Last time I ended my discussion of the game BIT.TRIP RUNNER and flow in video games with the caveat that not all games seek to induce a flow experience. This week, I’ll talk about a very different kind of game — so different, in fact, that many question its status as a game at all.
Dear Esther is an experimental game released a couple of weeks ago for PC. It was nominated for four awards at this year’s Independent Games Festival and recently won the award for excellence in visual art.
In the game you explore a deserted Scottish island, listening to fragmented voice-overs from an unnamed narrator reading letters to an equally enigmatic woman named Esther. It is apparent that Esther is dead, likely the result of a car accident, and the narrator has had problems with alcohol. The names of ancillary characters arise repeatedly — Paul, Donnelly, Jakobson. The story is told in a semi-random fashion, providing new information in different contexts each time the game is played. You explore the beautiful 3D island from a first-person perspective. The sound effects are fantastic.
So, why do some argue that Dear Esther isn’t really a game and doesn’t deserve to sit alongside “real” games like Mass Effect 3? The thing is, you can’t really do much in Dear Esther. That is, you can walk around and look at things in the 3D environment, but that’s about it. You cannot pick things up. You cannot open doors. You definitely cannot blow stuff up.
Even the seemingly open island is carefully constructed to take you for the most part along a predetermined path so that key points of the story are revealed at specific times. Some critics online call Dear Esther a “virtual promenade” rather than a game.
Though there is no unanimously agreed-upon definition for a game, it’s generally understood that a game must have several components:
1. Goals — These are generally win/lose conditions or a high score.
2. Rules — In digital games, rules are mainly imposed by the computer. For example, when blocks touch the top of the screen in Tetris the game is over, or in Super Mario Bros. when you press the A button, the fanciful plumber jumps.
3. Feedback – Ideally, games inform players of their progress throughout gameplay so that they can plan and adapt, but at its most basic, feedback lets the player know if he or she has won or lost.
Then there is a slew of other qualifiers that certain individuals assert make games what they are. Must a game require the player to make decisions? Should an activity left entirely to chance? Could a slot machine, for example, be considered a game? There is also the issue of uncertainty. Can we call something a game if the outcome is known beforehand? Does it have to be competitive? Challenging? Fun?
Even if we stick to the three original criteria, each is flexible enough to fit with Dear Esther. The goal, while perhaps not explicitly stated, is to reach to mysterious blinking beacon at the island’s summit. The rules are rather strict: you can only move and look around. And there is most certainly feedback — a new narration shows you have made it further, or at a more basic level, when you press the W key you see yourself move forward.
But, truth be told, it doesn’t matter if Dear Esther is a game or not.
What makes Dear Esther such a uniquely moving experience is precisely the lack of agency. You see a shipwreck from the exterior but cannot climb inside and explore it. Paint cans litter the island, but you cannot contribute to the esoteric drawings that appear everywhere. The odd paper boats float right by. You can look, but you can’t touch. You seek to reconcile the past, but what can be done?
The game’s construction, the subtle exposure of algorithmic assembly — it points to the suspicion that the island is nothing more than a figment in the mind of a perturbed soul. And so, what are you, the player?
Dear Esther has been characterized as a ghost story. But who are the ghosts? Esther, Paul, Donnelly, Jakobson, the narrator or the distant figures that might be your imagination?
I’ve used a lot of question marks today. Because Dear Esther brings up a lot questions. Don’t play it if you’ll be unnerved by ambiguous verse and open-endedness. Go play Mass Effect 3 — it’s fun. Dear Esther is something else.
Dear Esther is available to download for Windows on the Steam game service for $9.99.