Dear Esther

Introduction

In the mid-2000s, a professor and lecturer from the University of Portsmouth named Dan Pinchbeck had an idea for an experimental video game. Creating mods using Valve Software’s Source engine became a favorite pastime of many PC enthusiasts at the time – Mr. Pinchbeck included. He then realized he needed someone to score the game. For this task, he turned to his wife, Jessica Curry. Ms. Curry had earned a Bachelor of Arts for English Literature and Language at the University College London in 1994; her postgraduate work saw her earn a diploma in Screen Music from the National Film and Television School. Using her experience, she was more than happy to help her husband with his project. Thus, in 2007, the couple founded their very own independent game studio they dubbed The Chinese Room – named after the famous thought experiment devised by philosopher John Searle in his work “Minds, Brains, and Programs”.

Being a research project at the university, it received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Mr. Pinchbeck conceived the script, citing the works of William S. Burroughs as an inspiration. He sought to capture a poetic use of language while drafting the script, contrasting the descriptive tone typically found in the medium. The game, entitled Dear Esther, was originally released as a free mod in 2008. It was later selected for the Animation Exhibition at the Prix Ars Electronica. There, the website Mod DB selected it as one of the best mods of the year, placing it on their top 100 list. The following year, Dear Esther won the award for Best World/Story award at the IndieCade festival.

Like many successful mods, Dear Esther went on to receive a commercial release. This Landmark Edition was released in 2012 on the digital distribution platform Steam. An artist of renown within the independent circuit named Robert Briscoe had the honors of completely redeveloping Dear Esther from the ground up. As the original mod, though praised, was also criticized for baring numerous glitches and a poor level design, Mr. Pinchbeck gave Mr. Briscoe his full blessings for the redesign. As a standalone release, Dear Esther received positive reviews overall. When the original mod was created, the independent gaming scene had started gaining traction. Even now, it is considered one of the scene’s early hallmarks. How, exactly, did it capture such a profound amount of critical attention?

Analyzing the Experience

WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers.

When drafting the story of Dear Esther, Mr. Pinchbeck opted for a poetic approach to writing. Accordingly, the premise and storytelling are highly minimalistic. You are a character who has manifested upon the shore of an island within the Hebrides – an archipelago situated off the coast of Scotland. The island is entirely uninhabited. Signs that people once lived here are present, but by the time the credits roll, you will not encounter a single living soul.

This dedication to the art of minimalism extends to the gameplay itself. Like a majority of the Source mods, Dear Esther is presented from a first-person perspective. On computers, you control your character with a combination of the standard “W”, “A”, “S”, and “D” keys and mouselook. Similarly, if you’re playing this game on a console, you control your character’s movements with the two analog sticks. This is the full extent of the potential interactions you can have with the game. You are not made to fight any monsters, so weapons are entirely pointless and therefore nonexistent. In fact, you neither run nor jump. The minimalism is especially apparent when using a console controller, as the only special function any of the buttons perform involves zooming the camera.

When Dear Esther premiered, it defied any kind of logical genre conventions at the time. Connoisseurs may have reasonably referred to it as an adventure game, but that would imply the experience offers puzzles or some other kind of non-violent challenge for the player to overcome. Neither of those concepts exist within this universe. The only thing keeping you from the end of the game is the physical distance you must traverse to reach it. Because that descriptor could be considered inaccurate, other fans likened Dear Esther to a visual novel. Although many visual novels – particularly of the kinetic variety – lack player choice or even gameplay, this label also fails to convey the type of experience Dear Esther has to offer. Others considered Dear Esther an art game, but because the label is an umbrella term, many disparate works had also received that distinction, making it a nebulous term at best.

Because there weren’t many games like Dear Esther when it debuted, only one logical conclusion could be drawn from the community’s inability to place it in a genre: it codified one on its own. The kind of experience Dear Esther provides would later be referred to as an environmental narrative game. The genre’s name implies exactly what the player should expect from the author. With no puzzles, characters, or significant points of interaction, the game’s sole purpose is to convey a story using only the environment and laconic snippets of narration.

