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.