This installment of Mood Pieces is about an experimental game called Dear Esther, which was originally published as a Source engine mod, but which is currently available from Steam for both PC and Mac. Dear Esther is an experimental game which manages to mix high literature with the motions of 3D gaming.
First of all, what the heck do I personally mean with “high literature”? For me the definition is more or less “the classics that are actually worth reading, and the books that resemble them”. Stories like this are usually (although not always) about rather down to earth stuff or even banal things, but they manage to be superbly interesting nevertheless. The style of writing is skilled in the technical sense and almost devoid of exposition. It’s the kind of writing that doesn’t lead the reader by the nose, but is neither a “look how smart I am” puzzle – it just effortlessly builds a story, a description of a situation, or a mood. It’s the kind of literature which often feels to me like a bit of a slog to read, yet weirdly compelling and rich – and suddenly as an afterthought I’ve noticed that it has etched a story, a mood or an environment into my head that really wasn’t apparent while I was reading it.
Then, about the 3D game part: Dear Esther is an experimental game, where the word “experimental” means that you don’t shoot anything, you can’t jump or operate anything, there aren’t hidden secrets, you can’t die and… well, basically the only thing you can do is to walk around and look at things. Yes, walk – not run. Nevertheless I would personally call Dear Esther a game, but I’m sure a bunch of people would disagree with this – definitely most of the hc-gamers I know, and maybe even some of the people who are students and researchers of game studies. Frankly I’m not that interested in the theory of what’s a game and what isn’t, so moving right along.
For me Dear Esther was a pretty intensive two hour experience. The game starts with the player on a wharf of a very rugged and desolate island in the Hebrides. As someone who’s used to games made with the Source engine I spent the first moments figuring out that, well, I can’t do shit in the game, and remapping the few activities I could to more handy keys. Five minutes after that I was thoroughly sucked into the story and the atmosphere of the experience.
What happens in the game is that you essentially walk towards a radio mast on the other side of the island. There are paintings on the rocks – chemical formulas, pictures of neurons, some stuff I seem to vaguely recognize from hydraulics/pneumatics or at times electronics. The main beef of the game are the fragmented notes to “Esther” from someone, which are presented as very pleasantly executed voiceovers. The texts sound like pieces of letters written by a rather literate person, who can carry some rather poetic figures of speech and metaphors without sounding corny, just natural.
The graphics and the soundscape of Dear Esther are picture perfect. There’s the howling of the wind, some very low key sounds of the barren nature, and occasionally very haunting and well executed music. Graphically the game strikes a really impressive contrast between the barren rocky island and the phosphorescent caves underneath it. The latter are an interesting case in context: thrown into a run of the mill action game they would look flashy and hokey, but in the context of Dear Esther they are breathtakingly beautiful.
“Okay,” though I, “so you’ll just walk around looking at the scenery and items that tell their own story, enjoy the aesthetics and then get some enjoyable voiceovers that get triggered on some key locations – nice enough.” The thing is, because of a glitch of technology I had to restart the game, and it was only then that I noticed that the voiceovers changed subtly in the second playthrough, so they are not just canned pieces of text. There is actually replayability in Dear Esther, which was an interesting surprise. Also, as the game progresses, an interesting question rises: who actually is the main character?
No doubt many people will say that Dear Esther is not a game, and my reply to them is “is that really the thing you got out of this?” I’m extremely happy that two of my dearest and oldest hobbies, gaming and literature, can mesh up like this into such a great experience. I like Dear Esther as it is, but I certainly wouldn’t hate to have a more traditional game with this level of storytelling. I’m sort of skeptical that we’d see that in the AAA-level games any time soon, but I definitely love the direction indie gaming is heading.