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A Light at the end of the Tunnel

So it’s been a while, in fact it’s been almost 4 months since my last update, however, during this time I have been tirelessly working on the third level of Dear Esther and have finally reached the point where I think it is good enough to show some of what I have been up to during my absence.

The third level of Dear Esther takes place at the heart of the island, through its many sprawling caves and tunnels. I have to admit, this was one of the levels I was most excited about working on as I’d never attempted this kind of environment before, and it allowed me a much greater freedom and creativity that is sometimes restricted when creating large outdoor environments and so I was able to add in much more detail and complex shaders to really help bring the caves to life without sacrificing performance.

I think the caves in the original were the one area that was most lacking and so I made a real effort to make sure they raise the bar both visually and atmospherically. (Note: As always these shots are pre-alpha and lack proper polish):

Dear Esther Level 3 - The CavesDear Esther Level 3 - The Caves
Dear Esther Level 3 - The CavesDear Esther Level 3 - The Caves

Dear Esther Level 3 - The CavesDear Esther Level 3 - The Caves
Dear Esther Level 3 - The Caves
Dear Esther Level 3 - The Caves
Dear Esther Level 3 - The CavesDear Esther Level 3 - The Caves

Dear Esther Level 3 - The CavesDear Esther Level 3 - The CavesDear Esther Level 3 - The Caves

Dear Esther Level 3 - The CavesDear Esther Level 3 - The CavesDear Esther Level 3 - The CavesDear Esther Level 3 - The Caves

Dear Esther Level 3 - The CavesDear Esther Level 3 - The Caves
Dear Esther Level 3 - The Caves
Dear Esther Level 3 - The CavesDear Esther Level 3 - The Caves

Dear Esther Level 3 - The CavesDear Esther Level 3 - The Caves

Dear Esther Level 3 - The CavesDear Esther Level 3 - The Caves
Dear Esther Level 3 - The CavesDear Esther Level 3 - The Caves

It’s been a tough journey on this one, both technically and creatively, with so many unique assets being made and pushing the 2007 Source Engine to its limits to meet my high standards, it took me a lot longer than I predicted to finish the level (hence the abnormally long absence), however I’m so close to finishing now I can almost taste it and I can’t wait to get started on the next (and FINAL) level!

Anyway as an added bonus for waiting so long, I’ve compiled a quick montage of the third level, and also showcasing some of the many effects that has been added/hacked in such as realistic flowing water and caustic effects.


Finally some high res screenshots for wallpaper! (right-click>save as):

Dear Esther Level 3 - The Caves

Dear Esther Level 3 - The Caves

Dear Esther Level 3 - The Caves

Dear Esther Level 3 - The Caves


One final thought I’d like to leave with you and would love to hear your feedback on; What would you think of Dear Esther breaking away from being a mod and becoming a proper indie game? (On the Source Engine of course!)

63 comments to A Light at the end of the Tunnel

  • Hello Robert Briscoe, I saw your website a couple of days (via your Update video on Dear Esther) and I wanted to say that I have never seen such beautiful art in a game, let alone the Source Engine. You deliver superb work there. As I started a couple of months ago with creating and editing Full HD (1080p) professional gaming videos, I would love to make a video walkthrough of this already! Perhaps even a gameplay or trailer video! (Erik Rempen with another Half-Life 2 MOD (LADDER) asked me to make a trailer for his next mod already ^^). So definitly, I’ll buy your Mod/Indie game at the start of it’s release/Pre-order. Also, I have been buying both the Humble Bundle indie game packages, and perhaps it could be a good place to offer pay-what-you-want service for the remake of Dear Esther. Just look how much money they make with it! I would be paying €10 at least for this hard work ^^. I really look forward to it!

  • igride

    I hope to the powers that be that this hasn’t been abandoned, it looks so amazing it’d be awful if it didn’t get completed

  • Noah

    I’ve been keeping an eye on this project- can’t wait to see how it turns out. It’s also been almost 4 months since the last update- looking forward to the next one!

  • lahdra

    After seeing all this, I was completely blown away and had to register to tell you how amazing this looks. Seriously, great stuff.

    I never played the original DE, so cant wait to take this one for a spin. I can only imagine how immersive this will be.

    Cheers, cant wait for an update!

