Dear Esther Revisited

Fair warning: I’m not going to just spoil Dear Esther. I’m going to ruin it. If you haven’t played it already go do it now, as I won’t be held responsible for my actions after the break. As a special favor to me, maybe play it twice.

During my time at Washington University in St. Louis, aside from a hobby of using administrative oversight to my advantage, I embarked on a small side quest to develop a third minor in art history. (This was stopped, incidentally, by a world-famous expert in Michelangelo asking me to politely get the hell out of his Michelangelo class, but that’s a story for another time entirely.) Meanwhile, I developed an affinity for the St. Louis Art Museum, or SLAM as it’s called. It was not only because I was there just about every weekend during the summer months, but also because of their outstanding collection, location in the middle of Forest Park, and zero-dollar admission fee.

During one visit, I came upon a stairwell. Wondering where it led, hoping for a restroom (the men’s room is downstairs, for some reason), I looked for the closest piece of signage and found a bronze plaque on the wall.

Clearly these were not directions to the restroom.

SOME DAYS YOU WAKE AND
IMMEDIATELY START TO WORRY.
NOTHING IN PARTICULAR IS WRONG,
IT’S JUST THE SUSPICION THAT
FORCES ARE ALIGNING QUIETLY
AND THERE WILL BE TROUBLE.

Biological forces pushed me onwards, but my mind was on the Easter-egg hunt for the rest of these little gems. There are five of them total in the SLAM’s collection. My recommendation is that after you’ve discovered them all, go around back of the museum, up a flight of stairs, and visit the delightful little reference library. Have the librarian, Clare, pull the files on these plaques for you, as she did for me again a few weeks ago, and ask also that she bring you a few volumes on the collected works of Jenny Holzer (@jennyholzer). There’s no one quite like her in the art world.

These plaques come from her collection entitled “LIVING”. Jenny Holzer conveys to me the sense that phrases have meaning outside of their larger context. A sentence isolated on its own has a weight that transcends the greater work. If isolated, or associated with their peers in a series, they can have a different meaning than may have been intended, or serve as breadcrumbs to bring the reader to a different place entirely. Their installation, whether projected on a building or scrolled past the reader near Ground Zero, enlarges their text in multiple ways. The lines themselves may have a source, they may be the most obscure found art in the world, or they may be hand crafted truisms. I don't know. But it is this recontextualization that powers her work and makes it relevant in this age of Google books and instant informational access. Her work is the removal of drops from the ocean, their placement on a slide, and the analysis open sourced.

Her work is effectively everything that Dear Esther is not.

As I traveled through Dear Esther I felt like I was being shown something vague and anonymous, that something private was being displayed in a space and for eyes not expecting to receive it. As I walked through the misty hills, through the derelict ships littering the coast, I wanted to learn more about what happened here. If only I could make it to the next narration point, turn the next corner, then I would be able to piece together the meaning of it all.

I wanted to be able to pick up the history book from the table, to root inside the pockets of the discarded pieces of luggage, to check for a VIN number on the transaxle, anything to be able to dig a little deeper. Instead, all I got was a very nice man prattling in my ear. Not another human soul as far as the eye could see. I wish that Jenny Holzer had been there talking to me instead.

Dear Esther is trying to evoke something. A sense of loss seeps from it, of unease, and also a delicious sense of fear that something is not right in this world. You are alone for a reason. The need to discover drives the player forward, and the tension of that unease about the environment and your purpose there keeps you from turning back. You cannot remain here — you cannot stay in one place; you will be found out.

Jenny Holzer’s work does not share the physicality of the journey through Dear Esther. Her work is displayed for public consumption, but it is moved past, or itself scrolls past the viewer on digital signs. Very rarely does the viewer instead move through Jenny Holzer's work, and never (that I've seen) do they cause it to spring forth like an aural landmine. In my opinion, the process of moving through this island means that Dear Esther owes you something for the journey, and I feel like the tricks it plays on you cause it to fall short of that promise.

It’s telling that the first time you hear your in-game self make a noise is when you hit the bottom of a rock fall and lose consciousness, effectively, during a scene transition. You wake up on top of a broken flashlight. And you don’t need it, because the environment begins to illuminate itself around you. The logic of the story does not.

