Dear-Esther feature

Dear Esther

May 12, 2012

Eric—

Let’s begin by trying to establish what Dear Esther is, and then what it’s trying to do.

Originally released as a free-to-download game developed by a grant-funded university research project, Dear Esther was subsequently rebuilt, polished, and sold to a wider audience. Which is how we came to it—as a lauded example of a video game oddity: a game focused entirely on narrative to the near-exclusion of all other gaming tropes.

The game provides the player with a three-dimensional world to explore. A Hebridean island, apparently unpopulated, with sparsely scattered signs of past habitation. Walking is the only thing you can do in the game. There is nothing to pick up, no way to interact with your environment, and nothing to accomplish aside from moving forward—through the space and, as a result, through the story. You can’t even jump.

It’s difficult, when experiencing something new like this, not to immediately reach for related experiences in order to understand it. We come to Dear Esther as to a game—it’s certainly has the trappings of game—but what kind of game is it? (Whether it’s a game at all is something we’ll likely inevitably come to, but I hope when we do we can approach it obliquely, since the question posed head-on feels about as interesting a starting place as “…is it art?”) We come to it as gamers, too. But trying to take past gaming experience and apply it to Dear Esther felt awkward right from the get-go.

Given that the player has no controls (nor even, perhaps, hands?) for interaction, nor the ability to run instead of walk, it seemed unlikely that anything threatening was going to appear on the journey. This clearly wasn’t going to a twitch-reflex sort of game. The island setting and the abstruse narration reminded me a little of Myst, and adventure games in general, so at first I found myself keenly observing all of the little visual details—the names on the books in the first building, the arcane paint marks on the walls and rock faces, etc. But adventure games eventually test you on your collecting skills, forcing you to solve puzzles with the clues or objects you’ve managed to find. And again, this clearly wasn’t going to be a game that challenged the player in that way. I thought also of games of exploration, open worlds created primarily to be explored, the reward being in successfully finding some nook or cranny that contained treasure (in the literal or abstract sense). But continually my attempts to walk the less beaten path when offered the choice only resulted in a new vista (all beautiful, by the way). There was no indication that I would be rewarded for poking around in the darker corners; the bulk of the narrative was in the large set-piece designs and triggered narration.

In the end it felt like an exercise in atmosphere. And I think it executed on this tremendously well. Everything—from the foliage to the sound design to the sky to the way that the landscape kept unfolding perfectly, with each new view somehow containing detail in the foreground and the distance—everything said: “you are by the sea, on an island. And it was put here for you to walk it.” The act of walking is another thing I hope we can tackle. Walking as meditation, walking as on the Road to Damascus (a repeated reference in the game), walking as contemplative, walking as a part of the practice of landscape art.

There is an awful lot we can get into in regard to the story Dear Esther presents, but lets see if we can finish pinning down the formal elements first.

What were your first impressions? How did you decide how to ‘play’ the game?►

Nick—

I’m not quite sure of the scope of writing that’s been done already, in the world, on the history of games in general and on video games specifically so I might be walking into familiar territory, but for what it’s worth  it’s new territory for me. All I could think while I enjoyed my time with Dear Esther was how this wasn’t a game in any of the ways that I had ever considered gaming, but also how underwhelming that reaction was. I’m biased based on the reviews I’d read prior to logging in, which all seemed to frame the experience as something unique and unfamiliar to the word of video games. So (unfortunate self-revelation) I was bracing for tedious boredom. I think there is an overwhelmingly facile and reductive tendency to relate all virtual experiences to games – to entertainment and play – and then to think of them at best as a form of leisure and relaxation and at worst as an irrelevant waste of time. Why do we do this?

The history of games aside, video games are such an amazing nexus of art, story-telling, puzzle, problem, physicality (digital [finger] physicality), etc., and I don’t really want to spend too much time thinking this particular aspect of Dear Esther through, but considering this rich convergence of human activity that comes together in video games it was very easy for me to let go of the fact that Dear Esther asks little more of me than to passively experience an artful series of landscapes and a beautiful, cryptic story.

