There is a powerful moment in 12 Monkeys (1995) when the protagonists Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and Cole (Bruce Willis) are hiding from the authorities in a movie theatre playing Vertigo (1958). A movie full of themes of temporal disorientation and loss of identity playing in a movie about those same two themes, Hitchcock’s masterpiece prompts a dialogue exchange that has always stuck with me:
Cole: “I have seen it, but I don’t remember this part. Funny, it’s like what’s happening to us, like the past. The movie never changes — it can’t change — but every time you see it, it seems to be different because you’re different — you notice different things.”
Railly: “If we can’t change anything…because it’s already happened, then we ought to at least smell the flowers.”
Cole: “Flowers! What flowers?”
Movies are static in their content. It’s us and our perception of movies that changes. How does this work with other art forms? We can watch a new performance of a play updated for modern times or listen to a remastered version of an album. But while the modified underlying work may speak out to us differently, to fundamentally change the original artifact erases its identity and create a new one in its place.
Video games offer analogous experiences through updates, custom settings, changing rules, uncertain outcomes and an infinite multitude of other variances that appear in them. However, Dear Esther is one that challenges the manner in which we approach the idea of ‘playing a game’ itself through its deceptively simple construction. There are plenty of other games that raise similar fundamental questions, and perhaps I will explore a few of them in the future. But there is something eerily fascinating about how bluntly Dear Esther presents the static illusions that cover its shape-shifting identity that captivated me when I first played it this fall.
A small group of independent British developers called The Chinese Room first released Dear Esther in 2008 as a Source mod (a gaming engine, for those unfamiliar, first developed in 2004 for Counter-Strike and often used as a starting point for new games) with primitive graphics. They entirely remade it in 2012, technically as a mod for Half Life 2 with minor elements borrowed from Resident Evil. The Chinese Room would go on to make the sequel to the horror masterpiece Amnesia: The Dark Descent, titled Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.
These are all bizarre sources of content, given that the gameplay of Dear Esther has nothing in common with any of them. The story takes place on a small island off the west coast of Scotland, where the narrator journeys to a radio tower at the peak of an overlook. There are no impediments, obstacles, or attacks, and only a handful of detours and potential wrong turns. If you know where to go, the game can be completed in one hour, although playing it through for the first time will likely take two. Passing through certain locations will cause the narrator to give monologues or experience flashbacks, which are randomized to ensure that each play-through is a unique experience.
The game is divided into four parts that chronicle the hike to the radio tower at the island’s summit.
The first begins in the morning sunlight with the narrator on a pier by a crumbling lighthouse. As you progress down the shoreline, the Narrator relates details of the history of the island: a monk who once lived in solitude in a now-abandoned cave, a historian named Donnelly who wrote about the region, a herder named Jakobson who tried to start a life on the island but died of illness carried by his animals. The narrator speaks about a practice he read about in Donnelly’s book through which islanders stricken with illness would paint huge white lines along the hillside to warn sailors to wait a generation before landing there less they end up contracting the same affliction. The island is covered with such lines.
The second part leads you by a series of wrecked ships and Jakobson’s empty house, as the narrator compares the ruggedness of the island’s rocks to his own illness and the beautiful flowers and foliage to a former lover named Esther, who died in a car accident in which another character named Paul was involved. These early chapters create a lulling, if also faintly spooky, atmosphere that lays the foundation for a dizzying shift in the second half.
The third part takes you through a series of huge caverns that are unrealistically illuminated. Even more so than the rest of the game, the rendering of the environment is astonishingly detailed and beautiful. The game’s emotional apex occurs when you fall into a pool of water, drifting to the bottom to discover yourself floating over a hospital bed and a car crash that matches the description of the one that killed Esther.
After leaving the caves, the final section takes place at night along a cove lit by hundreds of candles. Composer Jessica Curry’s ethereal and haunting music plays in a loop to an evocative effect. By the shoreline, boats constructed from letters written to Esther drift in the waves, and the gigantic Biblical passages painted in white line segments of exposed rock. As you finally reach the radio tower, the narrator gives a closing monologue that merges the names of many of the characters and (depending on the randomized version) states his intention to broadcast the story of Esther like a beacon through the night. He suicidally jumps off into the air, but rises just before hitting the ground to fly off as a shadow of a bird appears below.
There is a literal narrative that can be constructed from the game, with small variances depending on what monologues and flashbacks you experience: The narrator and Esther were lovers. Esther died in a car crash involving Paul. Seeking solitude, the narrator fled to the island, which he covered with symbols and candles before traveling around it in some sort of reflective journey which culminates in him jumping to his death. But the transformation at the end unravels this interpretation – what we are experiencing clearly is not physical reality.
A quick search of the internet can find any number of interpretations, most of which involve a narrator with a terminal illness imagining himself on an island he read about in Donnelly’s book. Indeed, the island is strewn with objects from the narrator’s subconscious: fragments of a wrecked car, chemicals from a company where Paul works, letters written to Esther made into boats.
