Dear Esther: Down in the Deep

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Last week I found myself in a twitter conversation about Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs which lead on to the previous game from its developers, Dear Esther. I offered two statements about Dear Esther, first that it was full of faux-intellectualism and second that it wasn’t particularly “deep”, both of which my conversant challenged. I couldn’t really answer properly in 140 character bites, but I think there are some interesting enough questions around this to merit wider discussion.

First, let’s talk about Dear Esther. If you haven’t played it, it’s a first-person experience in which you wander around a small island, triggering a selection of different voice snippets that hang together into a maddeningly incomplete narrative. There’s no enemies, no puzzles and you’re largely on rails, although there are occasional opportunities for exploration. So that narrative, which draws from a very large selection of passages and is different on each play through, makes up much the game’s value.

It’s questionable whether it really even qualifies as a game. But I’m not interested in tiresome genre clarifications and whatever it is, I found it hugely impressive. It’s the first thing I’ve ever come across that successfully sprawls across the art-game boundary, demonstrating in the process how games can deliver an intellectually challenging experience in a way unique to the medium. Rails or not, your active participation in Dear Esther is key to the experience, and the random unfurling of distinct but related narratives is something no film or book or canvas could achieve.

So, given that I’m a fan, what was my purpose in challenging the amount of artistic value that it offers? Mainly to demonstrate how little competition it has in that space. Journey is there, perhaps Child of Eden, but most of the other titles that tread into this sphere are either clearly games with some limited artistic pretensions – such as A Machine for Pigs – or equally clearly pieces of performance art like Lose/Lose. When people hold up the artistic value of Dear Esther, it simply highlights the paucity of competition.

Or am I being unfair? I made two claims about the game. When I made the first, that it was guilty of faux-intellectualism, I had a very specific example in mind: the writing. It’s incredibly hard to write prose that has the texture of poetry without coming across as overblown and pretentious. I can think of perhaps three authors who write like that and get away with it: Cormac McCarthy, Joseph Conrad and Mervyn Peake, literary giants all.

Yet Dan Pinchbeck, who wrote the script for Dear Esther and A Machine For Pigs, is not afraid to try and walk in their company. And given the quality bar that he’s aiming at, the fact he gets close is something that should be celebrated. But the fact remains that when, at times, he falls short, the result is clunky and jars with the evocative visuals, music and unfolding narrative. The words sound complex and impressive, but hide little meaning. In those moments Dear Esther collapses, briefly, under the weight of its own ambition.

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But what of my other accusation, that the game lacked “depth”? When I stopped to consider this, I became unsure of what I actually meant. What do I understand as “depth” in this regard?

The most literal interpretation is that the work can be appreciated on multiple levels, often by understanding them one at a time like the layers of an onion. I am firmly of the opinion that truly great art should approximate this model and that its first layer should be accessible to all, regardless of education or culture, to encourage deeper digging beneath.

Dear Esther certainly has wide initial appeal, and it certainly has more than one layer of allegory. But it feels to me like it doesn’t have all that many. The other characters mentioned by the narrator as well as the physical terrain and history of the island itself are to be read as metaphors for different aspects of the narrator’s personality and state of mind, and that’s pretty much your lot. The fragmentary nature of the plot may invite multiple interpretations, but that’s not the same as real depth. Indeed, the lack of answers could even be seen as antithesis to it. You won’t find any meditations on the human condition hidden in the wide crevasses between paragraphs.

But.

The human condition is important. Illuminating it is, perhaps, the single most vital thing a piece of art can do. And when I step back and think about the books and that have profoundly moved me some of them have not been particularly deep in the sense of onion layers. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a good example, The (ahem, yes really) Time Traveler’s Wife is another. The emotional impact of a wide-reaching and well-written tale can leave you with a lot of mull over without requiring excessive analysis.

This is where Dear Esther really excels. Both times I played it with headphones, alone, late at night: the only light coming from the game’s fat moon and luminous fungi. The first time I finished it I sat and gaped at the uncaring darkness, thoughts rushing through my head of times I’d been hurt, times I’d been guilty of hurting others. The effects lingered for several days. Even more impressively, the second time I played through I had a similar, though less intense reaction. In dredging up those emotions, turning them over in my head again from different angles, I learned more about those situations. I learned more about me. I learned more about people, as a whole.

So I was unfair to Dear Esther. It might not be as intellectually rigorous as it sometimes seems to think it is, but it’s not lacking in profundity for all that. There’s a lot more wisdom on the earth than that to be found written as footnotes in a textbook.

One Response to “Dear Esther: Down in the Deep”

  1. drunkenpandaren September 17, 2013 at 11:32 pm #

    I’ve only played the original mod for Dear Esther (because I don’t want to look at super HD ghosts chasing me around in that game). So I’m super biased to say that it looks like poop and it’s overrated, especially after only playing it once and so shortly after I played Paranoia.

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