  • Simplex

    I love how the remake shapes up. I also hope that this time there will be subtitles, which will be indispensable for people with hearing deficiences and for non-native English players (like myself).
    Good luck with finishing this wonderful remake!

    Kind regards,

  • Triptych5998

    If you do decide to charge a fee for this amazing feat of artistic talent, please consider creating a mac-compatible version. I know plenty of people who would love to play through DE, but until recently had no way of doing so.

    Again, can’t put into words how stunning all of this is, I only heard about the remake after the update before this one, so I’m shocked and amazed at the quality of it all…

  • Avrett

    I registered on here just to say that your work is gorgeous and that if you make Dear Esther an indie game I will buy it (maybe even twice if possible).

  • Tryst

    I made an account just to say that I would buy this in a heartbeat if you made it a stand alone title.

    I only found out about this tonight and I find myself deeply enthralled by what I know of this so far. Very little has taken my breath away in the way this has. You’ve created both a technical and artistic marvel.

    If thousands of people were willing buy Noby Noby Boy (a simple virtual kinetic toy), then I see absolutely no reason that you couldn’t sell this.

  • brrr

    Inspirational work; its unbelievable all this has been achieved by one person, along with those working on the concept art of course. It’s great to see you’ve made this your own instead of it being a purely high res texture modification. Dear Esther has been close to my heart ever since I first played it and wait in anticipation until it comes out. Good luck with the project.

  • tidus457

    I really love what you have done, the ambiance is fantastic!
    I am wondering about how you handled texturing of the cave, is it vertex painting, or using masks? Or another technique?

  • Deano

    I love the way you used Detail sprites to create grass; it’s really clever, they’re low on fps consumption but really increase the detail of the game. Are you using parallax mapping? I didn’t know the OB had that.

  • this is quite amazing indeed. as many have said this definetly is raising the bar for caves in source (and in any modern engine really). the amount of work to place all the details an dshape the displacements must have been immense, as shown by the lengthy absense since your last update.

    regarding the distribution method: i’d suggest that DE remains a free mod, however you should take the techniques and skills you’ve used here to apply to a longer, stand-alone release (i.e. an indie title) using the same kind of gameplay and exploration that makes DE different from the rest of the crowd.

  • clipkilla

    Sir your work is deeply inspiring. I played through the first incarnation of Dear Esther and ever since I found your level redesigns have been eagerly awaiting more updates and it just doesn’t disappoint. I would most definitely buy this at an indie game price and I be sure to push as many people at it as I can. The first time I completed it I could suspend disbelief in the world because the narrative was so strong; with your visuals to back it up (the last video you posted as a case in point) it really will be an amazing experience. Hugest congrats!

  • darklord42

    I believe he was looking into releasing the mod for free as and independent game, with an optional donation. Steam just released Alien Swarm, a source game, as an independent game free of charge.

    Now this game had specific circumstances where the leaders of the mod were both hired by steam and released this afterward. But none the less, there is at least a precedence for this sort of thing. And given the amount of press this project has already and will continue to receive after it’s release, I would think it would be worth talking to them.

  • theinternetftw

    I think it’d be great as a full game, especially if that gave you more latitude with messing around with Source’s internals (if it’d be helpful for you to do so, that is).

    I don’t know how much it’d cost to license Source though. Is the pricing conducive to an indie game dev?

    Also, you continue to amaze me with what can be done with this engine. Keep up the fantastic work.

  • The_SC

    An indie game? Oh, yes. Very much yes. If it’s available through Steam I’d buy it in an instant. Heck, if it were available for purchase through other channels (though with Paypal as a payment option), I’d still buy it in an instant.

    One request, though: in the original mod, the dialogue says that there ought to be 21 paper boats. Counting the one in the cavern, there are 23. As silly as it sounds, this really bothers me. Make it 21? Please?

  • stickyboot

    You should do an introductory Pay what you will for a shot amount of time and then assess the situation afterward. If its working out, set a price! If it does not go as well as you hoped, then leave it as a mod with a donation page. As its not a game in a traditional sense, people who are weary of the concept or have a tendency to complain “this isnt what I expected wahhh I payed money” ect would be able to give it a shot and not complain avoiding unnecessary criticism, and people who do enjoy it a lot and find value in the work will give money. As you are probably aware, the Humble indie bundle did quite well recently, and I think that would be the perfect introductory model for this game.

