Interview: Jessica Curry on creating the score for Dear Esther

Curry describes what it was like composing for a story-based game, as well as her thoughts on the importance of videogame music for classical music more generally.

The Chinese Room's 2012 title Dear Esther is a master class in every aspect of its design, not least its music. For a game that places all of its emphasis on an experience, mood is absolutely vital and composer Jessica Curry brought her not inconsiderable talents to bear in making Esther sing (perhaps literally!)

Some of the game’s music is a decade old now, and though Curry has grown as an artist since then, Esther’s  OST remains a landmark in her career that’s worth listening to. (Dear Esther’s soundtrack can be heard for free online, and is also available in a recently-released vinyl form.) I sat down with her for an interview about Dear Esther’s impressive score and what it was like composing for a story-based game, as well as her thoughts on the importance of videogame music for classical music more generally.

Thank you so very much for agreeing to speak with Gamasutra and congratulations on the Landmark Edition. I'll start right off in the deep end: How do you feel about the Narrator as a person?

Dan’s writing always inspires me and the character of the narrator proved to be no exception. I do find a lot of games writing reductive at times and one of the aspects of Dan’s writing that I love is his ability to create complex characters who defy easy categorization. The Narrator’s language is dense and poetic, contradictory and powerful and there is an emotional pulse that runs through the writing that just made my soul sing.  Actor Nigel Carrington added an extra layer of brilliance to the character and Dan’s words made the job of writing the music beautifully easy.

In the Landmark Edition's commentary you described feeling a visceral, emotional response to the game as you played through it to compose it. You must have been in the unique position of experiencing the game without music. What were you seeing in the visuals, the writing, and hearing in the voice work that inspired you?

Well of course when I wrote the music for the game in 2007 Robert Briscoe was just a twinkle in Dear Esther’s eye so the game at that point had very basic visuals!  Even so, the island was still an incredibly visceral and emotional space and I definitely responded to the unique, heavy air of the island that Dan evoked. Nigel hadn’t yet recorded the vocals so it really was a case of immersing myself in Dan’s text and the early builds of the island.  I knew even then that it was going to be something very special. Dan also used my music to create the game so it was very much a case of being inspired by each other, which is often how we work together. I would deliver music to him and he would write to that.

You talk a lot about how the music evolved over the course of the game's long history. You went from using samples to live musicians, the Cave music went from being sung by you personally to being sung by someone you felt was better suited to it, and so on. What was it like watching all that evolve? Did you change with the game's music over the years as an artist?

Great question! When I had the chance to re-record the music with live musicians in 2012 – five years after I’d first written the music – I had a long, hard think about whether I should do a total re-write of the music or whether I should stay faithful to the original. After much head-scratching and soul-searching I decided to keep the music as an entirely true replica and I’m so glad now that I made that choice.  Anything else would have been disingenuous I think, as the music was written with such passion and heart. Changing it would have been an intellectual rather than an emotional decision and that would be so at odds with the game. I definitely feel like I did evolve very much as an artist in the interim but I’m still incredibly proud of the music and it has a very special place in my heart.

You said in the developers' commentary that you approached the Cave as a birth metaphor, and I couldn't get that out of my head as I played through again, seeing the bodily nature of the cavern's many chambers. Equally, you talked about making the music here more "feminine," using a female singer and spoken words for the only time in the score. Was there an order to how you how you wrote the scores for each chapter of the game? Because it feels like the first piece you hear upon exiting, "This Godforsaken Aerial," has all the urgency and even joy of birth; gasping and running, perhaps too attached to the female form that gave it life.

That is such a wonderful interpretation of “This Godforsaken Aerial” – it’s such a beautiful reading of it. If I’m being completely honest, I don’t actually remember the order that I wrote the pieces in – I’m struggling to comprehend that it’s been 10 years since I wrote it! What I can say is that "This Godforsaken Aerial,” uses Morse code and spells out the name “Esther” over and over again. I wanted to communicate that sense of urgency and obsession and it’s my favorite piece in the game. It’s interesting that Dan didn’t create the caves with any of the birth/female metaphors that were so important to me but what I like about Dan’s process is that he never over-explains his work – he trusts me to have my own reaction and interpretation.

One thing that stuck out to me was how you described composing the final piece that plays out the game. You said it was easy to write because the last VO constituted "the pinnacle of writing, to me." Can you unpack that moment some more? Talk about what it was from that last speech by the narrator that guided the score.

That last scene is what I call Curry Emotional Catnip – it’s everything that I love about Dan’s writing. It’s emotional, it’s joyous, it speaks about what it is to be human and it provides that wonderful moment of release at the end of the game. After all that turmoil, that heartbreak, that loss it then mutates into freedom and acceptance. No wonder I’m so in love with my husband – what a writer!

What I love about Dear Esther's OST is that while it's starkly classical, it has a very modern sensibility about it. You go from traditional string music to glitchy electronic sounds and the entire composition ends up feeling seamless. Do you think this is the direction classical music needs to go in, in order to stay relevant? There's a lot of understandable handwringing among classical music fans (myself included!) about the form's longevity, and yet time and again orchestral scores from videogames achieve legendary status among successive generations of young people who now count classical scores among the pieces of music that shape them. What do videogame scores have to teach orchestras and opera, if anything?

Thank you – such lovely words about the music. I do think that the modern classical music scene can be very elitist and rather a closed shop. It is sometimes a space that feels like it doesn’t actually want a new audience and as someone who is not classically trained I have felt pretty intimidated and not particularly welcome at some concerts I’ve been to. So, as much as the actual content of the music I think we need to consider how to create welcoming and inclusive spaces where people new to the scene feel that they have a place. Classical music is still often such a classist place – so many people I know were educated at Oxford/Cambridge/elite conservatoires and one of the elements that I really like about gaming is that it is more democratic in that sense. 

One of the things I liked about Dear Esther Live at the Barbican was that many people who attended the concert told me that they’d never been in a classical concert space before. I was so impressed by how open and inclusive the Barbican were, both in the lead-up to the concert and on the night itself. They were amazing and without an ounce of snobbery. I’m very passionate about the idea of a Game Music Prom at the Royal Albert Hall and I’d love to make that a reality. I think that videogame scores can teach the classical world that many types of people can love lots of different types of music and that they can relax and open up their world to all comers.  Music should be for everybody, irrespective of gender, class, race, political or religious persuasion.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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