Dear Esther, and so begins the letter of a lifetime, as you’re immersed in a world you’ve always known but hardly seen.
Originally released as free to play modication, the game was entirely redeveloped for a commercial release in 2012. Featuring a relatively new gameplay model at the time, the game was later mockingly referred to as a ‘Walking Simulator’ due to its minimalist player involvement – ultimately the only physical thing for the player to do is explore a Scottish island.
Having always wished to travel to an uninhabited Hebridean island this game provided me with the chance to do just that. It’s tranquil peace and the history the island preserves, either through basic settlements, shipwrecks or geology, is immense and is created here in painstaking detail. As you wander throughout the game the character’s voice sporadically gives you information as to the nature of his recently departed wife, as he recounts instances which led to her sudden death and also comments on the nature and history of this island.
I found that the game is certainly endemic of mental health and mental illness. The character, player unnamed, is certainly suffering from grief and this has led – over time – to illness and despair. In his grief he has essentially come to the most remote place he can find; and his intentions, although morbid, are incredible to watch. As you join him on what is his last journey there’s a sense of hope and exploration, an understanding of your own life and a peace you simply don’t get from Black Ops.
Originally developed as a research project through The University of Portsmouth the game is the creation of The Chinese Room, responsible for such other BAFTA nominated masterpieces as Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture and Amnesia; A Machine For Pigs. But it’s Dear Esther which never fails to capture me, despite how many times I’ve replayed this game, and its entire journey would take you just 90 minutes – something that you can do in an evening, drawing the curtains and submersing yourself in gaming.
Accompanying the game is an incredible soundtrack from Jessica Curry, which is nothing short of immense, and has also been released on Vinyl and CD so popular is the demand. I regret deeply missing the opportunity to see an orchestra tour the UK performing this soundtrack while a gamer engaged in playing this game on a big screen.
One particular scene, perhaps my favourite in the game, involves walking uphill towards an abandoned bothy built by a long since departed Sheppard. As you climb you can realistically feel the strength in the effort it takes, the game adjusting for the end pushing against you. One can only imagine what might happen if this was ever developed into 3D, and despite the harsh weather conditions, it’s possibly one of the most hopeful moments in the entire game. There’s a real sense of achievement as you finally manage to reach the bothy’s door and enter its tiny space.
Eagle eyed fans should also note the original game soundtrack is also available as a free download online from the developer, and you’d be best advised to take advantage of this while it still stands. In August 2018 Sumo Group, the parent company of Sumo Digital, acquired The Chinese Room for GB£2.2 million and thus downsized it to a fourth UK based production under Sumo Group. One can imagine both the “end of an era” but also the developers and founders of the group taking some time to consolidate their achievements while playing Dear Esther.
Walking Simulators may face criticism because you can, of course, always just leave the house and walk yourself – but the additional location of this game, its unique perspective and narration make it quite frankly unmissable. Now I’m off to hunt down a sealed physical copy on eBay. To replay once more.
Last year I read an article in which Netflix paid $100 million in order to keep the show ‘Friends’ for another year. Apparently, this happened because both Hulu and WarnerMedia (who originally owned the show) wanted it back for exclusive streaming, and Netflix didn’t want to let it go. I’ve never considered myself a fan of Friends but recognize that airing over 10 Seasons and producing 236 episodes it was something a generational phenomenon.
Originally launching in September 1994 the show (for the one person who has never heard of it) focused on the lives of six friends in New York City. The different characters and commotions they encountered evidentially brought them closer as they moved from late 20s into mid 40s – and the actors portraying them became increasingly wealthy in the process. In fact, by the end of the shows final season, it was well documented each actor was receiving $1 million dollars per episode filmed.
So the value of $100 million to each actor across 18 episodes ($108 million) means the show has lost virtually none of its value in the previous two decades – which, in itself, is somewhat of an astonishing achievement. Even if the actors themselves claim to have made virtually nothing from the shows first three seasons, and that it wasn’t until the latter half the shows run that they were able to capitalize on their monetary worth and value.
But asides what makes this show so watchable, as every fan has no doubt watched Friends in its entirety about 20 times now (and I thought I was bad re-watching the entire Breaking Bad series four times and counting) there’s a real question of why we do this and what the point is. Well, we are creatures of comfort, and as humans we enjoy squeezing chance out of our lives. Consider, for a moment the stressful world in which we live, or at least which social media would have you believe the majority of the population live.
Within this world, we look for moments in which to rid ourselves of stress, whether that’s taking a night out with friends and getting inebriated, reading a book we love or watching a film we’ve seen a thousand times. Netflix is, in itself, a reliever of stress.
And as consumers of mass entertainment we’re unlikely – more often than not – to watch programs and films we’ve seen before. Either because we wish to “half watch” a program and pay little attention to it, in the case of tormented parents subjected to the 100th watch of ‘The Greatest Showman’ or ‘The Little Mermaid’ or because we really want to escape to a world where we know all the exits. The kind of person who spends more time checking their phone than watching the movie. Just the other day I visited a cinema where a patron stopped during a film to take a selfie in a darkened theatre, with the flash on, before continuing to watch the film.