  • darklord42

    Ok people. Please look at some pictures of actual caves before you make comments on the formations. Mr. Briscoe surely did before making them. Speaking as someone who has been to Kartchner Caverns in Arizona, let me say that with these formations are beautiful and right on the money. The thin ones look exactly like the soda straw formations that I saw there. And yes, they can be very much dense and very numerous. Such a very beautiful job.
    About getting this to become indie. I say go for it! Even if Steam makes you charge a small amount, I for one shall pay for it. Personally I say talk to Steam. Maybe they can help you get this working on the Mac as well. That would surly expand your base even further. Especially as there still are not a lot of mac games on steam yet. A few, and growing.

  • pay for a n indie mod.

    Well as stated earlier there is this game is art kind of undertone in the world today and Dear Esther is in my opinion classed as Avant Garde. As a web developer and have a little age a empathy for fellow developers knowing heart and soul can get poured into a project and be readily dismissed by the consuming commercial masses who demand something to be infinitely replayable?? like wtf was that first comment all about, books are replayable? The youth of today.

    I’d be willing to give you a few quid for your labour and love ;)
    Maybe a pint in a pub sometime.

    But would the chinese room get a cut, would it be steam works ? Is it going to be on source 09 or still orange box 07 build.

    Personally a straight forward release won’t cut it either.
    Development material has to be put in, even from the chinese room original thoughts and concepts, as this game has more of an open source poem to it than most.
    before and after shots, moodboards, illustrations etc etc, similary to monkey island 2 special edition could be unlocked after various playthroughs.

    artistically, thought you went a bit heavy on the stalagmites, however, I’m a programmer not an artist, so my artistic opinions are to be ignored ;) as what makes me feel uncofmortable and uneasy about it looking a little too much was probably an intended emotional effect :)

    otherwise STUNNNING work

    Love the fact you squeezed in that motorway too, is it the sandbatch junction though ;)

  • Hellsten

    Looks spectacular. However, I’ve noticed (especially in the “heart formed cave room”, as some have referred it to) that the stalagmites are very pointy. I think they should have a little wider base, like a cone. The stalactites looks ok though, I think.

  • Ace

    Absolutely stunning! Your work never fails to inspire and impress me.

    In my opinion, going indie with a pay-what-you-want plan is perfect for this project. It will broaden the audience but it wont turn away unsure customers like a regular price tag will. But above all, we’re still at a point in history where doing a pay-what-you-want promotion will get you a lot of media attention across the internet. It really is the best option.

  • Amazing work ! Love how the water is rendered. Is this only refract shader or did you combine refract sahder with UnlitTwotexture shader on mutlitple plane for the falling water ? Is the caustic are detailblend on the texture or a simple overlay ?


  • dead.pixel

    How has Valve not offered you a job?

  • semi

    First of all: you are doing fantastic!
    The medium videogame still has a reputation problem and is often not considered art, the (legitimate imo) reason being it is shallow and meaningless most of the time. I think Dear Esther is by far the best example videogames CAN be art. If Dear Esther stays a mod, well that wouldn’t be too bad, but mods are only played by a small minority. The attention this fantastic piece of art deserves can only be achieved by making it sandalone.
    I am shure there is a huge audience for this! I would be glad to pay for it.

    So please, PLEASE, go indie, make this a standalone game, write videogame history!

  • illas

    Would I happily pay £12 for this? “Yes. Happily”.
    Would I be in the minority of PC gamers? “Yes. Sadly”.

    Going indie is an interesting idea, but whether it would increase the player-base is another matter. I would venture that the type of person who would enjoy DE would be happy to pay for it; but then, I’d imagine that a lot of people who *might* enjoy DE would be put-off taking a chance on it if they had to pay for it.

    Were you to charge for it, I don’t consider replayability an issue. People will pay good money for presentation quality – look how many 6-10 hour big-budget games are sold these days largely on the basis of impressive graphics… and judging by what you’ve shown us so far, you have no problems in that regard. Provided the experience is as powerful as that original DE, and you’re not charging £15+ for the remake, I would hope that people would not feel “cheated” by paying for it.

    Have you considered a “shareware-esque” approach? Like allowing people to download and play the first level, get absorbed in the ambiance and story, and *then* asking them to pay to continue. It’s inelegant and old-fashioned, but I could see it working.