You go deeper into the caves and eventually you pick your way back up. As you ascend to the surface, the Biblical references appear, inscribed onto the world around you. The conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus, his rebirth as Paul, the creation myth of one of the most vital disciples of Christ burns into your mind. One passage of the tunnels in particular is tattooed with the phosphorescent representations of circuits, chemical equations, synapses, and Acts 9. It is this passage when the illusion of the game collapsed for me. The metaphor of connectedness — of transliteration — implies that it be possible to understand what is going on. Where Jenny Holzer’s work strips away context, forces the mind to free itself from real associations and abstracts a turn of phrase into a signpost on the road of life, Dear Esther demands that you make sense of every word in context of the world, and then it denies you the ability to do so.

If the writer of the narrative your true self is reading, the voice inside your head, is the man who decorated this space, then clearly he was blurring the line between physical and metaphysical reality. How different are synapses from a wiring diagram? How much less magical is the composition of a molecule than a light from heaven? Are not all these systems intertwined? What is life if not death and vice versa? Is that narrator really all that far from Esther after all, or is he just the obverse of the same page as her, melting together in the cold Atlantic? The meaning in this cave's passage forces you to reconceptualize everything that was shown to you up to this point, and clouds your interpretation of everything thereafter. It is the dense center of the island, and of the whole game.

Wonderful – this is all wonderful to realize, to finally crystallize here in this cave. But what about the rest of it? What about the yogurt and the sonogram? What about the loaves and fishes and the drunk driver being named Paul? What about the chemistry book by the standing stones, the defibrillator near the wrecked ship? The luggage? The buoy? The ghosts? The sound of that unborn beating heart, or the children playing? The damnable paint and its insinuation into the very structure of the caves beneath the place? All this artifice, this extra detail, this cleverness is wasted if I can’t link it to some element of the story in my head and with the scribblings on these walls. It’s just gilding the lily. Either make the “game” longer and flesh this out, tell me what is really going on here, or shorten it. Cut it down to its constituent parts.

Each time you play Dear Esther, the language is randomly different at points, and leaving any sense of editing to this randomness is a cop out. What Dear Esther needs more than anything is a brutal editor. An editor could make it stand up for something, could make it finish its thought and tie together these loose ends. Or that same editor could break the linkages between the narrative, strip it of a sense of coherent progression and give it power and meaning as in Jenny Holzer's work. In the end all this coy intellectual thrust and parry is wasted unless it serves some internal purpose, and in hiding that purpose Dear Esther hides its true potential from players.

I really thought this was going to be a game that I could share with a broad audience of non-gaming friends, to prove to them that there was something powerful and resonant about gaming that transcended other forms of media. But Dear Esther just comes out slow, ponderous, and sloppy in the end. I don't think I wasted my time during three playthroughs, but I wish it hadn't taken me so long to learn that the game was letting me down.

Photograph by Marcin Wichary. Used under Creative Commons license.

Comments

Funny enough, I played this last night. I didn't buy the revamped version off of Steam, but instead played the original mod downloaded through Desura.

I have to agree. I don't see what all the hype was. I understand that it's not a "game" in the traditional sense, which is fine. But what they had for me and what they were trying to convey to me were really forced I feel. Overall, I didn't like it. It was sloppy, and frankly too short to give you enough time to figure out what's happening.

Hmmm. Avoiding this then.

What Dear Esther needs more than anything is a brutal editor.

I was thinking the thought before you said it.

I must agree. I'm a fan of artsy incoherent stuff, like David Lynch movies and abstract music, but Dear Esther just simply did not deliver on much except the beautiful scenery.

I also don't like non-comedian British voices and just wanted the guy to shut up and let me enjoy the view.

And, I don't appreciate how some reviews are creating a false dichotomy of, "If you don't like Dear Esther you probably just are more used to action shootey games." This over simplifies things. Even among story-driven games, there is a large variety out there. I thoroughly enjoy games like To the Moon and the Stanley Parable, not to mention old school point-click adventures. Even "art games" like Passage. I can even appreciate The Path, as it was short, quite creepy, and only $3. And I just didn't like Dear Esther (except for the beautiful scenery).

Woo! Editors!

