Thursday, February 23, 2012

Dear Esther and the Surrender of Control

Dear Esther
Platform: PC (via Steam)
Developer: thechineseroom
N.A. Release: February 2012 (retail form)

Story is an essential element to many games, but is almost never the one driving factor that defines them. There are many games that have strong and engaging plots—and I wish even more took the cue—but ultimately the story connects the processes that the player controls. It doesn't make sense to proceed to the next action scene without a good reason to be there, and it is what the player actually gets to do that tends to make or break a game in the eyes of its players.

Dear Esther is a different creature. It is a game that relies so dominantly on its story that some hesitate to call it a game at all. “Interactive story” and plain old “experience” get thrown around, and you can refer to it however you wish. I don't care about semantics as much as the reasons why this idea is so nebulous to people in the first place.

In simplest terms, Dear Esther has the player travel over and through a deserted island while a voice of a character (likely the one you control, but everything is open to interpretation) reads excerpts from letters written to “Esther.” That, in all honesty, is it—and why I believe it blows so many players' minds when they get into it.

The setting.
I love looking at the behaviors and expectations we've picked up through playing video games, and Dear Esther was a humbling lesson in stripping away how entitled I feel to have control over what is in front of me. Looking back, it is embarrassing to note that my first action upon opening on the shore of an island that is both strikingly beautiful and God-forsakenly lonely was not to admire or reflect, but to test the boundaries of the world.

“See if you can walk into the water,” my Gamer Sense told me.

I did. After a few feet, I went under, then was gently recalled back to where I began. Dear Esther is patient like that, and my Gamer Sense was appeased. Derp.

I proceeded along the island, eyes on the rocks and an occasional fence, and quickly discovered the narrator continued as I reached certain points.

“Aha!” my Gamer Sense piped up again. “Hit all the points. Find all the secrets. Make him talk!”

I started poking through nooks and crannies, zooming in on anything I felt could be important to the character. I did not find one damn trigger that was anything more than proceeding along the set path. Eventually, I gave up and carried on.

And then, along a beach, an interesting pattern had been drawn into the sand.

“PUZZLE!” my Gamer Sense squealed. “Get paper! Draw! You'll need this later!”

Nope. No puzzles, either.

Sounds positively dull from a gaming standpoint, doesn't it. Just walking along and listening to some guy read letters. And yet, as I continued, my gamer spirit yielded to the feelings and desires of this fictional person, crafted through an exquisite use of language. Looking back, I can see how I gradually stopped panning for items that would yield a response and just let the man continue when he was ready. When a path split, I would choose a path and stop doubling pack to see if I missed something. All roads seemed to end in the same place anyway, and it just seemed ridiculous for the man to travel like that.
There is never danger. Just the way further into the story.
Eventually, I ceased to see the island as a “sandbox” and more as a large, fully realized work of art that I was on tour within. When I passed something the man may have mentioned, I stopped and looked; not seeking answers for a solution to a game, but asking questions that often had no answers. What does this mean to him? What does it mean to me? What does its meaning to him mean to me? It was like a melding of minds; a form of gentle possession as I just wanted to lead the character to the end of his story.

Dear Esther is rigid like a book. Where we love to have choices in the stories of other games—and there is certainly nothing wrong with that—this experience is much in the hands of the creators. The only story forged by you through all of this is “wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww,” the button you hold down to move forward. At first glance it seems to derail the overall strides games have made to give players freedom, but there is actually an extraordinary freedom to be found in this game. It comes after the end, when the screen fades to black, and you're left for days to wonder and interpret what happened. Find a forum on the game and you can have some outstanding discussions with others who may have heard different parts of the same one story.

So Dear Esther may not be a “game” through certain lenses, but the potential it shows as a method of literary experience is incredibly exciting to this English major. The right stories, gently manipulated by the right hands through a rendered “game,” could have an amazingly powerful and captivating draw. And just imagine what a book that already pushes against the rules, such as Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, could provide within the right interactive medium.

I'm not saying this will replace reading as we know it, but it's absolutely encouraging to see developers willing to try something beyond a digital Choose Your Own Adventure book.

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