This one is going to start a little bit differently. There was a gap in my writing for about half a year because of “other important things” and I don’t like it. It’s still very important to me and it’s unfortunate that I was not able to find the time. To that one gentoo penguin out there being a loyal reader all this time – I’m sorry, man, I really am. A lot of things happened for games during that time and even though I did not write about it, I usually was at the right time and in the right place to see these new developments. There’s a stack of several titles I want to go through and I hope to make up for this time and write about them. And so I would like to tell you about one of these now, but let me preface this with a few things not directly related to this particular game. I believe it’s important.
In the world of video games, experiments are not that common. Most of the time, it’s even hard to describe what a “game experiment” would be. Is it just a science project? Story telling? Is it still a game (and what constitutes a game, really?), and if it is, is it playable? Do you just enjoy it or are you supposed to shut up and learn? The psychological “frame” of a game is usually connected to just having fun while performing mindless zombie shooting. There are tons of people out there who love to play games. They will spend a lot of time doing this and pay a lot of money (collectively) to maintain access to that leisure. This means that it’s tempting to set up a company, scan your market and then produce games tailored for that market, cashing a lot of money in the process. And indeed, gaming world mostly works like that. Gamers are accustomed to that. To games that look like games, behave like games, sound like games and don’t try to be something else. Such an environment discourages experimentation.
But game world has also its own place in the art department. This stuff is just too connected to things we perceive as art – story, music, graphic, picture – to be left behind. This means that this market is also ready to mature and branch out and evolve into hundreds of paths. Some of these paths would result in casual, crappy games, made for money. An equivalent of a Harlequin story or a Justin Bieber song. There will be games of “the middle”, not that bad, but also not very creative or mind-provoking. Let’s call them the “Avatars”. There will be those one-man-army indie jewels, that surprise and astonish, “Discworld” novels, if you will. And finally, there will be a path for those who attempt to push the envelope even further, creating things that will be very hard to categorize, understand and even play.
For a long time, we’ve seen games of the “middle”. Then, something happened. Suits and ties figured out that this silly “game” thing can hatch them a gold egg. And so the evil machine kicked off and we started to see bad games, without substance and meaning. You can be easily fooled, because they use mind bending graphics powered by special effects, besides, all the reviews will tell you it’s supercool and the special edition contains a real-size gun, so it must be good, right? That’s the era of crappy games and it was almost over, but it is sort of reincarnating presently on mobile platforms (yes, Angry Birds, I’m looking at ye). But then, around 2008, we saw a sudden outburst of weird games, made by weird people, who actually don’t sell their souls to producers and investors. They don’t have tons of money. They put their mind and heart into the what they make. They sometimes even don’t care what you’re going to say, they just have to do it. It’s their way of expressing themselves and the result is very pure and honest. This is the indie market. Until recently, I thought that we’ll be in this for some time. But, as great as indie games are, we’re already seeing productions that display the ambition of taking steps into the unknown lands.
“Dear Esther” is a prime example of such a pilgrim.
“Dear Esther” is a title of production that was created as a mod of Half Life 2 game (this is a simplification, but it doesn’t matter for us here). A “mod” is a slang word to describe an effort of replacing some of already existing game’s logic and graphical assets with something else. You know, like replacing aliens with rabbits, or something. It might be just a graphical tweak, but sometimes it can seriously change the original game. It’s not “game development” yet, but it might be a first step for someone who wants to try it out, but not necessarily want to invest in programming and all that complex stuff you have to deal with, before you even start putting your idea into the computer. So “Dear Esther” was very different back then and was perceived as an oddity. Few liked it and praised it, but it drowned in the sea of mediocre, but easier to grasp games. It was not the right time for it. But, fortunately, someone fell in love in it so hard, that they decided that they will make a proper standalone game out of it in 2012, with new graphics and improvements. So the result of this effort is probably what you’re going to encounter under the name of “Dear Esther” and it is that game I’m describing for you here.