Upon arriving in this world, the narrator will begin expositing. At any given time, there is only one way to go. Once you advance past certain points in the map, the narrator will continue, allowing the player to get a clearer idea as to what is going on – at least in theory. The character you’re controlling has appeared on this island, and by making it to the end, the story will explain their purpose. These bits of narration are contextualized as fragments of a letter penned by an unnamed many to his deceased wife, Esther. The player character’s journey culminates in them jumping from a tall structure as if to commit suicide. However, before they hit the surface, they begin flying away.

Superficially, this game would indeed appear to resemble a kinetic novel, but things aren’t quite as they seem. Should you try to play through the game again, you’ll notice certain key details begin to change. It is suggested that the accident in which Esther died was caused by a drunk driver named Paul. This may not be the explanation you hear. Instead, the narrator himself could have been drunk, and his ramblings are the result of extreme self-loathing. For that matter, the narrator may have been on the island for years because he chose to become a hermit, or he just washed ashore following a shipwreck.

Ultimately, the manner in which the story is told is highly reminiscent of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. This is because by the end, you realize that everything you learned emanated from a highly unreliable source. This allows the narrative to take a highly meta turn. After all, a work of fiction is, technically speaking, a falsehood. They’re interesting falsehoods – ones typically fabricated with some higher purpose, but they’re falsehoods all the same. Dear Esther goes a step further; even having accepted that you’re experiencing a work of fiction, you will still question whether anything is real or not. It’s not even clear if you’re playing as an outside observer or the narrator himself.

There is a great paradox in how a fictional narrative can appear to have varying degrees of truth despite existing independent of reality. It is the very basis of art criticism; we tend to lambast works incapable of telling a consistent lie thereby creating numerous plot holes. Along those lines, the truth can be presented within a fictional narrative only for audiences to reject it as a falsehood for being too unrealistic. After all, real life, unlike a fictional narrative, is under no obligation to make logical sense. People who make bad decisions still follow a real line of logic, but tend to do so as a result of mental blind spots. Directly or indirectly, these are the kinds of phenomena Dear Esther highlights.

However, I also must comment that the unreliability of the narrative is a double-edged sword. Because a playthrough or two reveals that you cannot take the narrator at his word, you have to wonder what the point is in playing the game at all. The only practicable aspect Dear Esther has going for it is its narrative, which you will eventually realize to be unreliable. It is true that certain aspects of the narrator’s story are consistent across various permutations, but because he lacks credibility, it’s easy to dismiss everything he says as a falsehood. This renders the narrative, which is intended to invoke a feeling of melancholia in a stark contrast to the hot-blooded action games typical of the era, remarkably hollow. Mr. Pinchbeck would later state in an interview that by being sparse with specifics, he created a more engaging narrative capable of stimulating the imagination of those played it. Due to these problems, I would argue that he accomplished the exact opposite.

What especially doesn’t help the game’s cause is that, ironically enough, it strongly suggests its own presentation is an extremely inefficient means by which to convey basic narrative ideas. It is the natural inclination of those playing this game for the first time to explore and see what they can find. An uninitiated player couldn’t possibly know where the event flags that trigger the next paragraph of dialogue exist. When they do pass that point, they could very well be distracted by the visuals enough to completely miss what the narrator is saying. It is difficult to pay attention to a narrative that the player had no investment in beforehand while doing something even as rudimentary as walking. Had the player character been an objectively active participant in the proceedings, it would be easy to listen to the narrator even if they were leaping across the map and spinning the camera. Because there is a severe lack of agency instilled in the player, any goodwill generated by the narrative is destined to fade into the ether.

To be fair, there is almost nothing to interact with in the world of Dear Esther, meaning you could just as easily take your hand off the controller or mouse whenever the narrator speaks. However, this is a case in which a significant flaw is solved – so to speak – with another significant flaw. Because a player is naturally going to explore the island as much as possible, they’re going to turn over every stone in order to find something – anything – to examine. This hypothetical player would be disappointed that the only thing of substance to find are sizable biblical references and molecular structures scrawled on the granite walls. On occasion, they may espy a ghostlike figure stalking them, but they don’t do anything. What these have to do with anything is anyone’s guess.

