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Touched By The Hand Of Mod: Dear Esther

[Friend of RPS and General Editor of Resolution Magazine, Lewis Denby, had a revelation about games through Half-life 2 mod Dear Esther. We thought it'd be an idea if he told you all about it.]

Gaming revelations arrive in the unlikeliest forms. Through the thick, sodden haze of British autumn, peeking out past the thrill of zombie infestations and post-apocalyptic wastelands, I discovered a tiny little gem that totally defied my expectations. I've sat on this for too long. I want to tell you about it. I need to tell you about it.

Truth be told, though, I've no idea where to start. It's difficult to know how to begin a piece like this, a piece in which you know you're going to effuse wildly about something few will have heard of and less will have tried out. I've written and re-written this opening countless times, discarding each and every one. Too gushing. Not gushing enough. Too vague. Too pretentious. Nothing works, and everything descends into incomprehensible nonsense or obscure cultural reference. None of us want that. So let's keep it simple:

Last year, a Half-Life 2 mod changed my outlook on games forever.

In a way, that it would be this sort of amateur creation to have such an effect makes sense. The mod scene has the potential to be a land of limitless creative opportunity. You're not restricted by publishers' requests, or the demands of your perceived audience, or your own barely competent technology. You've an enormous blank canvas to paint on, and all that holds you back is your imagination. But that's the thing. Most of the stuff out there is bland. A quick trawl through is likely to throw up an endless stream of level packs without context, stories without character. The terrorists are invading. Or is that the aliens? Often, it's hard to tell and even more difficult to care, which is why Dear Esther is one of the most poignant and important freebies out there. If you've a copy of Half-Life 2 on your Steam account - and, let's face it, you really should have - you owe it to yourself, and to the exciting future of gaming, to download it.

Dear Esther turned me into something of a fanatical child. I was so taken by it that I drafted a thousand-word interpretation of the story and emailed it to the creator. Every time it crosses my mind, I scour the internet for people's responses to this glorious masterpiece, reading through forum threads and blog posts and whatever else I can feasibly locate. Sometimes, I've been delighted that others share my views. Other times, I've been horrified by people's remarks. One player, on a forum I can't remember, gave tips for speeding the game up. "Bunny-hop around the island," he said. "It totally destroys the atmosphere, but it's more fun."

If you're looking for fun, I've no idea why you're playing Dear Esther in the first place. This is fearless, classical tragedy. It ends with the sound of a heart monitor flatlining, for goodness' sake. Lead designer Dan Pinchbeck describes it as "an interactive ghost story," but the inevitable connotations of that are misleading. This isn't about bumps in the night or any other hackneyed horror archetypes. It's deep, heart-tugging, emotional trauma. Dear Esther is indeed ghostly and ethereal, but it's all thematic notation. Really, the only horror is in realising how truly heartbreaking this tale is.

Some people will tell you it's not a game. Depending on your definitions, maybe it isn't. You play as... well, that's never revealed, and since it's all in uninterrupted first-person, you've no way of finding out. During your time on what initially appears to be a remote Hebridean island, a disembodied voice will read fragments of a series of letters, written to a woman named Esther who we're never introduced to. And you'll explore, climbing higher and higher up the mountain in the centre, piecing together the proverbial puzzle and trying to establish, often in vain, just what this place is.

And that's it.

I'm doing the fanboy internet-browsing thing again. Here's a comment I like: "it's an unremarkable island full of something strange." It goes some way to hitting the mark of describing what Dear Esther is all about. At first, it's just an island, seemingly uninhabited except for a few specks of wildlife. But as you progress, and as you become filled with the melancholy of this nameless man's memoirs, you begin to notice things. Obscure patterns carved into the cliff face. Paper boats dumped on a beach. A tiny figure up ahead, peeking through the mist for a split second before darting out of sight once more. You never fully learn what the island is, but there's more to it than first meets the eye - and, by the finale, you'll have cooked up a tantalising set of theories, each barmier than the last.

This unrelenting ambiguity arises from a particularly clever mechanism within Dear Esther, one that randomises which parts of the script you hear at a given point. "The gulls do not land here any more," the opening gambit might inform you. Or the narrator might say, "I sometimes feel as if I've given birth to this island." None of it links together in any coherent way, and as the author succumbs to dilerium, so does his writing. His notes become hazy half-memories, contradicting one another and escaping reality. We hear of a tragic accident on the motorway near Wolverhampton, but it blurs and intertwines with a broken leg on the island. We're told of a driver, accused of being drunk but, in spite of his wrecking guilt, still feverishly protesting his innocence. He becomes a syphallitic shepherd who died decades ago. We're told tales from the Bible. We see them scrawled on the rock, painted over with complex, obsessive chemical equations. It's the story of a terribly disturbed mind, and the horrendous inevitability of his demise - and it's horrible.

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 rejects pretty much every notion of what videogames should do, and instead presents a profound look at what they /could/ be doing. They could be telling stories that, while unforgiving and upsetting, exist within a format that no novel or film could ever reproduce. Stories that take clever audiovisual amalgamation for granted and go the extra mile, allowing the player to explore a tangible world that they would never otherwise be able to visit. In a sense, Dear Esther is pretty much non-interactive: nothing you do changes the course of the fiction, and there's no element of challenge to speak of. But in another, far more accurate sense, the interaction is totally key. It's your journey - whoever "you" are - and the intimacy heightens every emotion censor in your poor, overloaded brain. After watching me finish Dear Esther, my girlfriend asked me what it was I'd been playing. I turned to answer her, only to find I couldn't speak. No words arrived. None mattered.

This is a mod.

And that's kind of relevant, for two reasons. Firstly, we don't want to pay for this kind of thing. Hell, look at The Path: people are upset that even exists, let alone that its developers had the guts to charge seven quid for their remarkable efforts. But this is the sort of thing I'd love to pay for. It seems illogical that we'll all happily splash out fifty pounds for the same old story of science-fiction revenge, yet aggressively avoid anything that encourages us to engage our brains and challenge ourselves a little. Dear Esther was created on a shoestring budget for a research project. It's painful to think such a thing needs that sort of academic justification just to get made, but I'm gleefully pleased that it did, whatever the reason behind it.

But more importantly, Dan Pinchbeck isn't a game designer, or a professional writer. He's a talented researcher and lecturer, but game design isn't his job. For all intents and purposes, this is an amateur creation - an amateur creation that genuinely left me entirely speechless.

Oh, it's terribly broken. You'll get stuck on scenery, and might even fall out of the game world once or twice. Voice clips will trigger over one another, even if you do resist the urge to bounce moronically around the world to kick the pace up. And it is really, agonisingly slow. Too slow. It might all put you off.

But a little birdie tells me Dear Esther could be receiving a complete overhaul later this year; might be rebuilt from the ground-up, removing its fundamental flaws and technical inconsistencies. This is a truly exciting prospect, and leaves me more watery-mouthed than any other upcoming release you might care to mention. As it stands, Dear Esther is a remarkable piece of blemished beauty. To experience something so stunning, but something more complete... I'm not sure I can effectively convey my joy in mere words.

There's a section towards the end of Dear Esther where the narrator repeatedly refers to the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus. As you climb the mountain, the spellbinding music driving you upwards, you read Biblical verses scrawled on the walls. You reach the top, and turn a corner. The word 'DAMASCUS' is carved in enormous, chunky lettering ahead of you. Your destination.

I'm converted. I'm not sure how, why or what to, but it's there.

Give it a go. It might convert you too.

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