The wonderful accessibility of Dear Esther
It’s the final year of college, and I’m writing a book on videogames. It’s one of the loneliest projects of my life.
I don’t just mean the regular cycle of locking myself in my room to play a game and take notes on it, followed by locking myself in the library to write about the damn thing. That’s how senior theses go. But there is a cultural isolation to my work, best summed up in variants of a conversation that happens on a weekly basis:
Classmate: “So, what are you working on?”
Me: “I’m writing a history of storytelling in videogames.”
As soon as I say “videogames,” my classmate’s eyes glaze over, and they make a mental note not to ask me again.
It’s not that there aren’t plenty of gamers at my school; but, by and large, they exist in a tight-knit social circle that doesn’t overlap with mine. My friends’ disinterest is more than simple apathy; they have no experience that shows the medium as something more than a mass of abstract game logic and excessive violence. There’s nothing wrong with abstaining from games, of course; but the academic isolation is starting to get to me, and I decide to introduce my friends to the game I deem most accessible to them, a game that would challenge their preconceptions of what a videogame could be.
The penultimate chapter of my book is on 2008’s Dear Esther, a then little-known Source engine experiment to see what happens when you take the shooting out of the first-person shooter (keep in mind that the 2012 remake was a few years out at this point). I’ve played this little mod countless times, so much that it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. My solution: invite the one close friend I have who’s actually interested in the subject matter, and watch him play through it.
It’s a fruitful exercise, and both the notes I take while he plays and the discussion we have afterwards gives me new insights into the game. I could stop here, but sharing the game is strangely satisfying, so I set up other play sessions.
The one that most sticks in my mind is with two first-year students, Alex and Maddy, that I had met as a TA. Neither had played any videogames outside of Mario Kart. Once we get settled, Alex volunteers to take the helm, with Maddy watching over her shoulder. Booting up Dear Esther, I tell Alex only what she needed to know: the controls.
It isn’t long till Alex falls off a cliff and becomes trapped in a crevice. She’s encountered the brick wall of controls and virtual navigation that discourage so many who try to get into the hobby, a problem particulary present in first-person games.
I hesitantly volunteer to take the controls, having them tell me where they should the character should walk, which works out; after all, Dear Esther’s value lies mostly in its aesthetic and narration, not its interactive elements. Alex and Maddy stare in rapt attention, occasionally providing a verbal reaction or question to a particular segment, but it’s the discussion afterwards that sticks most in my memory.
Who was the narrator? What is his relationship to Paul, Donnely, and Jakobson? Is the island an actual place, or is the entire game a fever dream? These are questions that any player engrossed by the game’s narrative must confront, but my companions do so with the gusto they normally reserve for literature, and we talk for close to an hour about the experience.
What we didn’t address was Dear Esther’s nebulous status as a videogame. This has dominated discussion of both releases, given that the player’s power in the game-world is limited to moving across a linear set of spaces. Sometimes the comment is addressed academically, but in comment threads across the internet I’ve generally seen this used as a derogatory dismissal of the game. If Dear Esther doesn’t carry forward the core values of the medium, why should we give it the time of day?
Yet I consider Dear Esther to be a valuable emissary for gaming. It sits alongside games like Galatea, Façade, and To the Moon as interactive experiences that eschew the challenges and contests that typically define a game in order to focus on evoking a powerful narrative experience. A technical definition could exclude any of these from the medium of videogames, but a social definition inevitably includes them; anyone looking over my shoulder would identify these programs as videogames. This can only be a good thing.
When we finished Dear Esther, Maddy and Alex found that they had enjoyed a videogame. A switch was flipped. This seeming impossibility suggested another: if they could like one videogame, why couldn’t they like another?
There’s no grand finale here. Neither of them became dedicated to the hobby. But in future conversations, there was an interest in my work and a willingness to take recommendations. They had found a frame of reference and discovered a personal stake in the wider world of videogames. I think of this often, because Dear Esther gets a lot of crap (and has received even more as it’s racked up a few end-of-year awards). I understand this; it’s an odd game with a limited scope, targeted to a niche audience that the creator Dan Pinchbeck wasn’t even sure existed. But whenever I hear someone arguing that Dear Esther should never have been made, or that it presents some nefarious threat to all that is good and pure in videogames, my skin bristles. I have seen the game open doors, expanding not only the reach of the medium I love, but leaving me a little less lonely in the process.