Dear Esther is a Half-Life 2 mod that was released for distribution in 2008, and re-released last week as a commercial product on Steam. I am cautious about invoking the dreaded “should” statement unless it’s important, but you really should play Dear Esther if you haven’t already. It raises as many legitimate questions as it answers, which in my experience is always a sign of a thing’s profundity. It may be as important to contemplation of where our medium has been and is going as Shadow of the Colossus, Bioshock, and Passage. It would be a damned shame, if you have the ten dollars to spare, that you didn’t give Dear Esther the few hours of your time it richly deserves.
Dear Esther bears no resemblance to most of our videogame experiences. It has a little Myst in its digital DNA, but there are no puzzles to be solved beyond the strictly intellectual. There is no running, no jumping, no picking up or throwing. There is only walking, looking, and listening. Dear Esther is an exploration of an island upon which we are ostensibly shipwrecked, with voiceover passages and matching paragraphs of text triggered as we walk over certain locations. It is broken up into four chapters any of which may be selected once the player has finished them, but I can’t imagine not sitting down and playing the entire game at once, every time I play it, because more than anything else, Dear Esther is a short story.
Each step forward in Dear Esther is reading a line. The flowers, rocks and grass are the words. The paragraphs are not the literal ones read aloud but the caves and vistas and shacks that trigger them. Dear Esther is linear like prose. We’re empowered to walk off the path but the inability to run discourages it once we realize how painfully slow backtracking can be. The optional paths are more like footnotes, extra information that may be valuable to our reading of the text but also potentially extraneous.
I’ve heard game designers defy the notion that videogames are a medium, in the sense of a substance upon which creation imprints itself, like paper or canvas. Dear Esther smiles kindly upon those game designers and asks them to open its metaphorical pages. Some of the reactions to this game float around the question of whether Dear Esther had to use a videogame to tell its story, as if the answer to that question belies the legitimacy of the attempt. I’d suggest that Dear Esther uses the power of interactivity to blend player-authored and presented narrative in a way not many games have for me before. I wouldn’t have felt any ownership of the story had it been printed on the page or projected onto a screen for me to watch passively.
Furthermore, I’m glad the creators of Dear Esther chose to make a videogame instead of writing literature or shooting a short film because they’ve demonstrated something I argued for last week, namely the potential of videogames to tell emotionally powerful stories by using the building blocks of the mundane. There is nothing fantastical about Dear Esther. It takes place on the beach of an island, in a cave, and an ascent to an aerial tower on a cliff. Its objects are decidedly dull: paint cans, sutures, flashlights, candles, photographs, wrecked ships, and detritus.
The events its narrator feeds us are things that have happened often and surely will happen again. I return to my earlier allusion to Myst, which created a fantastical world filled either with strange objects arranged in fashions foreign to our usual relationships with them, or objects which do not exist at all. The world of Dear Esther captures all the mystery of Myst without depending on anything out of the ordinary past a temporary hallucination. The attraction of Dear Esther is that it tells its beautiful story leaning strictly on the objects and devices of the ordinary until the very end, when the reader is left to their own devices to explain what they’ve just seen.
I’m deliberately being obtuse as to what Dear Esther is about because the story is the experience, so you’ll have to look elsewhere for spoilers short of what I’ve already given you. When I played Dear Esther I journaled the experience, stripping out the spoken narrative and only writing down everything else I saw, heard and felt in an attempt to decipher what was going on. That I’d never paid such close attention to the minute details of a videogame world was my first sign I’d found something important, and I’d rather not ruin that experience for you.
While I may wish I’d noticed Dear Esther back in 2008 before I began opening my mouth on the subjects of what a videogame was or was not, I’m also glad for the fact that my first experience with Dear Esther was the most polished one, with remixed music and audio and presented as a fresh construction in the Source engine. It might have been easier to dismiss Dear Esther before it had been presented so professionally, but the craft of the game’s environment cannot be denied, no matter what else you may think about it.
It has more interactivity than a visual novel but much less than an adventure game, such that I don’t know what to call it if I rely upon genre definitions. Dear Esther is an argument for a transcendent definition of videogame that includes all the digital tools available to their creators, to be employed for whatever purposes they see fit, even if those purposes do not include any of the traditional trappings of a “game.”
Descriptions of Dear Esther refer to it as “experimental.” There are enough historical comparisons to prior games such that I don’t know if experimental is entirely appropriate, as that usually makes me think of an exploration into the unknown. But if the purpose of Dear Esther was to prove a point, I think it’s successful, and the conversation is what point you think the game was trying to prove, and whether or not it did. Inasmuch as art is about making us think and discuss, even if Dear Esther fails at all other tasks, it has already succeeded in this one.
First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.