No surprises and no shocks from the “real world” make life better. That, coupled with the nostalgia we experience from the familiar – and in this case, we’re literally talking about the cast of Friends – mean that we remember good memories of previously watching this show or interacting with the dated set pieces and situations these characters find themselves in. Particularly when we’ve little to no interest in new experiences or taking chances.
Consider the success of YouTube streaming services over the last decade. Someone will unbox the product, play the video game, reveal the ending, berate and review the movie or react to the trailer – all before you’ve had a chance to express your opinion. Between work and travel we are constantly looking for ways to squeeze the most out of those precious few hours luxury we have a week. I personally choose to write, and many would argue I should stop wasting my time, but I choose to take a chance and challenging myself to create something on a particular topic. Reading a review of an a book before I’ve read it or spoiling the end of a movie so I can validate it’s worth my time isn’t of interest. Because if the Internet does your thinking for you, what’s the point?
But what does this mean for Netflix and streaming services? Well, effectively, it means that Friends is a popular show. But it also means that just like the terrestrial stations of years gone by it is now streaming services who are encouraging people to subscribe to their services by offering long established product. Disney’s recent acquisition of Star Wars will ultimately mean that their offering of the entire franchise created by George Lucas gives another massive boost to their pre-existing animated catalog and makes Disney + an attractive proposition.
I’ve spoken on this site before about streaming services making more physical venues like HMV obsolete. The other day I saw a ‘Rick and Morty’ Season 3 Blu Ray newly released over the Christmas period for £19.99; and considered why someone might purchase content that restricted them to just one season where the entire show was available to view on Netflix, whose cheapest subscription is now just £5.99 a month within the UK. It made no sense to pay so much more for a physical copy, yet on the other hand I’ve done just that, paying over the odds prices on not only physical copies of films and albums but also purchasing obsolete formats on Vinyl and Cassette in favor of just using a streaming service on my phone.
2018 may be recorded as many things, but as we enter 2019, we’ll be looking at the second decade of this millennium truly coming into its own – entering its “roaring 20’s” and that this is an age of streaming and mass consumption based on a whim gives one reason to pause for thought. Social Media such as Facebook and Instagram, Music on Spotify, Film and TV on Netflix, streaming platforms on video games all essentially offering us an a la carte menu through which to consume whimsically and skip ahead to what we like. There’s no sense of achievement in taking that Friday night trip to the video store, browsing the shelves and choosing what you’d like, instead you select your choice (based on pre approved reviews that tell you to absolutely watch Birdbox now) and if you don’t like it you can discard it and move on quite quickly.
With that mountain of content growing, and more emphasis placed on older achievements and nostalgia (as we think about the countless prequels, reboots and comebacks Netflix alone has supported) it won’t be long before we simply stop taking chances – stop paying or investing in new product – stop doing anything but watching reruns of Friends and ironically fail to make our own Friends to grow, share and bond with.
Your mother told you there’d be days like this, but she didn’t tell you when the world has brought you down to your knees.
“I definitely believe the next decade is going to be streaming plus vinyl – streaming in the car and kitchen, vinyl in the living room and the den. Those will be the two formats. And I feel really good about that.” Jack White, Rolling Stone
There’s been a lot of talk in the last few weeks about the death of music. 2019 is barely five days old and already I’m reading how it will be the last year in which we expect to buy physical formats on a large scale as consumers. Of course, it’s early January, so there’s no doubt an endless amount of copy that has to be written and the statistics published commemorating the achievements of the last year always seem like a good place to start.
According to the BPI, or British Phonographic Industry, 2018 has seen a decline of 23% in CD sales compared to the twelve months previous. Year on year this equates to a drop of 9.6 million but comparing figures from ten years ago, there’s been 100 million fewer CDs sold.
That in itself is easily explained. Changing consumer habits, including streaming services, have meant that we’re now far more likely to purchase digital downloads or a subscription than a physical product. Less cars feature CD players, of course, and much like its predecessor the cassette it’s simply not cost effective to produce them on such scale. Shrinking shelf space in supermarkets doesn’t help, of course, but HMV’s recent woes would suggest we seem less interested in actually owning our own music.
Last night I spoke with a friend and commented that, aged 17, it would have been abhorrent for me to think of being a fan of a band and not owning the majority of their albums at that time. Singles, EPs, Albums, live releases, you name it – I would have wanted it – and yet nowadays the proverbial snowflakes of the generation are probably uninterested in purchasing and acquiring such physical content. Almost 17 years later it seems that my way of expressing interest in a band is simply not the same and this change can easily be seen.
According to the BPI, however, there is hope in some areas. Vinyl sales have grown just 1.6%; and although this is not an astronomical rise, it is a rise nonetheless – with 4.2 million records sold. That in itself is a rise upon previous years sales and means sales have yet to stagnate or even decline. Considering this format was originally abandoned due to its ‘impracticality’ I would still equate this to ‘new’ Vinyl being a successful format.
