Game of the Month: Dear Esther
Dear Esther is a surreal, somewhat eerie exploration game that forces the player to rely on their own eyes, ears, and brain to unravel the intentionally vague mysteries presented. By leveraging the concept of replayability, and by never holding the player’s hand, developers Robert Briscoe and Thechineseroom have delivered a deep, moving story that is as much or as little as the time put into it.
Dear Esther actually started life in 2008 as a Source mod, developed as an experiment to explore different methods of narratives in video games. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and a full version was eventually created, releasing in February of 2012.
The game takes place on a small, long-deserted island, which the player explores through a first-person perspective. As the player explores, certain areas trigger audio clips; these beautifully written snippets of narration read more like poetry than prose. The triggers, however, are somewhat randomized, and what you hear may be different from your next playthrough. The island itself is similarly flexible, with minor changes to the set-pieces on each passage through Dear Esther.
It’s important to note that observing your surroundings and listening to the narrator as you traverse the island is the absolute extent of interaction in this game. You cannot pick anything up, move anything, talk to anyone or use anything. Similarly, the path through the island is rather linear, with only a few deviations from the main trail, each one a quick dead-end. However, this linearity works well with the feeling and tone of Dear Esther; the player is drawn inexorably toward an aerial atop a distant hillside, visible through the majority of the game. Its blinking red light provides a focal point, a beacon to guide the journey.
If you have not played it yet, I highly recommend picking up Dear Esther, available through Steam for a very reasonable $9.99, and playing through it at least once before reading further. A single playthrough takes around 90 minutes, but of course could take longer or shorter depending on how you pace yourself through the game. There be spoilers ahead.
As you wander the stunning landscape of Dear Esther’s island, there are a few stories being told. The narrator, who is never named, discusses excerpts from a book of history and lore on the island along with musings about the author, painfully remembers a car accident and the loss of a woman named Esther, and recounts his own journey toward the beacon atop the aerial. The player experiences the island as well, occasionally seeing remnants of the narrator’s journey, cryptic symbols, and out-of-place objects, with no overt explanation of how or why he or she ended up there. Over top of these stories are references to the biblical story of Paul’s journey to Damascus, and his subsequent revelation and transformation. Each thread is interwoven, and the meaning of the overall experience is highly subjective. The official Steam forums are abuzz with theories, breakdowns, and discussions on the plot, symbolism, and themes of the game.
Let’s start with the most obvious thread of storytelling: the story the player experiences directly. The game begins on a jetty in front of a dilapidated lighthouse. There is no indication of how you got here, and no direct fourth-wall interaction (that is to say, a user interface-based hint or objective) to point the player in the right direction. Nothing but an ocean behind you, a clearly abandoned lighthouse in front, and in the distance, a single blinking red light. We’ve been in the game for less than a minute, but the game has already conveyed a lot of information to the player. Both the island setting and the state of the lighthouse convey a sense of loneliness and isolation. Furthermore, a lighthouse’s purpose is to make the land visible to those out in the sea, and this one is clearly non-functional, underscoring the feeling of separation from the rest of the world. The light atop the aerial is active, however, and seems out-of-place. Its contrast to our current setting conveys a hope that someone might be out there, or at the very least, answers might be found. This sort of subtle direction is outstanding, and while it’s not too far removed from a more traditional objective marker, it allows the player to feel like they’re deciding for themselves.
We move on now to the lighthouse, and here we discover we may not be alone on the island after all. Empty paint cans litter the floor, and we see the first of many cryptic symbols scrawled on the walls. These symbols and messages appear throughout the game, and reference things discussed in the narrative. We’ll get to their significance in that respect later, but for now, from the player’s perspective, the question they raise is “Who put these here?” In this manner, we gain an uneasy feeling that perhaps someone is watching us, or trying to tell us something important. These symbols also help to establish a sense of pacing throughout the game. In the beginning they are rare, but as the game progresses they begin to appear with greater frequency, often appearing frantically drawn and giving an atmosphere of urgency. There are sections of the game where they honestly made me feel extremely uneasy, particularly in a tight tunnel in the cave portion of the game, where the walls were covered in drawings and messages, like the padded cell of an obsessive madman; or the final ascent to the aerial, where the great scrawlings of religious passages literally show the way to your ultimate destination.
