“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 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.