    A mod with a “tip-jar” system would probably be the best comprimise, IMO: you and the Chinese Room people would receive (less, granted) long-overdue reward from a superb piece of work, and you wouldn’t alienate any potential users. Still, I would hope that 25% of players who completed it would rush to pay for the pleasure of doing so.

  • mikkel190

    I am – too – very, very pleased with the caves, but I think that I’m going to miss those twisted small tunnels i the old version. Why not connect the bigger caves with some tunnels or block the path inside them to force the player out on a little detour where one might have to choose between two tunnels and, if one choose “the wrong one” might get a glimpse at “the right one” and maybe reward the player with some extra audio snibbits.
    And: Go indie, but the Radiohead – “In Rainbows”-way.

  • Sam

    also does the water react with object in other words does it collide?

  • Sam

    I wanted to know if the “dynamic” water is particle based or an entity itself or ofcourse something completely else?

  • Amazing work you are doing here. Really beautiful, I’d love to see more of the concept art too.

    I really think you should sell it. I’d buy it for sure.

  • WastedMeerkat

    That looks amazing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Valve decided to hire you or buy off your techniques.

  • Just want to say, in regards to replayability, the plan is to make each playthrough unique, in the first itereation of Dear Esther the audio cues were unique each playthrough, and with the remake I plan to take that to the next level, adding random objects/clues and events to the environment which make each playthrough a completely unique experience and make exploring more rewarding.

    As for going indie, it’s mostly to reach a broader audience who dont perhaps dont own hl2 or the orange box. I would like to charge as little as possible and I was deeply impressed with Wolf Fire’s Humble Indie Bundle they did a while back on a ‘pay-what-you-like’ scheme – so if we ever manage to go Indie, that is something i’d definitely consider.

    • mooncalf

      I was thinking that, that while I wouldn’t pay a big-release price I would be more than happy to donate for entry. Like others I’ve been checking in once or twice a week since three months after the last update, and I’m mad-keen to return to Dear Esther with some non-gamer friends in tow, easier-done with such spectacular new looks. :)

  • Spark

    I’ve been checking this page daily for months, and I am not disappointing! Though, I rather did like the claustrophobic atmosphere of the original, and the strange scribbles seem more prominent in the older one. As for your question, I think you should go indie. It would give this game more attention and renown. Mods get overlooked often and I don’t want that to happen to this creation. You and the original creators deserve compensation for this fine piece of work and who knows, you might win some awards in the process! I suggest pricing it at $5 and selling it through Steam, that way you can reach a large number of people. Anyway, great job!

    • Nox Deleo

      I noticed that and had a thought (although I don’t know if it’s doable): maybe some sort of fluorescent paint, or maybe a forensics style UV flashlight makes them shine. Would be a cool thing to play with at least.

  • Caves are featured in so very many games, almost every fantasy game out there has caves; but I have never seen any even approaching the beauty of these ones. Amazing. I hope these caves raise the standard for caves in games everywhere.
    As for indie or mod, I don’t care I just want to play the game.
    Actually I think going as an indie would be cool. Make it a pay what you want, with a goal payment for the total profit that would compensate you, at which point you will make the assets open source ;), I think in this way people will be driven to pay as much as they can for your game. I thought the Humble Indie Bundle was a great model for sales.
    I think it would be awesome to see you team with the chineese room for a new game after this.
    Just a thought.

  • Ashenden

    “I don’t think it would be very successful as a commercial game, due to its very short game time and absolutely no replay value. I would suggest leaving it as a mod.”

    Yeah, how could you possibly charge for something without replay value! All books, art and movies that are most enjoyable the first time through are free! This certainly doesn’t stand on its own in terms of storytelling and artistic value, let alone as a tech demo for what Source can do!

    People who say no to paying for it are just the same people who say no to paying for anything, in my opinion. You’ve taken my favorite thing on Source and made it breathtaking in the only spot it was really lacking, while also ironing out its bugs.

    My only question is would TheChineseRoom, Jessica Curry and Nigel Carrington then be compensated or would it completely be paying for your revision?

  • Yotho

    This is amazing ! Absolutely wonderful!
    Please, Upload the video on “Vimeo” (YouTube HD is poor and hopeless )

  • Nox Deleo

    Absolutely stunning! I’ve been checking this blog almost daily for updates, and man was that video was worth that wait. I think the bar for Source game development is now so high, you’ll have airplanes flying through it.