While the category seems trite to argue over, the form of the experience itself is full of interesting complications. How much can we say about the relationship of Dear Esther to the whole history of Landscape Art, for example, which has been a focus of us humans since our species first stood up and started representing our experience of the world? I could spend hours staring at a Turner or a Constable or a Cezanne and not once feel any resentment towards the artist for robbing me of time with which I ought to be out sitting under a tree enjoying the sunshine. Yet every time I catch myself hours into a sublime gaming experience involving a detailed rendering of the “real world” I struggle with this guilt at having just passed up the opportunity to go outside and stare dumbfounded at an actual cloud. And that’s stupid. Dear Esther is a great example of what we might be in for in the coming years of gaming -  the chance to have very moving and real experiences of nature that have nothing to do with being in nature.  Dear Esther, like Skyrim, reminds me that nature is already just another invention of ours.

I like Werner Herzog’s gentle jab at nature when he calls it a base and violent thing, full of fornication and asphyxiation and screams of agony. I also think Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire, hit nature-loving humans on the head when he advocated for America’s National Parks (National Parking Lots) be protected by stopping the paving of roads into them,  preventing access to any but the most physically fit and intrepid of people. Nature, rather than a luxury to drive up to, park in, shit in, take pictures in, whatever, is something wholly alien and apart from who we are. Dear Esther does a great job and convincing me that, at least for the time being, this place that it has put me in is the best place to be. Why? I’m not entirely sure (and I say this having watched every episode of Lost, resisting the incredible apathetic weight I bear for strangers stranded on islands searching for clues beneath ominous radio towers, which suggests there is no why worth waiting for)  For me, the thing about Dear Esther isn’t its unique form or game play, it’s the challenge of working through whether or not playing it constitutes some kind of abhorrent perversion of my relationship with the natural world or whether it’s actually one of the most appropriate, gratifying, and satiating experience I can possible hope to have in it.►

Eric—

When I was reading your response, Nick, another game project came to mind—the University of Southern California’s plan to turn Thoreau’s Walden into a game. They describe their intentions:

“Walden, a game posits a new genre of play, in which reflection and insight play an important role in the player experience. While traveling the virtual world of Walden, the player applies themselves to both daily task of maintaining the basic aspects of life at Walden Pond, as well as having the opportunity to focus on the deeper meaning behind events that transpire in the world. By attending to these events, the player is able to gain insight into the natural world, and into connections that permeate the experience of life at Walden.”

Walden was an important book to me, as a city-born person trying to explore connections to the wilderness. And as much as I enjoy and value videogames, first reading about this proposed game left me shaking my head. How can we experience Walden, ‘living deliberately’, through a medium that seems to be at the vanguard of our alienation from the natural world?

But eventually I came to some of the same questions you’re asking.  Most fundamentally, is there anything inherent to games that make them ill-suited to dealing with or mediating the natural world? Why do books and, as you say, paintings, get a free pass in this regard? I don’t have a good answer at the moment.

Skyrim’s come up already, as a game that invokes the wilderness. Despite its sprawling high-fantasy pretensions, its narrative emptiness coupled with its immense and intricately detailed environments have led some to sardonically refer to it as a hiking simulator. I think that’s a fair and not altogether negative judgment. The sort of attention to natural detail in that game (and its predecessor) is remarkable. The way a stream undercuts the rocks at its edge, the way that small clouds collect against mountain ranges and slip into the valleys, the way that plants are rendered in enough detail to be recognisable as distinct real-world species. I’ve never played anything that felt visually closer to my own experiences of hiking. Or that nearly compelled me to pull out a field guide to flora.

Dear Esther is a bit of a different beast, though. As carefully as it composes the environment of the island—in sight and in sound—there is little ‘open’ about it. You can’t stray from the paths to climb a hill. Or run. Or jump. John Walker, in his review, noted the strangeness of even the walking that the game limits you to—that you don’t so much walk in a bobbing motion as much as smoothly glide over flat surfaces. I’m not actually sure that the game wants us to lose ourselves in the realism it’s created.

