­gis­tics of the trip­wires given you’d need to fac­tor in a few ex­tra sec­onds for a hu­man to re­spond to a prompt from the game. “Now you’re

be­gin­ning to un­der­stand the fresh hell I led every­body into!” laughs Curry.

It wasn’t just fig­ur­ing out cues and re­mov­ing el­e­ments of au­dio. In­vis­i­ble walls had to be added a week be­fore the ini­tial show to pre­vent the player fall­ing off cliffs dur­ing a per­for­mance. There was also a long dis­cus­sion about whether to keep or re­move the game’s load­ing screens.

Curry tells me it was a con­scious choice to leave the load­ing screens in. The idea was “to not apol­o­gize for it be­ing a game” and in­stead to cel­e­brate it. That’s how it worked for me, but oth­ers found it jar­ring. It’s a pe­cu­liarly tech­no­log­i­cal mo­ment in a very hu­man per­for­mance.

In gen­eral, de­ci­sions about what to change and how were gov­erned by whether they helped cre­ate a live ver­sion of the ex­ist­ing game ex­pe­ri­ence rather than a sep­a­rate, per­haps more theatri­cal, en­tity.

That said, in game form Curry had been able to ex­ert ab­so­lute con­trol over how Dear Es­ther sounded at any given point. As a live per­for­mance, she had to fig­ure out how to sep­a­rate out the el­e­ments so they still worked co­he­sively, but could be dif­fer­en­ti­ated by the lis­ten­ers. Each venue also in­tro­duced dif­fer­ences to the sound, and the team had mere hours to fig­ure out how to adapt each night.

Hav­ing an ex­pe­ri­enced crew helped, as did a sound en­gi­neer with both live ex­per­tize and a more de­tached per­spec­tive: “Some­times, be­cause I knew the sound­track so well in my head, it was al­most like I couldn’t hear a new ver­sion of it,” Curry says.

Cen­ter Stage

The hu­man player is an­other per­for­mance el­e­ment which has changed over the tour. By the fi­nal UK date, the PC mon­i­tors had gone from be­ing side-on to fac­ing the au­di­ence, and the player was now lit in the same man­ner as the mu­si­cians. Curry and the team are still tin­ker­ing with that pre­sen­ta­tion for the in­ter­na­tional dates.

Live per­for­mance also in­tro­duces the pos­si­bil­ity that part of the show will break. As a re­sult, there are two pro­jec­tors and two com­put­ers in place, plus a screen­shot to cut to in the event of some tech fail­ure and emer­gency mu­sic specif­i­cally writ­ten by Curry to cover down­time.

Stresses aside, the re­sult­ing Dear Es­ther tour has been a re­ward­ing and re­ju­ve­nat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for Curry. The close-knit team of­fered a pro­tec­tive, nur­tur­ing en­vi­ron­ment, and the in­stant pos­i­tive feed­back of a live au­di­ence en­thralled by her work has been a de­light.

Whether the suc­cess here is trans­ferrable to other live games events is a dif­fi­cult ques­tion. Dear Es­ther is about 75 min­utes long, was made on a tight bud­get with one nar­ra­tor and few mu­si­cians, and is the prod­uct of a stu­dio that’s in­ter­ested in re­mov­ing tra­di­tional ‘play’ el­e­ments from games. It’s suited to a live show in ways that hun­dred-hour epics with ac­tion se­quences and full or­ches­tral scores aren’t. Re­gard­less, Dear Es­ther’s live tour was a tech­no­log­i­cally fas­ci­nat­ing and emo­tion­ally re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Philippa Warr

“Now you’re be­ginn ing to un­der­stand the fresh hell I led every­body into”

The mu­sic is per­formed live so the score had to be stripped out of the tour build.

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