Something that struck me as interesting about the clues left about the island is that you need some outside knowledge to recognize what they are. There are electrical diagrams, molecular structures, cellular drawings, and bible verse all scattered about the island, and there is never an attempt to clarify. I thought this really showed the developer’s faith in the player to fill in the gaps, to reference outside knowledge or research if they wanted to dig deeper. Personally, I recognized the electrical diagrams from my days at auto repair school, and the molecular diagrams from high school chemistry. I felt that I needed to know more to fully understand, so I did a little research, and I felt rewarded by the further insight I was granted for doing so. The sense of satisfaction is important for games, we always want to be rewarded for our work, but most games subscribe to a more “real” task and reward structure, such as leveling up for defeating a certain number of enemies, or whatnot. Dear Esther eschews this Skinnerian formula, and both the task and sense of satisfaction comes from immersing myself further into the game. I was never asked to do research, and the game didn’t recognize that I did. However, when I took the initiative, my experience of the game changed, and my enjoyment grew.
The lighthouse also contains another example of how the player is expected to involve himself in the game without any prodding or direction, this time through attentiveness and a critical eye. If you were to look up to the highest level of the lighthouse, past the spiral of damaged stairs, you may glimpse a shadowy figure quickly retreat from the railing. It happens quickly, soundlessly, and it’s extremely easy to miss. A number of figures may appear throughout the game, often far in the distance or in the reflection of a puddle, and you can go through the entire game and miss every one. I certainly did the first time I played through. The game makes no effort to draw your attention to them, in fact quite the opposite. Once you see one, however, you’ll spend the rest of this playthrough, and possibly many others, hunting for them. Again, the game did not tell me to look for them, and has no idea that I’ve seen them. Just knowing they’re there has made my experience of the gameplay become richer; the mood of eerie, supernatural mystery deeper.
I’ve written close to a thousand words, and we’ve only spent a few minutes in the game. We looked around, walked into a building, looked at some drawings, entered another room, and looked up. But in that time, Dear Esther has shown you it’s bag of tricks, it’s style of gameplay. If you were paying attention carefully, it told you what to look for as you move through the rest of the game. Be we’ve only talked about what we see in Dear Esther, and what we hear is just as important.
Dear Esther’s narrative is given in disjointed, poetic, often incongruous chunks. They seem to express the thoughts of someone very similar to us, finding themselves on the island, telling us their story. It’s important to note that the narration is not describing your actions; if you’ve played the game, you know what I mean. There are times when the monologues sound like the internal thoughts of our avatar, but there are a number of instances where events he’s describing have clearly taken place in the past, or do not happen to us. His story mirrors ours though, and we hear about his experience of the part of the path we’re on. We also hear about his past, primarily the car wreck, and what he’s learned about the island’s history from a book he found.
The language in Dear Esther is outstanding. I like to pretend I’m a writer, so I do have a bit of a soft spot for well-constructed prose. It sets a tone of melancholic beauty throughout the game. The voice acting lends great believability, and infuses the already brilliant writing with soul and passion. Take this excerpt:
Those islands in the distance, I am sure, are nothing more than relics of
another time, sleeping giants, somnambulist gods laid down for a final
dreaming. I wash the sand from my lips and grip my wrist ever more
tightly, my shaking arms will not support my fading diaries.
Monologues are triggered by entering an area within the game. This method of delivering the narrative chunks is simple, but allows for both powerful imagery to be associated with the passage, and to give a slightly non-linear approach to the order in which the story is told. This latter part is enhanced greatly by the fact that you may not hear the same narration you heard on a previous playthrough, or might hear the next time you make this journey. The narration might draw your attention to an object or landscape feature, inform on something you saw before, or set up something you will see later.
