Imagine the following scenery: Harsh rocks, that barely distinguish themselves from the dim grey sky, flank a withered and broken down building towering into the sky. A lighthouse of days long past. The wind is shrieking and waves are crashing on the barren shore you find yourself on. Somewhere in the distance a shimmering red light can be seen, pulsing through the mist that hides the rest of the coastal landscape from your gaze. The soft melody of a piano-tune echoes through the noise. It carries a somber voice with it, calmly reciting something that could be a letter: “Dear Esther, …”.
These are some of the first couple of impressions I got once starting the indie-computer game Dear Ester. The recently released game started out as a mod for the popular game Half Life 2 and I stumbled upon it about a couple of years ago in this article. The description the author gave back then somehow made me curious, but I didn’t own the original game needed to play the mod and at that moment didn’t intent to organize it just to give Esther a try.
However, after doing some research I discovered that Dear Esther became so successful that its creators were planning to relaunch it as an improved standalone application. So I made a note to check every now and then and discovered yesterday that its standalone version was released this month. Since I just had some time at my hand, and interactive story telling is somewhat of an interest of mine, I bought it right away to sate my curiosity.
Now what is Dear Esther all about? In fact, this not quite easy to explain — and intentionally so. It’s makers describe their creation as:
a ghost story, told using first-person gaming technologies. Rather than traditional game-play the focus here is on exploration, uncovering the mystery of the island, of who you are and why you are here. Fragments of story are randomly uncovered when exploring the various locations of the island, making every each journey a unique experience.
You find yourself in the role of an unnamed character in the middle of a small, barren island that is located somewhere in the Hebrides. Initially, you do not possess any information as for what brings you to this forlorn place, or what you are supposed to do here. Besides the island itself and the voice-overs in the form of monologues by the narrator, you are not provided with any information at all. No clearly defined goal, no dialogs or any other form of interaction with characters. No progress bar or any HUD giving you hints about your character or your mission. Nothing. Only the barren landscape and a voice.
But it is exactly this sense of being lost, of having lost something, that is one of the elements making this such an radically different experience — even more so, if you have played computer games before. The mechanisms that make Dear Esther work, are precisely opposing the ones that are usually connected with the habitual gaming experience.
Traditionally some indicators for an highly immersive gaming experience might be a great amount of interactive possibilities with the constructed environment, and the possibility for freedom of exploration. In here both are radically stripped away to a bare minimum, so that one might see it as rivaling the barrenness of the rocky island itself: Our unnamed explorer isn’t capable of jumping, nor of running. He is not allowed to pull levers, push buttons or collect items to solve any riddles — nor does he have to. There is nothing to win and nothing to lose. The distant goal of the aerial in the sky is always offers one a clear path to follow along the island. One can never get lost. Simply put: Dear Esther isn’t about choices, instead its secret ingredient is the unique atmosphere it conveys to tap into the players own imagination along the predestined path.
The fragments of plot provided by the narrator at certain time only offer glimpses at a coherent picture — like shattered pieces of a broken mirror. They talk about different characters, and also shed more light on Esther.
By taking away all but the most essential possibilities for action — locomotion and the shifting of the gaze — one is allowed to focus on the smallest of details provided by the environment and trying to close the gaps purposefully left by the narration.
For example: A pair of rusty ships wither away on the rocky shore line bearing cryptic writings on their hull. While one might see them as mainly opportunities for action in an ordinary computer game, e.g. spots to take cover from enemy fire, they become much more in Dear Esther: Like the carcasses of long gone giants they seem to bear witness to the secret of the island — to the purpose of one’s journey — and instinctively one struggles to find their testimony. How did these ships end up here to begin with? Are their crews still somewhere on the soil of this island? Did these same people put the cryptic writings on them or was it the protagonist himself? Perhaps their steel bodies represent merely manifestations of another aspect of his connection to Esther?
Interestingly enough, this distinction between the surreal and the real is only once made tangible: When the character’s path leads him underground into the subterranean caves beneath the island. Only here the grey and barren coastline gives rise to the bright and shimmering crystal caves with an endless array of colors (a twist that somehow instinctively reminds me of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride with it’s dull world of the living and very lively afterlife). In combination with the eerie sound scape this gives these tunnels almost something sacred and awe inspiring.
The climax of this journey through the underworld certainly is a scene in which one falls into one of the blue lightened ponds of water just to drift away into an underwater dream scenery of a car crash site on an empty road. Again: There are no explicit evidences as for what happened. Just a sense of loss and sadness. And this is what constitutes for me the core of the whole experience: There were a lot of questions I asked myself on my own journey through the island. Whether or not they are actually solvable, I don’t know. I am certain however that it doesn’t matter, but it is the process of asking — the imagination and feelings involved in this process — which truly do.
Because of this, I wouldn’t agree with the people that praise Dear Esther as a highly innovative game. This is because in my opinion it is simply not a game at all. Just as much as a poem by is not a thriller: Their individual qualities are not comparable. They might use the same medium, but that is about the only thing they might have in common. To me, Dear Esther constitutes the first representative of interactive poetry I encountered. Just like poetry you need to be in a certain state of mind to be capable of enjoying it. It probably isn’t what I would turn to for letting of some steam, or something to play on a portable device inside an overcrowded train. If however one approaches it with an ability for imagination and the patience to let it wander freely on the empty beach of a forlorn island, the reward will be a unique experience and some moments of extraordinary beauty.