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 bears 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
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