This critical essay originally appeared at Oh No! Video Games!
N.B. In the course of this article, I will ruthlessly spoil Dear Esther, certainly for those who have not experienced it, and in all possibility for some who have.
- The haunting landscape of Dear Esther
“There’s nothing better to do here than indulge in contradictions,” says the narrator. His British voice is deep and theatrical, tinged with mania. My avatar crosses the gloomy beach. Stubborn, I persist in seeking out better things to do than indulge in contradictions. A wrecked boat beached on the rocks looks intriguing. Perhaps some clue as to what I am doing here? My avatar intrepidly paddles out into the surf for a few moments before sinking into the empty blackness. I drown(?); I hear the narrator’s voice: “Come back…” and then I am staring at the rocky sand of moments before, yards away from the surf.
* * *
Dear Esther is unquestionably a beautiful experience. Jessica Curry's elegiac score provides cohesion and drive throughout the narrative. As the setting reveals more of its secrets, the more difficult it is to believe that the painstaking detail of the island's sparse signs of habitation and subterranean wonder were created by a single level designer, Robert Briscoe (Mirror’s Edge). Dan Pinchbeck, Ph.D, with a dissertation on the FPS, has crafted a structural narrative shaped by Lovecraftian elements: purple prose that teeters on the overwrought, an unreliable narrator whose sanity is slipping away, and a remote island cursed for generations. Nigel Carrington's voice acting saves the most melodramatic sections of writing from grating, and much of the game's affective power comes from the texture of his voice.
When the developers label the game a “walk’em up,” they aren’t being coy. There are no mechanics; your task is only to walk along the path, free to look around and investigate as you please. As the walker progresses across the island towards an aerial crowned by a blinking red light, the narrator delivers what is presumably the inner monologue of the character directed by the user. The order of the audio segments is semi-randomized and the walker will not trigger every variant in one journey, meaning that the game cannot be completed in the most straightforward sense; every iteration of the game is a fraction of the narrative, and there is no definitive version to analyze textually.
The disconnected segments, lacking cohesive pacing and ragged with loose ends, give Dear Esther the feeling of a fugue state. Unfortunately, while the monologue begins in media res, my experience of embodying the character did not. I came into the game confused, after the “Start” option on the menu brought me to a level selection screen rather than the beginning of the game. Beyond this initial confusion, the narrator doesn’t discuss the destination of his journey until perhaps a third of Dear Esther has passed. Until roughly that point, I had little idea of what was expected of me, or even what I was capable of. I did not know swimming was strictly limited, or that exploration often went unrewarded beyond the opportunity to slowly trudge back to the main path and the occasional run-in with an invisible wall. My own uncertainty clashed with the bold soliloquies that periodically issued forth from what I presumed to be my character. When I heard the narrator say, “There must be something new to find here – some nook or some cranny that offers a perspective worth clinging to,” it seemed our thoughts had for once converged.
* * *
"I have found myself to be as featureless as this ocean…" For once, I agree with the voice; when I peer into the water, I see no reflection. Lately, the voice has been talking more and more about a serious leg injury, unbearable pain, a life-threatening infection and a quantity of pain-killers that would make even Rush Limbaugh blush. But the walker plods on without complaint, my steady pace maintained in the face of the character’s laments. The walker’s footsteps are often silent, and when audible have the regularity of clockwork. I look down into a chasm, and as the voice fills me in on its significance, I edge a little too close to get a better look— and fall in. A black screen, and again the narrator’s voice: "Come back…" Vision returns, and I am standing once again before the chasm.
* * *
While Dear Esther does a superb job of conveying a sense of place on the island, it makes very little effort to create a sense of embodiment. The narrator reveals his leg has been badly injured, and as the journey progresses, the grave and potentially fatal nature of the wound is expanded upon. Complaints about pain become more frequent, and the narrator talks about eating painkillers in the present tense. Yet while I am told these things, I do not experience any of them. My pace never slows, even after a few precipitous drops and a steady slog up the hillside. Even though my inner monologue says I am taking pain killers, I never see them. Furthermore, I have no way to affect the environment around me. At times, it feels as though I have taken the form of an armless invisible man.