We’ve been avoiding the game’s story so far (perhaps that’s telling of our opinions of it), but I wonder if one of its core conceits—that the character you’re ostensibly controlling is dead or near-death—doesn’t help to explain (excuse?) this odd sort of disconnection from the environment that the game enforces. The ‘gliding’, to me, takes on a ghostly quality, then. The linearity suggests an incontrovertible path towards a finality, and the inability to interact with anything in the game, only passively experience it, adds to the dream-like (frustrating) quality of the movement.

The suggestion is, I suppose, that the island is a metaphor, or a sort of limbo. And perhaps not a natural world so much as, exactly as you say, Nick, a human creation.

Did either of your care enough to try to decode and reassemble the fragmented story that the game narrates? Or was it, in its confusion, better left to float alongside you, hinting and colouring certain aspects of the island (and vice-versa)?►

Mike— 

Well, as the titular “musician” walking into the bar/blog (though I think all present company can make good claim to that title), I thought I ought to enter the conversation on an auditory note — with a tip of the hat to the soundscore by composer Jessica Curry, which by and large I found did a very effective job of adding colour and emotional depth to the experience, without filling in too much of the gaps and “whitespace” we’re asked to populate with our own imagination during our time on the island. Nick and Eric, I’d be curious to know if you felt about the musical trappings, in context of your mutual musings on game-as-nature-simulator/analogue — it is the score, after all, that probably most directly frames our experience as something belonging to a trope of entertainment.

Curry’s orchestrations aside, we’re mostly left to the interjections of the narrator, the cries of some gulls, a bit of surf… the broader soundstage is sparse, as underpopulated as our environs. There’s a moment where, by edging to the the lip of a particularly bottomless-seeming pit, one can awaken a spectral chorus of banshees — memories of dead shepherds or ambulance sirens? — but the game world is otherwise stubbornly sonically oblivious to our interventions, not deviating in this respect from the common intransigence to  manipulation you’ve both already noted.

For an interesting counterpoint, consider Michael McBride’s engaging documentation of his soundwalk through City 17. At the risk of stating the obvious, our relationship to acoustic ecology has a great deal of influence on place-making — Dear Esther seems to want to ensure we remain placeless for the most part throughout.

Perhaps the moment that most directly calls an exception to this maxim is the underwater-hospital-gurney-on-a-motorway sequence. I found this sudden forced immersion into the structured narrative kind of exhilarating, which made me wonder, in retrospect — Can I truly have claimed to enjoy the ennui and ambivalence of this all? For that matter, is this sudden infusion of “traditional” narrative stimuli only rendered effective in situ within an otherwise largely ambiguous game sandwich?

Steam’s ‘achievements’ evidence one dominant arc of game development at present:  The layering of layers upon layers, with the gamer compelled to enter through the game only to reemerge and engage, relate, and compete on the meta-terrain beyond. Dear Esther, meanwhile, perhaps sketches us another possible arc — one in which the game is meticulously scraped of it’s mechanics and rarefied, to be left out on the corner for the curious to populate, like kids occupying a climbing tree, cave, or a pillow fort.

While I certainly didn’t regret my dabbling in this brave new world of game-less existential gaming, I feel I can’t close out without having called-out something I haven’t heard either of you mention yet (it’s really serious) — those fleeting glimpses of a ghostly, half-glimpsed form (Esther, never shake thy gory locks at me!) that are sprinkled throughout the experience. I counted one in the lighthouse, once in the mouth of the cave across from the outdoor chasm, and another on an outrcrop above the beach shortly before the final ascent. These ‘Close Encounters’ moments were a little much, for my taste; did anyone else notice these and/or was bothered by them? ►

Eric—

The chain link fence. That’s the piece of sound-design that I found most affecting. This comes near the game’s climax, at the top of the highest hill when you finally reach the ever-visible radio tower. The wind is presumably whipping up there, and as you circle around the caged tower the fence rattles. Because your character seemingly can’t be buffeted, and there are very few visual indications, the sound effect alone conveys both the calamitous weather and the fact that you have reached end.