Because of this, the manner in which Dear Esther handles its symbolism is highly reminiscent of the narrative Jonathan Blow weaved in his inaugural work Braid. That game was popularly considered an allegory to a significant scientific achievement from the 1940s. It is no coincidence that it also happens to be an invariably mocked aspect of the game – to the point where it became the go-to joke for highlighting amateurism symbolism. That the allegory was poorly foreshadowed and not tied into the gameplay in any significant way only made things worse. In both cases, it is nearly impossible to dismiss the conclusion that they were included to make the game seem erudite than it is in practice. All of these high-minded references don’t account for much if the player lacks any kind of context with which to apply them.

Dear Esther isn’t quite as egregious in this regard because its worst symbolism isn’t directly stated by the narrator. However, while this is to narrative’s benefit, it is also an incredibly damning indictment of the experience’s quality. If people weren’t mentioning the drawing of molecular structures in the same breath as Mr. Blow’s misbegotten allegory, it’s because Dear Esther left them in a state of apathy. It may sound strange, but the reason why Mr. Blow inadvertently got a lot of mileage out his narrative is because people were so invested in solving the puzzles in his game that it couldn’t help but become a meme.

I can envision culture critics at the time citing this mockery as proof of the community’s anti-intellectual predilections. Assuming for a moment that they were correct, I still feel the mockery was spawned from positive feelings. Some were expressing their admiration for the game in their own strange way. Others felt the narrative was haughty to the point of pretentiousness, having nothing to do with the puzzles they did manifestly enjoy. Either way, to illicit such a reaction would typically require an earnest investment – something Dear Esther consistently fails to provide to its players.

There are several issues similar to the ones I’ve already mentioned present within Dear Esther, and all of them are capable of completely sinking a gaming experience on their own, but they all lead back to its fatal flaw. Despite the painstaking effort Mr. Pinchbeck put into his narrative, it does not, in any way, benefit from being in a game. I could envision Dear Esther working as a short arthouse film. There is enough material that it could benefit from being watched, but because the player lacks all notions of agency, it doesn’t benefit from being played. Video games differ from other mediums due to their interactive element. If one fails to account for this property, it can create an undermining disconnect between the mechanics and the narrative choices surrounding them. BioShock, having been one of the first mainstream titles to use its narrative as its primary selling point upon its 2007 release, was subject to this criticism as a result of the creators handling its central plot twist improperly.

Technically speaking, Dear Esther does not suffer from this disconnect. Unfortunately, the way it resolves this problem is consistent with how the rest of the experience goes about doing so. In other words, it addresses one issue only to create a new, worse one in its stead. Part of what makes video game narratives so intriguing is seeing how artists weave potential player actions into the narrative. After all, the player is as much of a character in video game narratives as the fictional entities conceived by the author. This means that player’s actions are story beats unto themselves. The authors can’t possibly account for every single action a player may take, but the going the extra mile seldom goes unnoticed.

If the serious attempts to resolve the divide between story and gameplay are creators overcoming a challenge to make an artistic statement, then Dear Esther had thrown in the towel the exact second it was conceived. Because there is absolutely nothing to do but walk forward to the next expositional paragraph, you’re effectively watching a film that pauses every ten seconds, requiring specific button inputs on the controller to get running again. It bear repeating that this is also true of kinetic novels, which, at most, only require the player to press a button to advance the dialogue. However, they avoid the negative stigma surrounding the genre Dear Esther codified by virtue of offering much deeper stories. By not having even the vague pretenses of gameplay, they’re more honest about what they are. Barring that, pressing a button periodically is far more tolerable than having to walk to the next scene – the former is like turning a page in a book.