A game? Is it really a game? At the risk of entering a never ending debate, let’s say it is. It runs on a computer/console, it’s interactive (though the level is really minimal) and it maybe even has a goal. This “game” can be described as a “ghost story”. The player sees an island in the beginning. He apparently controls something, he can influence the move of the camera. Is he a living person, though? We don’t know. There is some voice speaking or reading words. These words are either random observations or series of letters addressed to one Esther, starting simply with “Dear Esther”. Who is Esther and who is actually writing those letters, the player does not know. “Are we” a character? Is it “us” who speaks? Is it some kind of a narrator? Friendly ghost? Memory flashback? Is it related to “us”? There is no answer. So after some pacing there and back again, the player learns the “rules” of the situation he’s apparently being put into. He can wander, see things and hear commentary. That’s it. There is no choice, no action to take, nothing to interact with. There is no other living soul the player can meet. Just the island. But there’s clearly something else, yet you can’t put your finger on it.
What’s experimental here is not just the confusion. It’s not that easy to trick a player. Players are quite good in “sustaining” the “weird” period for some amount of time, because they know that pattern quite well – “Ok, ok, this is crazy, but I’m quite sure the story will roll out soon and I will get it all, so let’s keep playing.”. But it’s not happening in “Dear Esther”, exactly because of the twist in narration. Simply put, it’s disjointed. There’s no cohesive story, no obvious mystery or puzzle to solve. After half an hour or so, the player discovers, that he’s just hearing apparently random ramblings about weird stuff, but it seems like there’s no glue to stick it together. Worse, it’s even might not be the same speech. You can play the game again and you will hear a different set of “letters”. Some of them will carry the similar thought, just expressed differently. Some of them will be just about something else, that you do not recall from the previous session. It’s like a stream of consciousness. Things just happen, and you cannot really make it stop or change them. All you can do is receive them. And this is the core of the experiment here – is it possible to tell a story using different means? Can we use a game to make the story less obvious, non linear and not just “pre-scripted”. Can we create an experience that will be a mash-up of what player hears, what he thinks and what he feels? How player’s prejudice might affect the story he will “create” on his own? This is, in my opinion the root cause of creation of “Dear Esther”.
How did it work out? While I encourage you to try the game out, I’m going to report here that the result is a mixed bag. In fact, I was quite disappointed with “Dear Esther” at the beginning. The experience is quite short, if you just faceroll through it – it’s probably an hour of your time. And I knew this game would be different and not approachable, so I knew what I was going for. Still, I felt that it was just wasted time the game does not live up to the hype. But then I tried it again and again, and now I no longer feel that way. Here’s the secret – try not to concentrate on emotions and the story (which is what I usually do), but rather on the mood. This focus shift enables you to open to a slightly different experience.
Because if we talk mood, things that will really conquer your heart are sound and graphics. Those combined create a remarkable experience. The music is very subtle, soothing, sometimes feel like a lullaby. Sound effects are gentle, but realistic – your steps, the sand, seagulls up above you. The island feels very, very calm and it projects this onto you. At the beginning, the evening slowly comes upon us, but the sun is still there on the sky. It looks like it’s going to rain or maybe it’s right after the rain. Everything gets a little bit different color than their “natural one”. More blueish or more orangey. There’s a mild wind blowing, so you can hear the grass rustle. You can see and hear the ocean waves slowly hitting the shore. You take a slow walk and you really feel like there’s no rush. There’s no puzzle to solve, enemy to kill or story to be followed – or maybe even if there is a story, we expect it to pour onto us at some point, as opposed to us chasing it. Let’s just take a walk and see what happens. It puts you into this melancholic, reflective mood. You’re not really sad, but you can’t say you’re cheerful. You’re mostly just silent, tuning in to everything around you and gathering all those weird thoughts from the present and the past. And in that environment, it makes perfect sense to hear those random thoughts. It’s just that they’re not yours, they’re someone else’s. But it doesn’t matter that much who they belong to. They just fit. And it might surprise you, that you start to weave your own thoughts into the picture. “I remember walking on a similar island myself”, “this sun rays are really familiar”. The feeling of loneliness will stay with you, but it’s not exactly a destructive force here.
