Some games ask: "What's it like to be a plumber trapped in a world of perpetually-kidnapped princesses?" Others examine the belief systems that lie behind our ability to deal with putting three similar shaped units in a line. Others still ask: "Would you like to go for a walk?" That's day eleven's question in the advent calendar of waking dreams.
It's... Dear Esther!
Jim: Individual games often end up being representative of particular ideas or motifs within game development. They end up telling us about specific approaches or philosophies of design, and some of those will end up being held up as the prime example of that set of ideas. It seems to me that Dear Esther is one of those sorts of games. If Dear Esther tells us anything, then I think it's a sort of statement about how we've come to love very specific things that are normally regarded as single aspects of the overall gaming package. That the experience of Dear Esther has divided so many people seems like a comment on our own ability or inclination to appreciate atmosphere and environmental art over gaming complex mechanics. Dear Esther has caused numerous people to argue that it is not a game at all, and in some ways it seems to epitomise the sort of "corridor" experience that it's easy to denigrate and dismiss when it comes to discussing first-person experiences. There is plenty of subtlety here, but little in the way of depth, little to learn or master, and exploration that is merely walking a path. And that's offended some sensibilities. I have some sympathy with that, because it's missing out on the greater part of what makes games interesting.
I think what is important about Dear Esther, though, is that it has managed to be so moving, and so beautiful, and strike a note with so many people, while being mechanistically minimal. It demonstrates that we want to be able to see incredibly beautiful environments laid out for us, and stripped of challenge or task. It is, in a sense, a sort of tourism. It chimes with many remarks I've heard over the years (particularly with regard to MMOs) that it might be nice, just occasionally, to be able to explore these worlds - these astonishing imaginative acts of environmental conjuring - without the impediment and time-cost that they usually demand.
John: Dear Esther is championed as being the first commercially successful “art game”, argued as demonstrating other similarly experimental, atraditional projects as financially viable. But I can only see it as demonstrating that an art game must be at best simplified, at worst mediocre, to succeed. I hear these words as an ominous threat.
The artistic statement I see Dear Esther as having successfully made is that people will continue pressing W no matter what story is burbling away in the background. Unfortunately, it isn’t an arch commentary on the state of the industry. It’s a game I’ve found myself liking less and less since I played it, increasingly annoyed by its fatuity. And perhaps more seriously, I feel that its pretentions caused people to wilfully ignore its significant faults.
The story it tells is a set of by-the-book cliches - gaming’s equivalent of “But Mrs White died 30 years ago!” - told with such self-importance that it feels the need to remove all player agency. A horrible introduction gradually reveals to you how impotent you are within the game’s world, until you eventually resign to being nothing but the person who presses ‘forward’. But good heavens, don’t even think about exploring! Alternative paths other than the GO THIS WAY straight on option wind eventually to dead ends, with no significance, just firmly underlining your irrelevance to the experience.
It is argued that “Ahhhhhh, but ahhhhhhhh - isn’t that the point?” No, I don’t think it is. I think that’s applied in retrospect, forgiving your negligible connection to the process to excuse the story you were just half-told. It certainly isn’t the experience had at the time, unequipped as you are with the information to know why it might rather lamely be excused that you’re barely involved.
Where something like Tale Of Tales’ The Graveyard understood itself, made itself about the inexorable nature of linear gaming, and indeed life, Dear Esther strikes me as ultimately naive and troublingly lacking in perspicuity - and I feel it abuses the system to impose itself on you, rather than embraces it to explore ideas. And ultimately, of course the butler did it, so why drag me by the nose hairs to point it out?
The caves sure are pretty though.
The games, films, books and music I most value and most remember take me to a place that feels real but is not; a place so evocative that emotions, memories, associations and gut reactions rise unbidden in me. Pulling hitherto unseen things from my brain while firmly implanting new ones in it. Frankly, if something succeeds in this I don't mind - care - what medium it uses.
Like Stalker - the Tarkovsky movie rather than the lesser but nonetheless equally important game - Dear Esther is melancholy made corporeal, a place that is despair tinged with hope. Spoken words mean nothing and everything; every scene is loaded with meaning and yet carefully avoids prescribed or didactic definition. Despair and hope both are in the eye of the beholder.
Esther's shuffled, non-sequential dialogue didn't seem, to my mind, to be truly trying to tell a story, let alone make any sort of statement. Rather, I felt, it deployed key beats of loss, loneliness and regret to create a loose structure and most of all mood within which to frame and accentuate the intermittently bleak and beautiful Hebridean setting. There is, I think, no author trying to make themselves known and heard here - just scattered phrases to stride through, ghosts that swirl in and out of focus around the explorer on his or her journey of introspection.
I did not feel the need to jump or sprint or press E to use. I was fully engaged in soaking myself in this spectral fog of rumination, in my own personal purgatory that just so happened to look like a remote Scottish island. Scenes have been burned into my memory potentially forever, and skeleton piano notes echo around the back of my skull whenever I envisage them even if the actual melodies are lost to me.
I feel melancholy when I think of that clifftop path and my solitary trudge towards a blinking light I was far from sure I would ever reach - or wanted to. I feel wonder and a soft warmth towards existence when I picture those trailing rows of candlelight and bobbing origami boats. I feel determination and euphoria when I envisage climbing that towering, swaying mast, staring down at the silent, certain land below me and then, with my arms outstretched and a mile-wide smile, soaring. Free.
I remember no words. I don't care about those words. I don't care about what buttons I pressed, what buttons I could not or which roads were closed to me. I don't care if it's game, film, book, painting or song. I care that I felt something so strong, that the manipulation of my negative emotions was so expertly done that I now immediately go to a very particular place and a very particular mood simply by seeing or imagining a scene from Dear Esther. As a result of writing this piece, I will be melancholy for the day. I call that triumph.