What Dear Esther needs more than anything is a brutal editor. An editor could make it stand up for something, could make it finish its thought and tie together these loose ends. Or that same editor could break the linkages between the narrative, strip it of a sense of coherent progression and give it power and meaning as in Jenny Holzer's work.

I reject the idea that treading a path between these two extremes is somehow the result of sloppiness (i.e. something that would be "fixed" by an editor). It's an aesthetic choice which you can dislike or disagree with, but there's plenty of good writing/film/games/art that falls somewhere on the continuum between those poles.

juv3nal wrote:
What Dear Esther needs more than anything is a brutal editor. An editor could make it stand up for something, could make it finish its thought and tie together these loose ends. Or that same editor could break the linkages between the narrative, strip it of a sense of coherent progression and give it power and meaning as in Jenny Holzer's work.

I reject the idea that treading a path between these two extremes is somehow the result of sloppiness (i.e. something that would be "fixed" by an editor). It's an aesthetic choice which you can dislike or disagree with, but there's plenty of good writing/film/games/art that falls somewhere on the continuum between those poles.

I'd say this is Wandy's disliking, with points of comparison thrown in for good measure.

wordsmythe wrote:

I'd say this is Wandy's disliking, with points of comparison thrown in for good measure.

I guess what I mean is dislike it for what it chooses to do, not for failing to meet some straw man goal that you insinuate it would have met with the benefit of an editor when it (to me anyways) clearly wasn't aiming for that goal in the first place.

Point taken. But I felt that a game that had an end like this game has forces a kind of conclusion that it does not earn. If the point was to leave it open ended, then why end the game? I can play it again, but that generates a new philosophical journey with slightly different waypoints that again comes to the same, in my opinion, hollow conclusion. An editor could have helped them support their message, but in the end I’m left wondering what it really was.

But I felt that a game that had an end like this game has forces a kind of conclusion that it does not earn. If the point was to leave it open ended, then why end the game? I can play it again, but that generates a new philosophical journey with slightly different waypoints that again comes to the same, in my opinion, hollow conclusion.

At the risk of "putting myself out there" with an interpretation:
Consider the end of the game as the present moment in time. Inevitably, the character/player ends up here & now, but they can look back on the past and remember it differently (given the nature of memory, inevitably imperfectly) or think or feel about it differently. Which reading of the past is "correct"? It's impossible to tell, or, alternately, it's up to the player to choose.

I think this is what is so brilliant about Dear Esther: it exposes interpretation as an interactive thing. A naive criticism is that "all you do is look & walk, and no matter what you do the game ends the same way" but that's not all you do: you interpret what you see and hear and the game only ends the same way if you think of the ending as what the game shows you in its final moments, but the game doesn't have to end there. It can end with what goes through your head afterward. By randomizing different bits of dialogue, the game is encouraging you to come up with a different interpretation on successive playthroughs.

Putting yourself out there is what the front page is all about. No appologies needed.

I completely respect your point of view. I just don't share it. I will play this game again, I will play it a fifth time years from now, and I will try to find other people to play it while I hover behind them or in the next room so that I have more people to talk about it with. But I'm stuck with the conclusion I have outlined above. I've tried to make sense of it, and I'm trained to make sense of pretty complex things both artistically and professionally, and I can't come to the conclusion you have. I still think it's rough around the edges and that Dear Esther can do better.

TheWanderer wrote:

Putting yourself out there is what the front page is all about. No appologies needed.

I completely respect your point of view. I just don't share it. I will play this game again, I will play it a fifth time years from now, and I will try to find other people to play it while I hover behind them or in the next room so that I have more people to talk about it with. But I'm stuck with the conclusion I have outlined above. I've tried to make sense of it, and I'm trained to make sense of pretty complex things both artistically and professionally, and I can't come to the conclusion you have. I still think it's rough around the edges and that Dear Esther can do better.

I think the issue with a lot of "arty" games is that it's difficult to criticise them because - poking the sleeping beast a bit here - there aren't as many arty games as their fanbase would like, and thus they are more willing to take what they're given and defend it because it exists, putting the flaws to one side because hey, it's here, and at least we got something, right?

