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REVIEW: Allegories and stillness in Dear Esther

Dear Esther

“I am becoming this island.”

Dear Esther is a remarkable videogame. Just as it pushes up against the edges of the medium and asks questions about what videogames can achieve, it equally looks inwards, towards the heart of the medium and to what we are most content with. It takes the tools and experiences most comfortably familiar to the sphere of videogames and recasts them as new, unfamiliar contrivances.

It is the most provocative videogame I have played this year.

Uniquely among videogames, Dear Esther, a creation of UK academic Dan Pinchbeck’s thechineseroom studio, demands only navigation and consideration from its player. The location is allegedly a Hebridean island, but it is also more and less than any sort of physical location, and is richly sketched with metaphor and verse. The regularly flexible toolset of the first-person videogame is dulled to include only movement, and movement only at a single, slow pace. A narrator frames the environment with words that dance heavily around a great personal tragedy, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes elegantly.

That there is nothing to do in Dear Esther is certainly its crowning achievement; not the polarising design choice that some have framed it as, but rather a necessary maneuver in dismantling videogames from their established excess and dilation. There is a stillness to Dear Esther that is violently forced upon the player by design, and the success of the game largely hinges on whether this stillness comes across as affected or integral. For those who have always liked their videogames to pause, to look, and to think, Dear Esther is electrifying.

Clearly, Dear Esther’s protagonist is its Hebridean island. This is true in a simple sense – the beautiful geography dominates the videogame to the point where there really is no other character – but there is also a double meaning here. The island is clearly an imagined, allegorical space that exists only insofar as Dear Esther’s unnamed narrator (the more obvious protagonist) exists. They are, for all narrative intents and purposes, one and the same. “I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island,” says the protagonist. It is easy to forget that Dear Esther, as the name would suggest, takes the form of a letter, or possibly several letters, and serves as a device of memory as much as anything as a result. To navigate Dear Esther’s island is to navigate its narrator’s memories and emotions, guiding through peaks, into deep recesses and wounds of rock and mind.

Dear Esther is a videogame that treats its environments like theatre. There is an impressive understanding of the drama of space here: small paths open onto vistas, tiny passageways open into underground waterfalls, and vision is obscured at just the right moments. Each of the four short sections of the game has an elegant grammar of space about it – what is placed in view of the player is always carefully arranged, with passageways and escarpments framing panoramas of far off landmarks, and light and shadow guiding vision.

Through a combination of equally impressive sound design and art, Dear Esther’s island has a rich sense of place as well. Yes, the island feels desolate and barren, details that could just as easily be conveyed by fiction as well as by design. But the island also feels cold and windy, the kind of British landscape that makes your eyes water and your nose run dry. The game’s music, composed by Jessica Curry, is simple but magnetic, helping the game draw a ring around the sense of place and the figurative narration.

Dear Esther

Dear Esther is the kind of videogame that feels alive, and possibly malevolent, possibly haunted, and not just in story. Subtle movements and uncanny objects play on your mind, with your expectations, and at certain points, everything becomes more visible and threatening. “I have become convinced I am not alone here,” says the narrator. This is the most effective form of ghost story, the kind that shows effects but never causes. Though Dear Esther is not a game of sensory manipulation like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I sometimes find myself questioning my senses while playing it. The objects of Dear Esther speak, but they do not communicate clearly. For that, it is terrifying.

Therefore, a lot of the impact of Dear Esther can be determined by the circumstances in which it is played. In this sense, it is hard not to think of Dear Esther as something like a short story; just as certain novels require a large sitting chair in the corner of a dusky room under a good lamp, Dear Esther requires a dark night and headphones. Such a still videogame does not hold well with distraction. It should also be played from start to finish in a single sitting (achievable in anywhere from 50 minutes to an hour and a half).

There is a force to Dear Esther that is difficult to capture in words. It is an aggrieved, pained videogame that is built into some of the most beautiful and artistic environmental design yet achieved. There is a semi-religious element to the game (the protagonist makes frequent reference to the story of Paul finding Jesus on the road to Damascus), but this only underlines the already present potency of Dear Esther. Perhaps the only misstep of the game is at its climax, with a brief moment of too much handholding, though again it seems a question of artistic intent rather than clumsy design.

“You are in a maze of twisty little passages,” is a line attributed to Will Crowther’s interactive fiction videogame from 1976, Adventure, but it could equally have come to be with Dear Esther instead. Through the years, the “twisty little passages” phrase has come to double for the textual components of interactive fiction (a genre that usually involves no imagery, only textual commands and feedback), but in a way that seemingly also refers to the genre’s obsession with creating space through poetic description. In Dear Esther, then, we can see a final fulfillment of these elements – a verbose narration that serves to play against and give meaning to the allegory-heavy twisty little passages in front of you.