A younger music fan I met recently in HMV was heard to remark to her friends that she wanted to own only Vinyl albums, with the artwork and design being the main reason for doing so. From a practical point of view, they also make excellent mementos, should you be lucky enough to get them signed or obtain a limited ‘colour’ edition upon release. Some record labels, such as Germany’s Nuclear Blast, will regularly release the same album in several variants from popular artists – and it’s not uncommon for hard-core fans to want to purchase every single one. I mean, somebody has to be buying them, right?
It’s certainly true to say that we’re becoming more consumer conscious, watching everything from our weight to our spending habits, and choosing things a lot more carefully than the generation before. Even so called ‘luxury’ items or disposable income simply isn’t as clear cut as it once was. Ed Sheeran’s album ‘Divide’ definitely divided fans, with 59% purchasing the album digitally and yet 40% purchasing the album physically; making it one of the UK’s biggest selling albums of 2018. The biggest, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the soundtrack to ‘The Greatest Showman’.
The film stars Hugh Jackman as PT Barnhum, an American showman, businessman and politician who perhaps equates more to Donald Trump and Vince McMahon today as he does to the actor who plays him. Sales of this film – whose soundtrack remained atop the UK Album Charts for 23 uninterrupted weeks – led to record breaking sales. Christmas week alone, it’s 22nd week, the soundtrack sold 57,000 copies alone with 48.7% Digital and 51.3% physical confirmed sales across 2018 in the UK. This soundtrack hasn’t left the Top 5 of UK Album Charts all year and is just one reason why Hugh Jackman is one of Hollywood’s hottest properties.
The picture is the same in America, where CD sales have fallen 80% in the last decade, from roughly 450 million to 89 million. “Lots of us have changed the way we consume music and film, and more people are streaming from Netflix or Spotify,” Kim Bayley of the Entertainment Retailers Association recently told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“But I think we should remember that [physical music] is almost a £2bn business. Even HMV has sales still of a quarter of a billion pounds, so that’s not a small business.” Others see it differently;
“I don’t buy it that physical music is necessarily competing with streams. We all access music and film on the internet, and that’s fine and healthy and valid, but you wouldn’t look at the Mona Lisa on your phone and think it’s the same thing as going to see it in a gallery.”
“The reason vinyl sales are at a 25-year high is because people are rejecting this part of modern society where everything is immediate and nothing means anything.”
Jon Tolley there quoted from a BBC article, who runs the independent record shop Banquet Records in London, arguing that perhaps Vinyl is a way for consumers to rebel against a disposable society. A novel concept, if not somewhat expensive.
Perhaps the most surprising statistic, however, is Vinyl’s effect on sales in 2018. Of course, we all know Vinyl has made an impact, but the artists who make the biggest sales – Nirvana, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, Oasis, David Bowie and Amy Whinehouse are either well past their critical peak or long since departed. These are artists who are appreciated for their sound, their legacy, and whom many fans (young and old) can collectively appreciate as not just a flash in the pan. Which would seem to support the idea of a “rebel rebel” philosophy.
On the other hand, cynicism might lead one to suspect it’s because Vinyl is only released in such large quantities through albums that can be assuredly guaranteed sales, with Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at my local Tesco for a tenner and Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ not far behind it. Vinyl is, by a large margin, an expensive format – so selling classic albums for cheaper is bound to encourage those looking to build their collection for an affordable additional purchase.
But Vinyl’s strength is not just limited to a private collector and his secret stash.
I attended a Vinyl night in 2017 that has gone from strength to strength ever since in Newcastle, England. Hosted at the Tyneside Cinema, Drayton’s Record Player invites fans to enter a darkened room and listen to a Vinyl album uninterrupted (except briefly pausing to change sides, of course) – paying for the privilege. It’s an interesting concept, though not unheard of to physically pay money to do something you could do for free, simply to feel committed to take the time needed to achieve the act in the first place. Yet at this point I’m willing to admit Vinyl is nothing if not surprising, revisiting 2018’s highest selling albums in the UK on the format, with The Greatest Showman’s Cast Recording easily the youngest and second placed record on the list. Doubtful that I am Drayton would play it.
Of course, streaming services have yet to eradicate the reflex nature, or whatever phenomenon it is that prevents Now That’s What I Call Music records from dominating sales across the country. Volumes 99, 100 and 101 make up a large part of the biggest albums sold in the UK in 2018 and other entries (like the Greatest Showman) are Cast Recordings from musicals and motion pictures that have dominated cinema attendance.
Nostalgia serves a huge part in our consumer habits, as does affordability and ease of access, so there are many reasons to see why these albums prevent such an attractive purchase. Whatever people’s reasons for purchasing them, it’s unlikely that our obsession with Vinyl is likely to go away, especially as CD now ironically becomes the obsolete format.