You’re purpose is – apparently – to go for a trip. After a while, a route plan emerges from the scraps of thought – you first walk through the island, then you go deep below, to finally get out to the surface and climb to the very top of the island, which is marked by an aerial with an unnerving blinking light. I’m not going to spoil too much here. But that journey is very metaphorical and each phase of it carries several meanings. There is a leitmotif of “getting to understand yourself”, there’s a biblical trip to Damascus. There’s the redemption and punishment. Body and mind damage. You will hear the “character” trying to explain, but the explanation will be unclear, not complete and messy. You will hear the voice being a little bit more eager at certain points, sometimes angry, but usually just filled with pain or sadness. And maybe you’ll even discover that there might be a story behind all of this in the end. But rest assured – it’s not handed over to you on a silver plate. You will get scraps, musings of a tired, untrustworthy and confused man, who’s uncertain what to do, who he is and what’s really going on. You will witness his memory failing him, resulting in contradicting facts – just like your grandparents, trying to recover the same situation, but remembering it differently. Who are “you”? Are “you” alive? Who’s Esther? Who’s writing those letters? Is it the past, the present or the future? What is the meaning of all this? Is the island really what it seems to be? Maybe it’s also a symbol of something else? Maybe “you” don’t exist, maybe the island is a projection of something?
Maybe. Maybe this, maybe that. Dear Esther is all about maybes. You will probably end up with your own interpretation, but I doubt that you will feel that you’ve “cracked the story”. It’s more like “the way I see it”. Not everyone will feel comfortable with this. And I like it. It’s controversial, it stirs the reaction pool. You’re no longer spoon-fed. What you will get out of the game is really a function of your own ego and sensitiveness.
But this dreamy experience is at times damaged by the narration – and this was the thing that put me off in the beginning. The writing is just uneven. Sometimes you’re entangled in pseudo-poetic gibberish that can be really tiring and you can tell that someone was trying too hard. Like this elementary schoolboy writing a love poem to a girl from his class. You know, too many silly, obvious rhymes, too many adjectives. Unfortunately, I find this in “Dear Esther” sometimes. But then again, I wander several hundreds of steps further and bump into brilliant pieces like this:
“When you were born, you mother told me, a hush fell over the delivery room. A great red birthmark covered the left side of your face. No one knew what to say, so you cried to fill the vacuum. I always admired you for that; that you cried to fill whatever vacuum you found. I began to manufacture vacuums, just to enable you to deploy your talent. The birthmark faded by the time you were six, and had gone completely by the time we met, but your fascination with the empty, and its cure, remained. “
I just get goosebumps from reading this. It’s amazing. It’s deep, it’s emotional and it sets this unique mood for the story. It’s too bad that it’s sometimes ruined by rants that make little sense. There’s a thin line between mystery/metaphor and gibber-jabber. Dear Esther dangerously balances on this line, falling on the wrong side a few times too often. The original script, before the remake, was a bit different. It is my personal impression, that the person who has made the amendments has sometimes lost the original meaning on the way. But, if you can suffer this, you will get your reward, I promise.
So is it a good or bad game? I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that this is an experiment that made my life richer. Even now, I like to return to it sometimes. When I’m in this state of mind I cannot really describe, I take a walk on the island. I can see the sun, I can feel the wind – everything falls back into place. What really makes me happy, though, is the fact that “Dear Esther” made a lot of money. By extension, this means that a lot of people bought the game and supported it. And this means, that either gamers have matured enough to embrace this kind of experiment and understand the depth of it or the people who do this every day finally embraced games as “accepted” medium they can also channel to. Whichever case it is, it’s just great. “Dear Esther” has shown, that there’s a place for experimentation, for uncertainty, for non-obvious and it’s not just for the sake of creating something different, but it actually serves a purpose. It’s beautiful and it has a meaning. I believe this is what True Art aspires to.
The song I’m presenting here for you is made by Jessica Curry, the composer who made all the music for the game. It’s called “Always”. The movie is also a presentation of a part of the game, the one that takes place under (or deep inside) the island. It contains another captivating spoken piece around 0:25. I remember waiting for this game to be released and watching this movie over and over again, listening to that piece, until I learned it by heart. And here’s a cruel joke – I’ve never actually had a chance to hear it in game. But that’s all right, Esther.
More about Dear Esther –