Dear Esther, by resembling a game to the extent that it does, is guilty of attempting to have its cake and eat it. It does try to create an advantage over a kinetic novel through its shifting narrative, but this replay value is an illusion. By the time you catch onto the randomly generated story beats, you’re just mindlessly walking through the island again and again to hear all the dialogue. The idea of a story changing slightly every time you play is interesting. Then again, people do that naturally whenever they have the desire to replay any given game – even if the story is unimportant. It is due to this lack of conviction that one could easily forget about the experience as soon as they exit the game for the final time.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Great music
  • Reasonably good presentation
  • Good voice acting
Cons:

  • Nonexistent gameplay
  • Inefficient storytelling
  • Bad influence on indie scene
  • Extremely short
  • Narrative does not benefit from human interaction
  • Illusionary replay value

It is usually important to praise – or at the very least, acknowledge – whenever a work inspires an entire genre within a medium. However, in the case of Dear Esther, it is difficult to consider what it accomplished praiseworthy. In the coming years, the environmental narrative game would face a backlash from enthusiasts, many of whom derisively referred to them as walking simulators. The term would ironically be coopted by the creators thereof themselves, but its very existence denoted a clear lack of respect for the genre. The most critical enthusiasts questioned whether works such as Dear Esther could even be considered games in the first place.

Semantics aside, the reason I have tremendous difficulties considering Dear Esther a trailblazer is because any impact it did have was unequivocally negative. While it does have a few interesting facets, future artists learned all the wrong lessons from it. Rather than focusing on what Dear Esther accomplished with its few moving parts, certain programmers saw its critical praise and used it as an opportunity to make money for little effort. Why bother coming up with an interesting game when you can turn players loose in a sizable map for a few hours and possibly even get praised for your lack of creativity?

Even if the creators of these experiences didn’t approach their projects with such a cynical mindset, there is no getting around that the movement itself was highly cynical. Whatever good intentions behind the movement were lost when it enforced the idea that video games had to divorce themselves from their fun, bizarre aspects. These creators and their fans were often oblivious to the fact that embracing them would upon up artistic avenues yet untraveled. Part of this might have been in response to film critic Roger Ebert infamously declaring in 2010 that video games could never be art. This caused critics and artists alike to double down in an attempt to adopt the same sensibilities as their film counterparts. Fun was suddenly the enemy and needed to be eradicated in order for the medium to truly evolve and grow. Dear Esther was therefore the kind of game you could show to outsiders without receiving a judgmental glare in response.

Because of this, I see the walking simulator as gaming’s answer to the mumblecore movement in films. To rebel against the highly stylized, unrealistic dialogue in a typical Hollywood production, mumblecore film directors left all of the “uhs”, “likes”, and “ers” common in everyday dialogue intact for their scripts. I don’t believe it to be a coincidence that they impacted their respective independent scenes in a highly negative fashion. Much like how you didn’t need traditionally good acting performances to succeed in directing a mumblecore film, you could get away with a lack of innovation by creating an environmental narrative game. In both cases, this led to a period of artistic conservatism within their respective mediums, and their general lack of charisma thwarted any serious attempts at rallying the average consumer behind them.

Regardless, a work of any kind can be of quality and still inspire an entire swath of bad art – or even a bad artistic movement. Indeed, I judge works based on the experience they provide more than I do the influence they’ve had on the medium. So on the back of those statements, could I recommend playing Dear Esther? The answer to that question is a resounding no. Bad impact aside, the experience Dear Esther provides is too thin and unambitious to recommend. You could watch somebody else’s playthrough on a streaming service and walk away with the exact level of satisfaction you would have had playing through it yourself. I can appreciate trying to instill a poetic quality into the medium, but the goodwill falls apart when you realize that Shadow of the Colossus, which was released in 2005, managed to accomplish the exact same things Dear Esther set out to do without sacrificing the medium’s identity. Tellingly, Dear Esther, despite having its place in history, isn’t held in nearly as high of a regard as one would expect a genre-codifying work to be. For a game to accomplish such a feat only to have an afterlife as more of a curiosity – or worse, an anathema – than an essential experience says more than any essay extoling the esoteric quality of its storytelling ever could.