    No question that this is worth becoming an indie title, even if you only charge a quid or two for it (you’ve obviously enjoyed making it/challenging yourself – why not make a bit of money too?). Not having to own a Source game to play it means a much wider potential audience as Kyven says – I can think of at least 10 friends who’d love to play this who I know don’t own a Source game. That video you’ve done there is in my opinion as good as any commercial trailer. Couple that with a small website and some web-media coverage and you’ve got your audience. Maybe it’ll even inspire Valve for HL2:EP3 (I still hold onto hope that’s on its way).

  • NykO18

    This is, by far, the most amazing piece of level-design, architecture and detailing I ever saw on the Source Engine. Dude, that must be so hard to come up with this considering the limits of the engine. Kudos to you, I liked Dear Esther and I’m really eager to play this new version!

    • NykO18

      On the other hand, I don’t think I’d like it to become an indie production.
      I wouldn’t buy Dear Esther due to its very nature.

  • Telke

    can you please please please make a 1680×1050 (or at least 16:10) version of picture 020 – the car under the water? because that’s amazing.

    And yes – this could have a standalone release. Should it have a cost? debatable, the length of the game factors into that, and it’s not the sort of game that would have achievements on Steam.

    • godwin

      I would say payment is for the artist’s work (both Mr Briscoe’s and the original makers’), not for the experience one might get out of its production or the length of that experience. In which case, I would gladly pay for it.

  • Edawan

    It’s very pretty and very impressive, but I feel that the rooms are way too big compared to the original.

    The scribbles on the walls are a bit lost in the process…

    • Ph0X

      I agree with Edawan. I remember being quite blown away by the atmosphere of the previous version (which is rather silly when you put it next to the new version), but one of the things that impressed me the most were all the scribbles on the walls. Even more so on the last level where you would turn around to look behind you and see massive writings everywhere.

      I know this is still pre-alpha as you say it, but I’d definitely love to see a bit more scribbles.

    • phuzz

      I was expecting more scribbles as well.

  • I would gladly pay to play this. It is beyond amazing and I honestly cannot think of a single game or mod which looks even nearly as pretty, regardless of engine.

  • Angus

    I still have to keep pinching myself to remind myself that you are making this on Source. It looks incredible. PLEASE make it an indie game, it would be unfair if we got this much beauty for free. And I disagree with ember – the game does have replay value in terms of exploration and finding out new audio snippets. Once again, amazing job, it was worth the wait, and good luck with the final level.

  • helios

    i have been awaiting this update for awhile, expecting more lovely work, but this goes far beyond what i expected at all. this is the highlight of my month.

  • ember

    I don’t think it would be very successful as a commercial game, due to its very short game time and absolutely no replay value. I would suggest leaving it as a mod.

  • Lewk

    I have been anticipating this update, and I truely did not expect to be blown away as much as I am. I am completely envious of your extraordinary artistic talent and eagerly (but patiently) await the next update.

    And I’m with the others, go Indie! Buy the source engine licence. I must be able to pay for this, I’d feel as though I’m cheating you somehow if I coudn’t.

  • Space Ranger

    this mod on steam would bring in a larger fanbase.

  • mattegan

    Go for it Robert. Break away. Go indie. Submit to IGF. When can I preorder?

  • Kyven

    With the amount of effort you’re putting into this it deserves to be a stand alone release. It would allow Dear Esther to reach a much wider audience than it ever could as a mod.

  • Armageddon

    An indie game would be awesome, but it had better be Source because I want to play this on Source! :D

    Caves look amazing. And I’d like my jaw back please.

  • [...] my next development update, I floated the question of what the communities’ thoughts would be on Dear Esther going indie, [...]

  • [...] 7 months ago, at the end of June 2010, at the end of an update on the Caves level, I  linked to a blog post here, where I posed the question “What would you think of Dear Esther going Indie?” [...]

  • [...] wait for this remake. I think it’s going to be unreal experience. If you can, you should go take a look ASAP. If you liked this page, please consider Stumbling it with document.write (''); [...]

  • [...] Ukazał się filmik i screeny prezentujące ostateczny wygląd odświeżonej wersji Dear Esther. Design wygląda na naprawdę dopieszczony. Szczegóły pod tym linkiem. [...]

  • [...] Robert Briscoe released few screens of his level remake called Dear Esther. More info and a video can be found here. [...]