That moment is indicative of the soundscape of the entire game. As you say, Mike, appropriately sparse. The orchestration wells at surprising moments in your walk, leading you to anticipate some impending event, but most often it turns out to have been an indication of nothing. When the music falls away, the silence is appreciably richer. A lone gull, the waves breaking, wind whistling, caves dripping… I can recall only a dozen sound effects from the game, and at least half of those may be false memories. In all, the sound seemed decidedly cinematic, but more specifically akin to the carefully spare sound of, say, a Werner Herzog documentary. As if the strings were occasionally present to remind you that the game is a constructed narrative, but then the overwhelming quietness inevitably reasserted itself because that particular narrative was one about landscape and its subtle noises.

This goes to your points about the hospital gurney and the fleeting glimpses of a shadowed figure. They too punctuated an experience that otherwise enjoyed a languorous pace and only very abstract connection between the island and the meta-narrative of the car crash. Like the best ghost stories, where the apparition’s presence is only hinted at by the creaking of floorboards or the rustling of drapes, and rarely if ever through outright manifestation, Dear Esther used these bits of narrative intrusion as counterpoint to its aesthetic.

Disappointingly, I saw the distant figure only once, on the outcrop above the beach, despite having heard about it in advance of playing and been keenly looking. It was wonderfully, frustratingly dreamlike in execution. Unmistakable as a figure, just too far away to really make out, and I knew even before climbing the little hill that would bring me closer to it that as soon as I did, as soon as the tall grass obstructed my view, that figure would disappear. Sure enough.

The gurney was actually the set piece that felt like ‘a little much’, a little too unsubtle. To plunge into the cave’s watery pit and suddenly find oneself in a sub-aquatic highway was shocking and beautiful. But the gurney, sitting in the middle of the road, was unnecessary—even the thin narration to that point was enough for us to know where we were: at the site of the accident. Did either of you try to swim towards either of the overpasses that bounded this area? I didn’t. I lingered and then swam straight back up to the surface. I worried about inevitably finding the invisible walls that must have existed in that space and in so doing killing the illusion.

Having mostly lauded every atmosphere-creating decision that this game made, I feel something should be said more directly about the narrative. I think that we have all three avoided engaging with its specifics thus far speaks volumes. Can I speak on behalf of us when I say, “I don’t care” ?

If there was a mystery meant to be solved, of who played what role in the accident, who the voice of the narrator was, whose body (or perhaps spirit) we, the player, was inhabiting, or the significance of the graffiti that covered the island’s rock faces, then the looseness of the whole experience conspired against me putting much effort into untangling it. And I think that’s a shame. It’s not that the lack of narrative clarity was in itself unsatisfying so much as that—despite the sparseness we keep referring to—the story felt cluttered. Were we meant to decode the glow-paint diagrams? Did the exposited history of this Hebridean island link in any real way with our story, or was it exclusively a parable? (Or a parable on top of another parable, taking into account the persistent references to the road to Damascus)

When I finished the game, I left it feeling as if there were two divergent impulses at work in creating it, and it was in the tension between the two that created disappointment. On one hand there was the experience of walking the island, hearing the disjointed story of the accident, finding the beautifully subtle overlaps in the two worlds such as the odd bits of rusted car parts thinly spread over the terrain. On the other hand there was a part of Dear Esther that wanted to be more of a game, littering the island with clues in the form of objects and writings, daring you to get out a notebook and try to follow along.

The game’s end resolved nothing save perhaps for the journey itself, and was a fitting enough denouement to that former experience. But the expectations created by the more intricate mystery—that latter experience—promised a conclusion with equal complexity. And nothing of the sort was offered.►

Nick—

It’s been about four months since I last played Dear Esther and I’m taking stock of what I remember most strikingly and of what I now have to remind myself was there and therefore in need of some consideration. The list feels unusual, like a reversal of expectations. For example, I need to say that the music and the narration were completely unnecessary. You’ve both put them on table as worthy of discussion and it seems shortsighted to blow them off. But that’s what I’m going to do. Both were carefully crafted and artfully choreographed, but ultimately overbearing, pointing too urgently at a disjointed and cliché-ridden plot that interfered with the game’s more enduring, subtle strength – merely being there in the passive, half-real, and ghostly vestige of our character.

I’m saying ‘merely’ not because it implies a lack of other things worth taking away, as if it was just barely enough to make the experience meaningful or enjoyable, but ‘merely’ because you are left feeling unclear about how and why it is that you are there exactly.