If Dear Esther lacks any kind of mechanical/haptic interaction with the environment (e.g. press A to pull lever), is it still interactive? As more of the tragic tale is revealed, themes of fatalism develop and intermingle with a crescendo of biblical imagery. The state of the narrator’s sanity erodes further. Among many overlapping and often contradictory subplots, there are spurts of frantic talk about a car accident, conflicting accounts of the whereabouts/uses of Esther’s ashes, and previous inhabitants of the island. Beyond inconsistency, the story is shrouded in dense metaphors and allusions to other snippets of information that haven’t been encountered yet, and may never be.
It requires mental work and imagination to parse these disparate elements into a coherent tale; that is, you have to bring parts of your own self and judgment into play with the narrative. Dear Esther interacts with your mind’s predilection for constructing story. This interactive process is not so different from what is required of a reader of fiction. This argument certainly has its proponents; take Jude Richard Posner, one of America’s most respected jurists, who wrote:
Maybe video games are different [from previous media such as film and books]. They are, after all, interactive. But this point is superficial, in fact erroneous. All literature (here broadly defined to include movies, television, and the other photographic media, and popular as well as highbrow literature) is interactive; the better it is, the more interactive. Literature when it is successful draws the reader into the story, makes him identify with the characters, invites him to judge them and quarrel with them, to experience their joys and sufferings as the reader’s own.
That excerpt is from American Amusement Machine Association v. Kendrick, a ruling closely followed in Brown v. EMA, the Supreme Court case which ushered in a new era of constitutional protection for games as speech in the U.S.
As Judge Posner emphasizes, it is too easy to mistake the reader for a passenger along for the author’s ride, but creating meaning through reading necessarily involves the experience and prejudice of the reader. In the dominant paradigm, where mechanics define interaction, Dear Esther falls short of interactivity, and thereby ceases to be a game. Instead, perhaps we might consider the procedural responses characteristic of the majority of video games to be predominantly reactive. We should extend our notion of interactivity to warmly embrace any experience requiring interpretation and construction between audience and creator rather than use it as a cudgel to exclude certain genres from Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance” of games.
* * *
“I will drag my leg behind me; I will drag it like a crumpled hatchback, tyres blown and sparking across the dimming lights of my vision. I am running out of painkillers and am following the flicker of the moon home.” I seem to be floating on at the same pace as before. The voice is wilder now. In a few moments, I come up to the aerial, and suddenly the avatar is out of my control. The field of vision moves forward, and then up the ladder—it reminds me a little of a rollercoaster. The body climbs to the top and leaps, rushing headlong down to the beach and surf below before evening out and gliding back over the landscape, recapping the third act and zooming out into the water before the screen slowly goes black. And then the same voice, in the same way, says “Come back…”
I don’t respawn. I think the game might be over.
“I didn’t even see any fucking ghosts,” I think. I faintly feel a certain poignancy, an undercurrent overwhelmed by unease. The screen is still black. I contemplate the story for a moment. I fret that I am missing some ultimate scene, some monumental denouement. I finally get up and start mashing buttons until the menu appears and I know that Dear Esther is over.
* * *
I entered the game confused and left the game confused, though I enjoyed much in between. Dear Esther would have benefited from more paratextual material to prepare the walker for what to expect. It could have alternately featured a more strongly motivated beginning, so the user could feel confident of his or her role. The ending was a disappointment. I can see thematic resonances enabled by repeating “Come back”. What the developers failed to realize: that audio file was the one verbal sequence which presaged a change in the game-state, an audio cue that signaled resurrection in the player’s limited mechanical vocabulary. I stared into a completely black screen, wondering if the game had crashed at a particularly unfortunate moment because the developers chose ambiguity, to force the player to interact with the system, to “have a moment to think”. But this ambiguity was tainted by worry completely unrelated to the story. What can we make of this refusal to clearly demarcate the end of Dear Esther?
I recognize this position; in elementary school, I had a teacher who insisted that we not cap off our juvenile stories with “the End.” It made sense to me; after all, you could see the story didn’t continue—only an idiot would need to be told there was nothing left to read. In the novel, a form where narrative ambitions similar to Dear Esther's are developed, the rightward stack of pages represents a finitude, a certain fatalism of textual length. But the electronic game has few extradiegetic clues as to its finality; the boundaries of one game have no limits readily interpreted from within the play experience. The player might just as well expect more, especially in a game roughly a third the length of the average single player adventure. Thus, instead of spending that quiet moment wrestling with the meaning of the narrative, I sat in uncertainty and doubt, fearing for the life of my laptop’s video card. It was a pity; Dear Esther certainly gives one a lot to think about.