Within these confines, Dear Esther is essentially a randomized series of dots that connect into parallel versions of the same general story. I could write my own interpretation, but I don’t really have one, as I am comfortable viewing the game primarily as the muddled shape of its many possibilities. Dear Esther is really a game at all, but more of an artistic construct comparable to Brian Eno’s Music for White Cube, which randomly mixed a predetermined selection of ambient drones to evoke an atmosphere that sonically captures a physical location.
The limited scope of Dear Esther’s subtext functions appropriately within the short duration of the game. The game is extraordinarily well-designed and the praise that The Chinese Room gained for it entirely deserved. The level of detail apparent in the landscapes is aweing, and fitting given how the lack of gameplay draws your attention to it. The designers laid out the path through the island with a photographer’s eye, as the height of the inclines and layout of the lighthouse and radio tower naturally fall into picturesque compositions. The caves segment is particularly gorgeous. You can practically feel the cool water running through it, and several reveals of vast areas are astonishing. Even the sky – both at night and during the day – is the product of intricate attention to detail.
Jessica Curry, whose music was one of the redeeming features of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, almost steals the show with her soundtrack, which adds an aura of mystery to the first half of the game and a sense of profundity to the second. She employs majestic vocals to emphasize the scope and spiritual significance of the caves, while the graceful “Ascension” elevates the impact of the story’s ending to breathtaking levels as strings add to a simple piano line.
The environment of Dear Esther is so convincing in its solitude that a late discovery sent shivers down my spine. Subtly, the landscape is scattered with ghosts. I finished the first playthrough never noticing them, which I doubt is abnormal. A dark figure (lifted, like the others, from Resident Evil) peeks down at you from the inside of the lighthouse, only to quickly disappear if you look up at it. It appears again in the final level, staring down at you from the top of a cliff, visible only against the moonlight. Several other ghosts, one grossly disfigured, appear throughout the game. They do little more than gaze, and they disappear when you get close to them.
The number of ghosts and their presence matches up with the islands former and deceased inhabitants. While they are a little bit scary, their presence does not disrupt Dear Esther’s meditative tone. It’s easy to imagine yourself (as the narrator) as one of them, wandering ponderously through a purgatorial setting reminiscent of the forever apocalyptic world of Termina from Majora’s Mask.
What makes Dear Esther unique is how it ditches every concept central to the popularized perception of video games. There is no challenge and you have no control over how the game chooses to present itself. Dear Esther reinforces the reality that ‘video game’ is often a misnomer – ‘interactive video experience’ would be a better term for an overarching category in which ‘video games’ exist. The late Roger Ebert wrote of this issue on his blog in its most controversial post titled “Video games can never be art” in reference to a defense of video games’ artistic potential given by Kellee Santiago at a TED talk:
“One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite an immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”
Based on Ebert’s writing, Dear Esther would not be a video game but an experience that represents a story. To Ebert, playing to win a game is incompatible with art.
The muted interactive nature of Dear Esther’s gameplay does, I would agree, render it more like a movie or a story than a game. In fact, Dear Esther illustrates a bit of a conundrum that I face when approaching video games from the perspective of art.
I can’t say what art is, but I can say what art isn’t: art is not simply trying to “win”. A stadium or a gymnasium may be artfully constructed, but the act of participating in a race or basketball game played inside of one is not art. Similarly, a first-person shooter or epic strategy game may be constructed with magnificent artistic talent, but the act of playing such a game is not necessarily artful. Whether or not you can skillfully throw a football or tab a series of buttons maybe be admirable, but these actions are certainly not art in-and-of themselves.
Dance, in contrast to sports, is an art form in that it exists in its essence as a form of expression. The unique capacities of video games have potential to do the same thing, but this capacity is not always tapped into by designers. Super Mario Bros. may take place in an artfully constructed bizarro world comparable to Dalí-esque surrealism, but the act of jumping up and down to collect coins and pounce enemies to beat the game is artistically empty.
As the artistic questions about the identity of the narrator – the mechanism through which you are experiencing the world – in Dear Esther are not unique to video games, the minimal gameplay almost seems to be implying the limited capacity of video experiences as an art form. Do we have to entirely remove the competitive and entertaining elements of games for them to be art, rather than just artful? When The Chinese Room applied the same minimally-interactive approach to Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, this grim subtext only became more alarming as the less-is-more approach only ended up with a game where less-is-less.
The relative failure of The Chinese Room’s approach with Machine for Pigs, though, is an ironic event, given that the original Amnesia presents one of the strongest cases (within the relatively small number of games I’ve played) for tapping into the interactive nature of games for artistic purposes.
I intend to write on that topic at some later point. For now, though, I want to restate the thought-provoking nature of Dear Esther and encourage anyone interested in the idea of a contemplative 1-2 hour journey to consider playing it ($10 download on the official website). It’s the sort of game that you play, forget about, and then re-discover, only when you re-discover it as a different person affected by new experiences, the game will have changed to an extent as well.
Edit 12/19 – In retrospect and after seeing several responses, I don’t think I was quite clear enough on one point: I do not agree with Ebert’s argument that competition prevents video games from being art. Rather, I am trying to investigate how Dear Esther relates to his perspective and to lay the foundation for an argument that I want to make in another post about how the competitive nature of video games can be used to create art.