I recently rediscovered some old academic writings that I had worked on in my Undergraduate Career. While far from perfect, I now realise that it was from essays like this that my interest in the Digital Humanities Field first reared its head. Dear Esther, a remarkable indie game created by Dan Pinchbeck and the Chinese Room, made me realise the potential of the medium for engagement beyond simple entertainment, thus I coined Dear Esther to be an example of “Digital Literature.”
Dear Esther is a piece of interactive entertainment or video game created by the Chinese Room, an independent or Indie game studio comprised of twelve individuals based in Brighton, UK. According to the official blurb, Dear Esther ‘is a first-person game about love, loss, guilt and redemption. Driven by story and immersion rather than traditional mechanics, it’s an uncompromisingly emotional experience (The Chinese Room 2013).’ This snippet of information establishes why Dear Esther is worthy of investigation. The text utilises story and immersion rather than the traditional mechanics of an average video game. According to Espen Aarseth’s theoretical framework concerning ‘Genre Trouble’, a ‘game consists of three aspects: (1) rules, (2) a material/semiotic system (a game world), and (3) gameplay (the events resulting from application of the rules to the game world) (Genre Trouble, 2004).’ So is Dear Esther a “game” or is it a something else, a story, an art house experiment? What Aarseth describes above are the traditional mechanics of a video game. Dear Esther does contain rules that the player has to follow, it does possess a game world and it does contain gameplay. However, it is its gameplay that provides the biggest point of contention among the greater “gaming” community. Some have likened it to pressing pause and play on a DVD Movie – while player involvement is required, it is far too limited to be considered what passes traditionally for a videogame. Dear Esther exists to tell a story, Dan Pinchbeck, the writer of Dear Esther and Creative Director of the Chinese Room makes this fact clear. Aarseth writes that ‘when we compare stories to computer games, stories hold a much stronger position, which games cannot dream of reaching in the near future (2004).’ The aim of this essay is analyse Dear Esther according to Aarseth’s three point structure. With this question addressed, this essay will also attempt to answer Aarseth’s questions of ‘what exactly is the relationship between games and stories? Is it a dichotomy? A rivalry? Or perhaps a continuum? (2004).’ This essay will argue that Dear Esther is indeed a game and its relationship with its story is that of a continuum. Before addressing this argument, it is necessary to describe the basic rules of Dear Esther.
The rules inherent in Dear Esther are relatively simple. The player is forced to move along the game world, a remote Hebrides island using the WASD keys on the Keyboard, for example W allows the player to move forward, S moves backward etc. If the player strays into the waters surrounding the island they begin to drown and are placed back along the path that they have already travelled. Thus the game punishes the player for straying off the path. Likewise, the player is rewarded with exposition and music cues if they explore regions on land. Thus, the player is encouraged to elongate their exploration of the island and move further inland toward the game’s resolution without being deliberately pointed in the correct path. This method is similar to the carrot and the stick metaphor, the player is goaded into following the developer’s wishes through rewards that fit the game’s style and are likewise punished for ignoring the storyline presented. As Markku Eskelinen describes in ‘Gaming Situation’, ‘in computer games you either can’t or don’t have to encounter every possible combinatory event and existent the game contains, as these differ in their ergodic importance (2001).’ It’s clear that the developers of Dear Esther wish to tell a story inside its experience, but as Eskelinen states the player doesn’t have to discover every story beat to continue. Thus the story needs to adapt to players, who may miss individual story beats due to their desire to bypass certain environments on the island.
So the sparse rules present in Dear Esther allows those who seek out the story to be rewarded, yet the same simple rules of the island allow those who seek an immediate resolution to seek out the ending as quickly as possible. The game environment or world building provides a subtle guide toward the end of each stage of Dear Esther. The player is goaded toward the distant light of a radio tower, the only source of civilization on the island. Thus when combined with the punishment for entering the water, the player is encouraged to ascent the Island without being explicitly told to do so. This manner of rulemaking is referred to as ‘Conveyance (Kelly, 2013).’ Dear Esther’s conveyance reflects the developer’s statement in the game’s blurb, it increases immersion in a way that very few games successfully do. Throughout Dear Esther, the player comes across a variety of huts, shacks, caves and other environments that can all be explored. These environments are usually full of world building props such as paint cans, candles, crab traps and other such items to give the illusion of a remote island community. The player is unable to interact with these props however, forcing the player to focus on the narrative rather than losing themselves in the environment. Dear Esther’s rules serve a purpose like any other video game and work in conjunction with its game world to provide a digital space for the player to experience. It’s rules also severely hamper player interaction within the world, a factor that will be discussed in greater detail below.