Final Score: 3/10

15 thoughts on “Dear Esther

    • Thanks! As I said, I can appreciate to a degree what these creators were going for with the environmental narrative game, but there’s no getting around that it was a very backwards-looking movement that, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t really accomplish much that other games weren’t already doing. Indeed, visual novels covered the same stylistic ground on top of having much more substance to them. Much like the mumblecore movement, it’s a genre that doesn’t leave itself much room to evolve, and in gaming, an inability to evolve is especially crippling.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I guess I don’t need to say I agree with you on this one. Dear Esther has earned a place in history, but that doesn’t necessarily say anything about the quality of the work itself or whether its impact was any good. Esther, Gone Home and the rest partly reminded me of those adventure/puzzle games from the 90s that tried to immerse the player in their environments like the Myst series — I didn’t see the innovation there, especially when you consider that those older games, no matter what else you might say about them, had actual gameplay in them. Seemed like a step backwards more than anything, but the gaming press did hold them up as proof that games can be “real art”. I didn’t make this connection before, but as you suggest, maybe Ebert’s comment about games and art bothered them so much that they were desperate to find anything vaguely “artsy” to latch onto.

    You make a good point about kinetic novels as well. I just replayed (or reread, maybe) Planetarian after ten years, and it still holds up very well. I don’t know how much you can call it a game since there’s no player choice involved, but these days I’m thinking the “game” label doesn’t matter so much. If a work sets out to do something and it’s successful, who cares what label is stuck on it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right. It does have its place in history; I changed the last few sentences to make my thesis a little more accurate. What I instead truly marvel at is the fact that, despite codifying a genre, Dear Esther isn’t held in as high of a regard as one would expect a work accomplishing such a task to be. A game that managed to do that should be mentioned in the same breath as Super Mario Bros., Dragon Quest, or Dune 2, and Dear Esther… isn’t. It would be like getting transported to some alternate dimension where nobody other than critics thought highly of the Velvet Underground, thus preventing alternative rock from becoming a thing.

      As much as I don’t especially care for Myst, I do give it credit for at least being interested in giving its players puzzles to solve, and by extension, actual agency. Dear Esther, Gone Home, and any other environmental narrative game consistently fail to grasp that story and gameplay don’t have to exist in opposition to each other. If anything, it speaks to a person’s skill as a storyteller and programmer if they’re able to merge the two entities together. The environmental narrative game is basically the programmer throwing in the towel before they even make an attempt to do so. Their lack of effort looks even worse when you realize works such as Undertale manage to do everything they set out to do better because they own the wackiness of the medium. Plus, if they’re so quick to give up, they shouldn’t be surprised that the average gamer was so quick to give up on the environmental narrative game. I’m still astonished how quickly it managed to go from being the hot, new thing to blasé; usually a decade or two has to pass before a work illicits such a reaction.

      And I like how a lot of those journalists claim that gamers only like mindless action games when they’re often seen praising stuff such as BioShock: Infinite or The Last of Us for their storytelling. As it stands, the environmental narrative game could very well be guilty of feeding the extraordinarily damaging hipster mentality that prevents any kind of deep critical analysis from being performed, and I think the movement is one of the worst trends that resulted from Ebert’s proclamation. It’s easy to dismiss random naysayers as background noise, but hearing someone with actual weight behind his words say something like that – manifestly wrong though it may have been – really hurt the medium’s self-confidence. This is what I think caused a lot of bad/middling works to get heaps of praise; suddenly, games couldn’t be fun anymore; they had to be Art™. I’m glad that trend has died down because once creators decided to buckle down and get to work, they issued more profound artistic statements as direct result. I like to think of it as a demonstration of the Centipede’s Dilemma.

      Kinetic novels by themselves demonstrate that the environmental narrative game was never necessary in the first place. They do everything this movement set out to do far more effectively. I’ve never heard of Planetarian, but I kind of want to check it out now.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I hate that attitude that “important serious art” has to look and feel a certain way to be meaningful. I’m pretty sure a lot of the best art in history broke those kinds of rules to create new and exciting experiences for the audience. You brought up Undertale before, and that’s a good example — nobody could have predicted a game like that, and it was a rare case where the mainstream game press had to recognize its value.