The story actually told by the narration is multifaceted, and often seemingly contradictory. This was purposefully done, and gives the experience a real sense of mystery. What strikes me as most interesting, though, is the fact that the two major threads of the story, namely the island and the car accident, seem to have nothing to do with each other. Esther died in a car crash; I’m on an island. These things do not directly link in any way. The part that’s never spoken, the question that needs answering, is how these things are related. Our brains are made to find relation, to link the two disparate stories being told to us, and Dear Esther gives you enough to build on, but never enough to completely explain it. There are car parts, presumably from the car accident, washed up on the shore, even though we know the accident happened in England and there are no roads on the island. The painted glyphs show the molecular structure of alcohol, often paired with a drawing of a neuron, or an electrical diagram for an anti-lock brake system. Clear references to the car crash; but why? The player is asked to draw his own conclusions, and in this way, give his or her own meaning to the story, perhaps to be shared and discussed with others, or built upon with subsequent playthroughs. In this way, the game can be completed, often quickly and many times over, but never beaten in the conventional sense of the word as it applies to video games. The end-game, if you will, exists outside the confines of the software, and is being played on the forums and in the discussions of people who’re looking for meaning and sharing their opinions.
Upon completion of the game, you hear the whispering of a woman; “Come back.” Replay value is something most storytelling media do not have to address, but video games, with their inherent emphasis on the journey, often allow for variety with each separate experience. Dear Esther’s semi-randomized world and vague, intricate story work extremely well to encourage multiple playthroughs. While you may reread a book or watch a movie again to try to pick out details or further understand nuances, Dear Esther can (and will) deliver new information on the second, third, and fourth playthroughs, and beyond. I have no idea how many possibilities there are for each random event, and in my 5 playthroughs of the game, I’ve seen something new every time.
As with any game, I found things which I believe constitute flaws, and hurt the storytelling. However, I feel a lot of the problems with the game stem from the Source engine itself and the low-budget nature of the game, rather than sloppy work. Firstly, as I mentioned before, the game’s path is quite linear. I think it works for Dear Esther, and it’s brilliant the way it is, but a few more nooks and crannies to investigate or one or two alternate paths to take would greatly enhance the feeling of exploration in this game, already one of its strong suits. It would also expand on the replayability of the game, as it would be nice to make a few minor different choices. Secondly, the Source engine’s biggest limitation, in my opinion, is its restriction on the size of a level. While it’s certainly not as bad as, say, Portal 2, the loading screens are a bit jarring and take away from the game’s immersion. There is one notable exception, and that’s the transition between two parts of the cave chapter, when you fall into the pool and experience the underwater flashback. These loading screens are perfectly acceptable, and even artistically convey the loss of consciousness and the otherworldly disconnect of the scene. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, new level.” Instead I thought, “Holy crap I’ve struck my head on a rock and now I’m drowning.” Artistic workarounds for the limitations of the technology are a defining characteristic of great storytelling in video games. The last two criticisms I have are on the models used for the ghostly figures, which is probably nitpicking because they’re not seen for long or very often, but they did bother me, so I felt I should discuss it here. Most of the models are recycled HL2 models, which most people don’t recognize, and even if you did, you might not catch it here in Dear Esther. God is in the details, though, and this was a detail overlooked. This may have been a due to lack of art assets, or just laziness on the developer’s part, but I think it could have been an opportunity to convey more information. The other complaint is purely subjective, but in at least one of the areas where you see a ghostly figure, that figure is the Grim Reaper, Death himself. I think that’s a little heavy-handed, but at least it’s not prominently featured. This probably didn’t need to be so overt.
Overall, I think Dear Esther is a powerful example of how storytelling can be done within the context of video games. It effectively creates a tone, extends itself outside the confines of its programming, immerses the player in the story and world, and allows them to make the experience as rich or as direct as they’d like.
Later this week, I’ll post a critical analysis of what I think Dear Esther means, and why. We can discuss the story further then. For now, I’d love to hear your opinions on the style and gameplay of Dear Esther, and why it worked or didn’t work for you. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.