“Do we have anything in music that really wipes everything out? That just cleans everything away?” This was the most famous question of the great American composer Morton Feldman, mentioned in a lecture he gave in the early 1980s. Feldman wrote classical music of epochal stillness and unfocussed rhythm, the kind that most classical institutions are still afraid to program today.

If it is a question that is still difficult to answer two decades on for music, for videogames, it is a question that we have not yet even really encountered. It is, after all, difficult to create something out of a series of endings and stops, something that pushes everything else outwards, towards a lack of animation, to be immoveable.

Yet with Dear Esther, it feels like we have at least opened up the possibility for softness, for slowness, and for stillness. It would be an overstatement to say Dear Esther just cleans everything away, but for videogames, it pushes towards the edges.

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  • 1
    John Reidy
    Posted March 6, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    looks like a very interesting game.
    Occasionally in some games – for example an RPG you go over a hill and see a very interesting view – obviously crafted by artists for an effect, but then immediately ignore it because you are attacked by monsters or in Mafia/GTA games gangsters….

  • 2
    SteveP
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed Dear Esther, and enjoyed your review. Some thoughts:

    “That there is nothing to do in Dear Esther is certainly its crowning achievement; not the polarising design choice that some have framed it as, but rather a necessary maneuver in dismantling videogames from their established excess and dilation.”

    There is a strong trend in many games for a “dumbing down” of the controls, for the inclusion of simple, cinematic quick time events where the player just has to push a single button etc, while the cinema carries the moment. The inclusion of interactive movie kind of sequences in contemporary video games where player input is minimal is very common, though not of course for the whole game, as is the case with Dear Esther.

    If there is any sense of “excess and dilation” in contemporary video games, it is that many of them substitute good gameplay, good level design and good story telling for amazing graphics and sound, “big” events (like explosions and action) and vigorous marketing. In a way, Dear Esther is some of this in concentrated form – it has an ambiguous, nebulous story, virtually no gameplay, but creates this amazing sense of place, space and atmosphere through stunning graphical textures, sound and thoughtful design. Unlike many other games, it isn’t wow graphics for the sake of it, but instead the wonderful textures and graphical elements, the sound and music all work to create the sense of space and place and atmosphere central to Dear Esther.

    To be honest, the story in Dear Esther is a little dissatisfying. It isn’t a game about story, it is a game about mood, atmosphere, space, essence. The final details of what is happening and has happened to the protagonist and the other characters is less important than the vibe created with the wisps of narration combined with the traverse of the island and its caves.

    I agree that having nothing to do and only being able to walk at a slow pace is the crowning achievement of dear esther, but i also think it is a polarising design choice. It is an achievement because it helps guide the thoughtful and open player into enjoying the amazing environment created. I could really feel a sense of walking along a beach or along a cliff path, or picking my way among the rocks, which would have been absent if movement was quicker and less realistic there were more actions to perform.

    However, many gamers will not be interested in this, and for that reason it is polarising. It is possible that perhaps a few additional actions might improve the game.

    1. Jump. I found it jarring at times to be blocked by small boulders or small hills, and felt overly guided along the correct paths.
    2. Pick/up move. It was nice to explore the world, but I found that at some points when I wanted to open a door, or peer in a cupboard, or pick up an item on the ground, that the immersion faltered, because I couldn’t do these things, and objects on the ground that were plot relevant sometimes just seemed painted on, rather than real objects.

    I didn’t find the game “terrifying” that seems too strong, maybe “eerie” is a better description. However, I did not notice any of the ghosts in the game. They were very subtle, easter eggs almost, and it was only in post-play reading/youtube that I found out about them. I did not realise it was a ghost story while playing it, instead it seemed like maybe a dream or a dying person’s delerium as they lie on the operating table. Maybe if I had actually seen the ghosts, that might have changed my perception a little.

  • 3
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    John – yes, the vista is a common technique in videogames. The Half-Life series does it particularly well, and usually lets you take in the environment, unlike the other examples you mention.

    SteveP – thanks for the really interesting comment. When I mentioned videogames ‘excess and dilation’ I was more referring to the general sort of bloat that many games feel the need to include these days. That is, achievement-led things like collectables, MMO-style levelling (even if it is well-hidden), palette-cleansing mini-games, etc. Fewer games seem willing to force a focus on a single strength. By removing almost all tools except interaction, I felt like Dear Esther was willing to isolate a single element of the game to the exclusion of all others.

    I understand what you mean about the lack of a jump button, or other basic interactions, but it was obviously a definite design decision not to include it. As long-term gamers, we understand the jump as a standard navigational technique, but to include a jump in Dear Esther would undermine the potency of the space itself – working against the island is as much a part of the game as anything. One of the crucial points for me about the game is how it is so clear that your agency is impinged upon. The usual interaction toolkit would have undermined that, I think.

    Interesting to hear about the ghosts. I have found that those who see ghosts find the game much scarier than those who haven’t.

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