Mike hit it on the head when he called out the soundtrack as being an entertainment trope, which raised suspicion about how we were ultimately supposed to read the experience – as a game, as cinema, as story, etc.

The narration gives the game a ‘too easy to read’ quality. Because it isn’t just a story, because it’s a story generated by playing through an environment, Dear Esther becomes a puzzle – something to pay attention to, to try and figure out, something to anticipate and react to. But honestly, I’ve forgotten all but a loose string of plot points and the timbre of Nigel Carrington’s voice, which I remember most fondly as glottal, environmental detail. And it’s here that I find most of the project’s redemptive qualities. The peripheral sound design is stunning. The careful drifting in and out of the ambient white noise and the overwhelmingly lonely the alienating effect this has while you walk across the island was where I felt most thoroughly engaged. This is what provoked my earlier reaction that being in Dear Esther could be as meaningful and satisfying as being in the actual world ever is, maybe even more so.

I might be flogging a dead idea here, or at least swinging it around too clumsily to sound convincing by wanting or expecting Dear Esther to validate my assumption that our constructs and representations of the world are usually more seductive and desirable than the world itself is, and maybe it really is that I only wanted to play Walden: the video game and have been unfairly expecting a similar kind of performance from Dear Esther, but in wanting a different relationship with the game’s major themes of mourning and absence, loss, death, regret, and to have those themes play out in a more expansive way, I’ll similarly suggest there are two counterproductive aspects at work –The story as a story and the environment as a thing you interact with it.

Ultimately it’s the sensation of floating that you previously described, Eric, which seems to carry most of the game’s residual weight for me. Your effortless movement over the island is an appreciable approximation to unconscious meandering – especially the kind of real-world meandering that lends itself to impulsively, unknowingly confining one’s self to a narrow and delimited path when there isn’t really any reason you ought to. The kind of walking that in doing so frees up a surprising quantity of head space. The kind of meandering that I deeply love, which occasionally allows for very satisfying meditations on life’s larger and more im/oppressive experiences: Love, loss, absence, death, regret.

Even with the occasional hang-ups in all those awkward rock heaps and impossible dead ends it is the penitent and ghost-like motion towards and away from each compositional vista and all the detail laid out at your feet that come closest to creating space for that particular frame of mind. However I seem to try, I still feel stuck relating this experience most directly to Landscape Art. I’ll try and be more specific by offering a comparison with the UK artist Richard Long.

Long goes on walks and along the way he usually creates ne paths for other people to follow and then documents, reorders, and represents these experiences in his studio afterwards. He seems obsessed with trying to understand why we find this activity as pleasurable and compelling as we do. I think one of the reasons why his art is considered ‘good art’ is that if you’re open to it, it will supply you with all the essential qualities you’re likely to experience while walking without the actual physical or environmental discomforts of walking (because it’s raining today and my back is sore from spending too much time sitting at my computer walking around an empty island and so, meh). That sounds incriminating, sure. It’s a lazy and sentimental attitude towards one’s body and the world around it. But it is also an alluring and legitimately satisfying one. We’re all here right now, after all, doing the same thing. It’s a way of being there without actually being there, a condition we both literally and allegorically step into when we play Dear Esther. The only time your movement feels embodied in a real way is through death (falling from the cliffs or drowning in the water), which the game doesn’t really let you do, but instead hints through the sudden emergence of a heart beat that, while the threshold is effectively the same, life and death are uncomfortably reversed.

Dear Esther came close to extracting itself from gameness when all it offered was the opportunity to glide forward, tickled and nudged by visual and aural cues and free of the tedium of need to have something to do or something to figure out. I’ll probably never play it again, but that’s ok. Because the most enduring and haunting quality of Dear Esther is its lingering presence. With a minimal amount of effort I can suspend my disbelief just enough to let the memory of that particular walk feel as real as any other walk I’ve ever been on and that easy proximity to reality feels like a solid triumph for a piece of art posing awkwardly and resentfully as a video game.►

