I remember first hearing about Dear Esther a while back, during one of those interminable “games as art” discussions. It was held up as an example of using one particular genre of gaming (the first-person shooter, in this case Half-Life 2) as an interesting means of storytelling.
Half-Life 2 itself is, of course, well-known for integrating storytelling and gameplay together, but Dear Esther set out to be something altogether different.
Designer Dan Pinchbeck describes it as a “multimodal, environmental storytelling experiment” which “presents a sparse environment with no embedded agents, relying purely on the player’s engagement with and interpretation of a narrative delivered through semi-randomised audio fragments”. (source)
That’s a very dry description of what this mod is doing, but it’s an accurate one.
Dear Esther places the unnamed player on a seemingly-deserted island, starting on a jetty facing an abandoned house. The beautifully-delivered narration begins immediately, reading from a letter to the titular Esther and gradually developing as the player passes around the island.
The interesting thing about the story is that there are several threads running at once, and the randomised delivery of the audio cues throughout means that after a while, they all begin to blur together until it’s not clear where one story ends and the other begins.
Pinchbeck notes that “two plots develop simultaneously: the avatar’s visit to the island following the historical record of a 17th century cartographer, and repressed memories of a car accident”.
The way these plots intertwine and seem to share themes and ideas in common, as well as wildly disparate elements too, mean that, in Pinchbeck’s words, “a closed reading, or understanding, of the events is impossible to ever reach.”
In this sense, Dear Esther is a dream come true for people who enjoy finding their own interpretations of games. The mod reminded me a lot of Flower, if not in execution then certainly in atmosphere.
Flower makes very little of its story (if indeed there is one) explicit and is very open to wildly different interpretations.
One could take it literally or metaphorically – and it is the same with Dear Esther. The game raises unspoken questions about whether or not the island you are walking around is actually real, who the mysterious characters the narrator refers to really are and, of course, who Esther actually is.
Pinchbeck himself was surprised at the positive response to his deliberately open narrative, noting that “the notion of an unfolding mystery that is never solved actually appeals to [players]” and that “the atmosphere and drive to find out more about the story is enough of a pull to get them all the way through the experience”.
It’s true. Dear Esther presents an intriguing mystery that makes it clear from the outset that there are no specific answers, yet there is a clear “goal” for the player to attain.
This was achieved through use of the environment combined with the spoken narrative. Although the environment of the game is very “open-plan”, being based on an island, at no point did it become difficult to determine where to go next, as there was always something that “looked interesting” over the next ridge.
As the narrative progresses, a huge aerial in the middle of the island becomes visible with a large flashing red light, and the fact that this is almost constantly visible gives the player some indication of 1) where they are going and 2) how much longer they have to go.
Music is also used very effectively throughout. Haunting piano and string themes drift eerily over the speakers as the narrator slowly speaks his lines.
As the story builds to something of a climax towards its “conclusion” (for want of a better word) the music becomes thicker, more intense, and with more mysterious, unidentifiable noises creeping into it. It gives a sense of progression in a game which leaves more questions unanswered than answered at the end.
There’s certainly no denying that Dear Esther, like Flower, is an experience that will make you feel something. That “something” will be different to different people, as Pinchbeck notes that:
“…we have been surprised how many players report being scared. Several others describe the experience as eerie, moving and very sad. These last two are emotions that normally fall beyond the affective range of games, especially first-person games.”
Lewis Denby, writing on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, had plenty to say on this subject, and it’s well worth reading his excellent article. One particularly interesting point he had to mention was:
“I love my Marios and what-have-you as much as the next person, but I still feel games have an incredible untapped potential for negative emotions. Some have tried – Braid stands out for having a bloody good go – but we’re still a little too comfortable with enjoying everything we play. Any stretches of sadness in this medium tend to be restricted to self-indulgence or vapid tearjerker fare, and even they invariably make way for happy endings and bunny fluff.”
Dear Esther, he says, is noteworthy for taking players into uncomfortable emotional territory and refusing to give in throughout. The whole experience is infused with a kind of melancholy throughout, and the final moments of the story as it comes to a close without any real “resolution” are heartbreaking.
All this in a barren, empty landscape with no human interaction, no speech besides that of the anonymous narrator, no guns, no white-haired pretty boys, no anime cutscenes – and yet somehow, deprived of all that exterior fluff, Dear Esther manages to present an intriguing story which has compelled more than a few people to play it through several times and develop their own interpretations further – and all this using an engine which is renowned for its fast-action run-and-gun FPS gameplay.
It just goes to show what a little bit of creativity can achieve.
Dear Esther can be downloaded here.
Pinchbeck’s notes on the mod can be read here.