I'm not saying anyone in this thread feels this way, but I personally know people who'll defend a game like DE to the death simply because it's "arty", and it drives me nuts. I booted up DE (on OnLive, but bear with me, here, it looked okay) and within minutes got bored. I can't jump, I can't run, I can't explore - I might as well have been on a guided tour of a museum. I'll be expanding on this sentiment soon enough, but for now I'm content to sit back and watch the art kids throw their toys out of the pram despite the fact that half the wheels on it are missing.

CY wrote:

I'm not saying anyone in this thread feels this way, but I personally know people who'll defend a game like DE to the death simply because it's "arty

I plead guilty.

Art thrives on discourse and criticism. I'm not looking to dump on Esther, just point out the flaws as I perceive them. Anyone else really really like the game? What did you make of it?

CY wrote:

within minutes got bored. I can't jump, I can't run, I can't explore

Did you try hitting spacebar? Or moving? I agree on the not running being annoying.

Overall, I liked it. I liked the nice touches that were added regardless of if they are explained to me. The opening sets the stage for contextual clues to the protagonists mind, like the "come back" every time the seagull reappears that guides you to the next place. That first bird eventually nosedives into the water, and if you search that spot under the water you find a pile of dead birds. I'm not sure if it was written in or I just looked too long, but I died on that spot and it was very chilling for me.

The narrative I took from this (or meta-narrative, I guess) was that of a man's struggle to isolate himself in order to commit some form of mental masochism to distract himself from the pain. The mental landscape you travel through is disordered because his mind is disordered. I had wished for more interactivity (there are many clearly intentional objects in the game as TheWanderer mentioned) and I wanted carrying them to appropriate places to deliver some payoff, or to interact with the set pieces more. Aside from that I didn't have any complaints about the way the game delivered it's disjointed message.

Jolly Bill wrote:
CY wrote:

within minutes got bored. I can't jump, I can't run, I can't explore

Did you try hitting spacebar? Or moving? I agree on the not running being annoying.

Yes, I hit spacebar. Nothing happened. It's widely known that you can't jump, and you move at a walking pace.

CY wrote:
Jolly Bill wrote:
CY wrote:

within minutes got bored. I can't jump, I can't run, I can't explore

Did you try hitting spacebar? Or moving? I agree on the not running being annoying.

Yes, I hit spacebar. Nothing happened. It's widely known that you can't jump, and you move at a walking pace.

Hm. I must have a 'jump allowing' version of the game.

Jolly Bill wrote:
CY wrote:
Jolly Bill wrote:
CY wrote:

within minutes got bored. I can't jump, I can't run, I can't explore

Did you try hitting spacebar? Or moving? I agree on the not running being annoying.

Yes, I hit spacebar. Nothing happened. It's widely known that you can't jump, and you move at a walking pace.

Hm. I must have a 'jump allowing' version of the game.

Possibly!

I reckon fighting for a meaning that you enjoy with an experience like Dear Esther is a complete waste of your time. It's the sort of work in which your interpretation of it CAN be literal and plain, but that would, if you ask me, miss the point. Dear Esther is an ambient game. It's as much about the music and the imagery as it is the spoken word. It's about walking up a hill with a certain mood, while ingesting other media to support that mood. The narrative is, if anything, incidental.

It's a work that uses fractions of the language of video games to imbue the player with an emotional tone and a sense of place. Sometimes, this is just what art does. You don't have to like it, but you can not attack it "objectively" and make suggestions of the process, when the process is as much a part of the piece as the product. This is true for Mass Effect 3's craptastic writing; It is not my place to ask that they change it, but it certainly is my place to say I don't like it. That's the contract between artist and audience.

For the internet-style "lols" of it, check out this song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPnFm...
Deutsch Nepal's music has always been rambling, dark, sometimes borderline idiotic, but often if not always evocative. He has no clear goal and no clear purpose or "tale", but he will gladly tell "tales" with no purpose. It's for the sake of mental imagery and causing a response. This is not "fine art" which is about as defined as art gets. It's just art, and while you can disagree with each individual piece, there is no arguing against what it is.

Finally, to play the original mod today and judge the modern edition by it would be, frankly, insane, like judging 80s The Blob against 50s The Blob; They're vividly different objects. So for sh*t's sake, if you want to discuss Dear Esther let's discuss the same one at least?

This was a wonderful article, and the article that turned me on to this site. But now I am torn between liking the game, aesthetically, and also agreeing with you about its story.