        At the risk of sounding like a big weeb (which, hell, there’s no point trying to hide it after almost seven years of writing a wordpress blog about it) I’d say another part of the problem is that game critics here up until very recently were ignoring a lot of what was coming out of Japan, which included almost every visual novel and definitely every kinetic novel. Not that it was totally their fault; a lot of that material was and still is untranslated and not marketed to westerners anyway. But it does mean that they held up games like Gone Home for being innovative when there were kinetic novels that told meaningful stories without being up their own asses about it, and that set of works simply went ignored.

        The same goes when talking about how games lack female protagonists — you have to ignore a whole bunch of Japanese games to make a statement like that, or claim that they don’t count for some reason. It’s not that all those games are perfect or great, but they do provide a different set of experiences, and to just not consider them doesn’t make sense.

        Planetarian is short, but it tells an interesting story. I might write something about it soon, though it will definitely be full of spoilers. It goes into the kind of territory that a typical A24 movie might, but it handles it differently, and I think a lot more honestly (though it does have a few weird issues that I’ll bring up.) I’d be interested to hear what you think if you check it out.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review, but I’d never even heard of the bloody game until now. I checked its trailer and it looks a little, erm… dull. I won’t be adding it to my library anytime soon. PC Gamer sure did like it, though. Fools!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not worth the investment. And if you’re even the least bit hesitant based on what you saw in the trailer, I guarantee playing it will not change your mind. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen at least a few misbegotten think pieces from PC Gamer, so that doesn’t surprise me, though they don’t seem to be quite as bad as Variety.

      Glad you liked this review!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve had Dear Esther for a while, got it on one of the Amazon or Epic giveaways, and never even been tempted to get into it. I remember well the discussion around the game in yesteryear, where it says exactly what you’re saying here, that it really doesn’t benefit from the interactivity and is a much worse experience for it. I think I’ve said before that there’s plenty of walking simulators/environmental narratives that I rather loved, but even with the limited amount of traditional gameplay in those, interactivity is what really brought them home. Facade was more interesting because you had to be a part of the discussion and it would adapt to your choices. Oxenfree felt a lot more tense by making you a part of the mystery. And I know you’re not the biggest fan of Gone Home, but I actually got a lot out of the act of needing to explore and find the story. Dear Esther doesn’t particularly strike me as having a hope of delivering the same experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As much as I don’t like Gone Home, I do have to admit it is the superior effort to Dear Esther. There was a lack of player character agency in Gone Home, but Katie did have a reason to exist, being the player’s lens into the story. In that regard, she’s really no worse than narrators who aren’t the main character. I would argue it’s not really a storytelling trope that works well in games, but that’s another story and Gone Home isn’t the only game to make this mistake. Meanwhile, Dear Esther has absolutely nothing to be gained from being played. If you watch somebody else’s playthrough, you’ve seen everything you need to see, for there is absolutely nothing to do in this world. I give it a little more credit than The Beginner’s Guide because it doesn’t contradict its own message, but it is worse off as an actual interactive experience due to the lack of, well, interactivity.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: April 2020 in Summary: The Exterminating Red Metal | Extra Life

  5. I can definitely see the logic in your critiques, and now that you’ve said it, Dear Esther would work much better as an art house film than a video game. I absolutely love the monologues and have recorded myself saying some of my favorite ones because they are quite beautiful. I’ve read a number of interpretations and discussions on whether or not DE should be considered a video game at all. I do think we have to do things like this and make potential errors in order to forge forward and make progress.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, the narrative isn’t bad, but like some other games I’ve played, it is poorly optimized for its medium. I can see some poetic value in the dialogue, but the problem is that there is no sense of interactivity or player-character agency. That can work, but you have to go all in if you’re going to do that – which is to say, the route of kinetic novels wherein the creator is upfront about the lack of interactivity.

      I try not to seriously bring up the “is it really a game” argument because it’s just a semantics battle that seldom addresses the real issues. For all intents and purposes, I consider Dear Esther a game, and the reason it got a failing grade is because it failed at its intended goal – same as nearly every other work that gets a failing grade.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.