As per Aarseth’s framework, a video game requires a game world that can be analysed. Dear Esther does indeed possess a material system that can be interpreted in a multitude of varying ways. The semiotics of Dear Esther includes the visual design of its landscape, its soundscape and of course the writing of its plot. Before discussing the visuals of Dear Esther, it is worth noting that the standalone game is a remake of a mod or modification which utilised the game Half Life 2. Being a mod, the original was limited visually to those materials available to Half Life 2. Dan Pinchbeck, the creative head of the Chinese Room describes that limitations in both their skill and budget during the early days of the mod limited their development of a game world to a rural environment. To naturally contain the player, they decided to make the rural environment into a Hebrides island. The story of Dear Esther came after the world was crafted. The visuals of the standalone release of Dear Esther have a marked improvement due to the work of Robert Briscoe, an independent environmental artist. Briscoe’s involvement on the project stems from his belief that Esther ‘was all about telling a story through exploring the environment, and making that a gameplay experience in its own right (Briscoe, 2012).’ As mentioned above, the conveyance of Dear Esther is influenced greatly by Briscoe’s work on the environment. Subtle environmental cues and the use of lighting are used to divert the player’s attention to where they are supposed to be going at all times while keeping them immersed. Likewise, Dear Esther’s audio direction helps to convey the world toward the player.
The audio of Dear Esther features a sombre, memorable soundtrack that swells during moments of clarity in the plot or when the player has reached somewhere of significance for the narrator. Even the track names aid direct the player toward their ultimate goal, for example the track “I have begun my ascent” is played once the player reaches a certain region on the island and acts as incentive for them to keep climbing. The writing of Dear Esther has often been described as purple prose, ‘writing that’s just too flowery and too melodramatic for its own good (Arr, 2011).’ Pinchbeck’s writing is presented to the player as a monologue triggered by certain areas discovered throughout the game world, for instance coming to a decrepit shepherd’s hut triggers a voiceover regarding the shepherds of the island. Pinchbeck himself describes that ‘There are really two major interpretations of Dear Esther… the island may not actually be a real space (The Chinese Room, 2013).’ Thus, the player actively has to interpret their own meaning of the narration. The players are encouraged to seek out more instances of the environment that the narrator will react to so as to build context as to where they are, who they are and what they are doing. Yet the more exposition dumps that the player receives, the more that Dear Esther’s story begins to branch and diverge with the narrator becoming increasingly unreliable. Indeed, Dear Esther actively randomises the narrations during playthroughs, ensuring that different players receive a different experience. Aarseth writes that ‘The game world is its own reward, and the end, if and when it comes, does not offer dramatic satisfaction, but a feeling of limbo. There is no turning back, and no going forward. You are no longer employed by the game. Time to buy another (2004).’ Dear Esther possesses an evocative game world that does provide a reward for the player, albeit one true to its developer’s wishes. Dear Esther rewards the player not with the traditional mechanics of scoreboards or extra lives; rather it maintains its immersion throughout by rewarding those players who seek to be rewarded. So Dear Esther does pertain to Aarseth’s second aspect by providing a semiotic game world. Possessing a game world and rules within it establish the type of gameplay that the player will experience
Aarseth’s final aspect of a game is the gameplay, or the application of the game’s rules in the game world. The gameplay of Dear Esther is remarkably simple. As described above, it requires the player to progress using the WASD keys and the mouse to explore the environment. The game is first person, meaning that the player’s camera is fixed from the character’s perspective. The act of inhabiting the character adds to the immersion, yet looking at the ground reveals that the player avatar has no physical body, raising more questions than it answers. Perhaps it is a limitation of the game engine, or perhaps the protagonist doesn’t have a physical presence. The conveyance of the island encourages the player to climb away from the sea, while the soundscape encourages exploration of the island environments. As mentioned above, player interaction with their environment is almost non-existent. The game forces the player along a set path and then allows them to explore to a limited capacity. This extremely limited player interaction has delivered Dear Esther an almost infamous reputation among some circle with it being labelled as an art house experiment or worse. One such audience review of Dear Esther on the aggregate review site Metacritic states ‘I think a film or graphic novel would be an infinitely more rewarding experience than this 45 minute “game”, for the same price. Don’t buy this (Shoebox, 2012).’ This raises the question of whether Dear Esther is a game or a simulation, Pinchbeck himself finds it remarkable that people are still trying to address this question years after Dear Esther’s release. Granted Aarseth is correct that ‘all computer games contain simulation. Indeed, it is the dynamic aspect of the game that creates a consistent game world (2004).’ Dear Esther does contain a dynamic aspect: as mentioned above the narrator’s voiceovers are randomly triggered at regular intervals, but is this enough to justify gameplay in the traditional sense?
