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On Ruining Dear Esther

Posted by Mat on 19th March, 2012

This piece is courtesy of Tommy Rousse; over the course of this article he will ruthlessly spoil Dear Esther, certainly for those who have not experienced it, and in all possibility for some who have.  

“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 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 in the present tense, 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. 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, among many overlapping and often contradictory subplots.  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 hands.  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 back.  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 comes up and I know that it’s over.

 *                      *                      *

And so 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, or simply a more strongly motivated beginning, so the user could feel confident of his or her role in the proceedings despite having little precedent in play experience.  The ending confounded me.  While I perfectly understand the thematic resonances enabled by repeating “come back” in a game like Dear Esther, what the developers failed to realize is that was the one song which provided any sort of feedback, an audio cue that clearly signaled resurrection in the player’s limited mechanical vocabulary.  Meanwhile, I was forced to stare into a completely black screen, wondering if the game had crashed at a particularly unfortunate moment.

I recognize this position; in elementary school, I had a teacher who insisted that we not end our juvenile stories with “the End.”  It made sense to me; after all, you could see there simply isn’t any more left—only an idiot would need to be told there was nothing left to read.  In the novel, a form where similar narrative ambitions are developed, the rightward stack of pages represents a finite continue of the tale, 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 interpretable 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 campaign.  Thus, instead of spending that quiet moment pondering the meaning of the narrative, I sat in uncertainty and doubt, fearing from the life of my laptop’s video card.  It was a pity; Dear Esther certainly gives one a lot to think about.

Tommy Rousse wants to dual-class in lawyer and games scholar when he grows up.  Right now he’s studying Games Analysis at IT-University of Copenhagen.  He writes at ludist.com

2 Responses to “On Ruining Dear Esther”

  1. […] This critical essay originally appeared at Oh No! Video Games! […]

  2. Craftsman says:

    I must admit I was a little hesitant to read this article after having read the title, finding it highly misleading now that I’ve finished reading. I was worried that this would be a – look how my opposing play style results in a ridiculous experience (e.g. throwing boxes in a Half-Life 2 interactive cutscene). Perhaps it’s a side effect of having read about griefing in Minecraft and MMORPGs a lot lately.

    By ruining you, (thank goodness) given your critique, mean how the developers ruined it for themselves. This is, given the nature of this well written commentary, a fair point to make.

    The point you make about the interpretation and construction between audience and creator is very strong, and in my own studies about games and poetry it’s a very important concept. I’m researching exactly that potential that games have, and want to look at rhetoric devices used in poetry, since it’s a medium particularly characterized by its evocative qualities that often afford (stimulate) the interactivity pointed at in the American Amusement Machine Association v. Kendrick case. I aim to find ways of applying this knowledge and translating it to games. The potential of this interactivity, these beautiful moments, is a way of looking at games that deserves a lot more attention.

    And actually one doesn’t have to look that far to find theoretical ontological backing, should one have that desire (I must admit my desire to “generally define, categorise” died somewhere along the way, a long time ago). Wittgenstein may have a loud voice, but when looking at games from the perspectives of both Caillois as well as Huizinga (the concept of Mimicry/Mimesis) there is a lot of room for games like Dear Esther.

    To counter some of your critique, firstly, If I recall correctly I experienced a change of pace when the game drew closer to its end. Literally; my walking speed slowed down, but that might have been my strong engagement (should check on that). Secondly, your point about the confusing scene selection is a typical case of a game breaking conventions. I don’t think that many games have this option, although I remember someone writing about an older game that did (Little Big Adventure 2?). I do think that they could have gone a step further in this scene selection though, why “lock” the chapters?

    Aside from the explicit language that popped into your head when ending the game, I must admit I had a similar experience. I even went to look at let’s play’s and scrolled to the end to see if my game didn’t crash at that very moment. Although I’m not sure if I would have done so if I didn’t experience some bugs earlier in the game (I had to re-install the game, update drivers, restart the game a couple of times because it didn’t load the main menu etc, so not a flawless experience at all).

    All in all a constructive and well put critique, I guess it goes for your writing but even more so for Dear Esther, more of this!

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