Mike—

I have to say I think you’ve both kind of nailed it when you make your points about the “penitent and ghost-like” walk and the headspace it engenders, and how Dear Esther ends up not being quite content to let that stand as the experience. There’s something about that meandering that pushes the narrative story-stuff around to make room for our thoughts to flow in. And, to your points, it feels like having thus primed your imagination, and having set things promisingly in motion, ultimately it’s the game that insists on being let back into that space, and tries to wrest control of the narrative back from us. It’s unfortunate, because although I don’t think I minded the soundtrack as much as either of you did, I do end up feeling like I’m partaking in something that feels unnecessarily like cinema. I don’t think I have more to add, and will sneak off the stage with just this one paragraph — but yes, while Dear Esther doesn’t deliver on that idealized bill of goods, neither can I say I regret having taken the opportunity to amble along her rocky shores.►

Eric—

I find Richard Long’s landscape art a very useful parallel to this game. His documentation allowed for the possibility that others could follow in his footsteps—in reality or, more likely, in their mind’s eye. Viewers of his art were able to recreate his experience in some way. And Dear Esther is very much concerned with recreating an experience.

Nick, I agree that it’s the act of walking that is the core experience of this game. Not piecing together the narrative puzzle, nor the steady progression to an end. But I find it problematic to think of it as meandering—the game’s path is far too constricted. The authors of Dear Esther want us to have a particular experience, and excepting the randomized nature of the narration (itself of little interest to any of the three of us), we did. We all experienced the same thing.

The allegory the game flogs—the road to Damascus—is, in its way, linear too. A single path for Paul the Apostle to head down, a revelation incited along the way, and eventually a conversion that, in a sense, liberated him from the law of the profane. A conversion experience that could be followed by others coming to the faith.

When I think of walking in a meandering fashion, particularly in the style of the flâneur, I think of stumbling across things, perhaps even walking in a deliberately random fashion. I think of straying from the path, which Dear Esther consistently bars you from ever doing. If anything, the game experience is more akin to a Disneyland ride: an even pace, on rails, prescribed events tripped along the way. The ghostly silhouette appearing just as you round this corner.

We have no idea what approach will be taken with this Walden: The Video Game. But crucially, it will have to choose between being either an open environment wherein the player will be encouraged to explore at will, or a theme park that offers parcels of Thoreau’s accounts to be reenacted. The former would be an encouragement to form one’s own insights, somehow prompted by the lay of the ‘natural’ game environment; the latter would obviously be something quite different, perhaps closer to a film adaption of the book, interested in telling the story of Walden.

But here’s an odd thought. Let’s say that we didn’t all experience the same thing in Dear Esther, at least insofar as the act of walking for hours did allow for personal meditation to gestate a little, until each triggered imposition of the game’s narrative (in that sense, the regular intrusion of the narrator’s voice really was an intrusion). What would we have to say about this game if we could have played it with the voice turned off? Just walked for two hours, with the sounds of waves crashing at our side and the shadows of seagulls darkening our path? Could we have done that for hours?

 RPS’s Alec Meer wrote: “Dear Esther is, in a very real sense, boring. It is supposed to be. Lonely tedium, that slow, slow walk through a stark land, leads to subconscious introspection. Ever walked along an empty beach at night? Sat alone on a hillside on a cold winter morning? Where did your mind go? Wherever it was, that’s where Dear Esther can take it. If you let it.”

 The problem is that Dear Esther didn’t, in fact, let us.

And I wish it had.

However, that we will each, for a long while, remember the world of this Hebridean island speaks to a certain success. I have a folder full of snapshots from my journey—the best way I found of interacting with it. And we have, weeks and months later, found ourselves able to recall the circuitous path we walked, the rich aural details (including the sound of the narrator’s voice, at this point abstracted from its purple prose), and found those memories to be perhaps as real as memories of real hikes we’ve taken.

Dear Esther hints at something tantalizingly different: a computer game that lulls rather than challenges, and that wants to make you feel rather than react. It may have been an ungainly step in that direction, but I leave it with a new anticipation for the next game to try this daring trick. █

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  1. [...] mountain ranges, and watching grass spread across irrigated land.” I was trying to paraphrase our conversation on Dear Esther to my mother-in-law the other day, and after doing my best to describe the game’s beautiful and [...]

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