Aarseth goes on to state that ‘in art we might have to configure in order to be able to interpret whereas in games we have to interpret in order to be able to configure, and proceed from the beginning to the winning or some other situation (Typology of Hypertexts, 1998).’ Dear Esther demands that the player interprets their controls so as to configure their character into moving toward the conclusion. This is the general norm of video games, yet Dear Esther does require the player to configure in order to interpret some of its meanings. Due to the unusual nature of its script and the above mentioned prose, those harsh reviews of Dear Esther take on a new light. Players are led to expect a certain framework or construction in their genre of video games. Dear Esther doesn’t meet that expectation due to its lack of traditional gameplay features. It is worth noting that the year that Dear Esther was released, 2012, included many other games such as The Walking Dead and Journey that utilised a similar focus upon storytelling yet were better received by the general public. Dear Esther’s unreliable narrator has drawn some criticism, with some players complaining that they found the language spouted by the narrator tough to comprehend. Pinchbeck understands and states that ‘One of the ways it’s [Dear Esther] divisive is because there’s a significant number of players who don’t like the way we handle story. Think it’s too complex, too ambiguous and don’t like the type of language we use (Games as Lit, 2013).’ So Dear Esther’s story is the key focus of the game or simulation. ‘Stories and simulations are not totally incompatible, but the simulation, as a primary phenomenon, must form the basis of any combination of the two, and not vice versa, just as with stories and life. When you have built a simulation, such as a rule-based game world, you may use it to tell stories in…’ As mentioned above, Dear Esther does present its story inside its rule-based game world, thus it can be concluded that Dear Esther is indeed a video game that exists within Aarseth’s structure.
It is clear that while Dear Esther is a game, it also is a story. As stated in the introduction, Aarseth questions whether games and story possess ‘a dichotomy? A rivalry? Or perhaps a continuum (Genre Trouble, 2004)?’ The semiotic game world and game rules of Dear Esther exist to frame its story, despite the story being the last element of the game to have been crafted in development. So there is no dichotomy in Dear Esther’s systems. The same is to be said of any potential rivalry between the gameplay and the story; it doesn’t exist in this context. All of Dear Esther’s rules and game mechanics revolve around conveying the story and immersion onto the player. Rather, Aarseth is correct in describing the relationship of story and videogame as that of a continuum. The story is Dear Esther, just as the story is in Journey or the Walking Dead. To discuss the story of one is to discuss the game itself. One can only divide Dear Esther from its story when deliberately making an arbitrary decision to analyse its different components. Thus, stories and games are clearly linked, perhaps even reliant on one another, something Aarseth doesn’t necessarily agree on. Can video games such as Dear Esther be considered electronic literature? US science and literature Katherine Hayles declares that such things exist, that ‘from computer games come interactivity, major tropes such as searching for keys to a central mystery, and multiple narrative pathways chosen by interactors; from literary traditions come devices developed over millennia of experimentation and criticism such as point of view, narrative voice and literary allusions (Hayles, 2001)’. Dear Esther seems to meet the necessary criteria, yet Pinchbeck believes that ‘games have an equal value to literature, but games need to get used to that. Games are very bad at exploring the beauty of language as a value in itself, and that’s something that makes it stand apart from the way literature is constructed (Games as Lit, 2013).’ It seems that video games haven’t quite hit this level quite yet.
To conclude, it is clear that Dear Esther pertains to Aarseth’s three part structure, thus Dear Esther is a traditional video game. Pinchbeck attributes this to the level of involvement that gamers have in this industry, ‘Gamers can be unforgiving when they don’t like something because they have this incredible investment in the medium (Games as Lit, 2013),’ thus, arguments will continue to be waged over this classification. While Dear Esther has been proven as a video game, its status as electronic literature is much tougher to define. Aarseth remains correct that games have not quite reached that level, Pinchbeck himself agrees upon this fact. Yet the existence and successful sales of video games such as Dear Esther highlight that the demand for unique storytelling is rising. Aarseth’s belief that video games cannot reach the level of Electronic Literature in the near future remains a matter for debate, although it needs acknowledgment that his assessment was made back in 2004. Analysing Dear Esther in the current day however, makes it clear that video games will reach that next level, be it Digital Literature or something else entirely relatively soon. Not all critics are keen about this school of thought however, Eskelinen states that ‘It’s no wonder gaming mechanisms are suffering from slow or even lethargic states of development, as they are constantly and intentionally confused with narrative or dramatic or cinematic mechanisms (Gaming Situation, 2001).’ It is clear that such a topic will remain contentious for the foreseeable future; video games are a relatively new medium that has yet to find its feet. With that being said, examples such as Dear Esther certainly show that the video game industry has found its feet and is beginning to take those steps toward Aarseth’s far off future.
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