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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.

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs Review

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The first Amnesia title, The Dark Descent, was acclaimed by many as the scariest game ever made, an assessment with which I concur. Its success was down to getting simple things right: atmosphere, cunning set-pieces and depriving the player of the ability to fight back, making every monster encounter a wellspring of terror.

That immediately creates two problems for this sequel. First, the bar is already set incredibly high: to outdo the most horrifying game ever created. Second, to make it interesting and new without adding too much and spoiling the stripped down formula responsible for the original’s success.

Astonishingly, the answer that A Machine For Pigs has for the latter question is to become even more straightforward, putting less mechanics between the player and the sinking pit of their stomach. It’s a bold move and, largely, a successful one. In the original game, for instance, light sources were limited and standing in the dark made the protagonist hallucinate. A clever mechanic but one which, in practice, was often more annoying than atmospheric.

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It’s gone. Now you have a lamp you can use whenever you want. Player agency is restored, there’s one less mechanic to learn and, most importantly, the developers now have full control over all your light sources. You’ll learn what a difference that makes the first time you descend into a pitch dark, monster-filled cellar to the sound of freakish chanting and find your trusty lamp suddenly begins to flicker uncontrollably.

However the removal of the inventory backfires. The game retains its unusual physics engine which allows you to grasp doors and items and push, pull or otherwise manipulate them with mouse movements. It’s a great adventure mechanic, but without an inventory you have to put down whatever you’re carrying every time you want to open a door. You won’t end up carrying items around often, but it’s still irritating.

While the play style will be familiar to veterans of the original, A Machine for Pigs was actually developed by The Chinese Room, the studio behind Dear Esther. It’s better looking than its predecessor but seems extremely resource hungry. My laptop with an i7 and a decent mid-range graphics card found some frame-rate stuttering even on the lowest settings.

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The much-vaunted new outdoor levels aren’t so much different from the indoor ones, but they to add to the considerable range of environments you’ll encounter as you descend into the bowels of the machine. Most of the levels have their own distinct look and feel, offering a lure of curiosity to pull you forward.

Everything you’ll come across has been ruthlessly engineered to cause unease. Apparently normal paintings that are actually twisted parodies, caged beds with bloodstained sheets, drawers that turn out to be full of human teeth. Psychological buttons are pushed relentlessly: vulnerable children, attic stairs, rattling doors.

However, a new engine isn’t the only thing The Chinese Room have bought to the Amnesia franchise. Their influence is heard in the soundtrack, too. While there’s plenty of droning bass, mechanical creaking and distorted screams, masterfully blended to unsettle the player, there’s also bursts of melancholy strings, very reminiscent of Dear Esther. There’s also lots of silence, used effectively as a launchpad for sudden scare effects.

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But the new developer’s biggest contribution is to the plot. Although largely told through a series of found notes, just like the original, the narrative here is more interesting and, arguably, darker. It’s a tangled tale which begins with love and the desire for a better world but ends in tragedy and takes in a lot of grotesque body horror along the way. It’s a clever piece of work, redolent of allegory and inviting deeper analysis.

While more concrete than the jumbled story snippets that made Dear Esther so interesting, it’s told in a similarly fragmentary manner and leaves plenty of ambiguity. Just like the best macabre writing, the mind fills in the blanks with horribly suggestive detail. The story might not be hugely imaginative, but it’s compelling and shocking nevertheless, helped considerably by a sympathetic protagonist.

Oddly, one of the biggest problems with the previous game was that it was almost too effective. Being disturbed to the point of recoiling at small noises and refusing to play in the dark is almost the antithesis of fun. And while the threat of tripping over a creature in the gloaming and having it immediately eviscerate you added to the fear factor, it was also frustrating. Especially so if you were trying to work your way through a puzzle at the time.

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A Machine For Pigs is still scary. Once, after playing, I walked into a dark kitchen and jumped in whey-faced terror at what turned out to be a white tea-towel. Even early on, where you’re under no threat whatsoever, you’ll still be tormented by a constant itch of mortal peril. But I don’t think it’s scarier than the original game. Perhaps I’m jaded after playing that, no longer shocked by what’s essentially the same mechanics, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

You won’t encounter that many monsters in A Machine For Pigs. Some seem to mysteriously vanish should you fail to get past them a couple of times. The puzzles are varied, but not especially hard, and you’re generally allowed to solve them without creatures trying to bite your face off. Later, there are extended sections where, Dear Esther-like, there’s little to do but explore and wallow in the bleak atmosphere.

Basically, it’s not too frustrating to play. But without the thorn of annoyance to vex the player, it’s also less immediately terrifying. Plenty of titles can make you jump out of your skin, but A Machine For Pigs aims deeper, worming inside and making you uncomfortable with your very humanity. It might not be scarier than the most frightening horror game ever made but does manage, by porcine whisker, to be a more interesting, memorable and likely more divisive game overall.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent Review

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Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a bizarre and contradictory experience. It compels you to explore further, play more while dreading every minute. It leaves you thankful for wrapping up in eight hours, but wanting more. It makes you want to divert your hands from quaking over keys and mouse to pressing the off button. But you won’t.

The plot stumbles over the usual threadbare horror clichés an unreliable narrator, trapped in a crumbling ruin who must descend to murder his former tutor, piecing his chequered past together from diary fragments. A weak Lovecraftian pastiche. What sets the game apart is the uncanny skill with which the backdrop for the story is delivered.

Graphically, it’s satisfyingly bleak. The engine uses a simple but unusual conceit of mouse gestures mimicking physical ones which is intuitive and places you directly into the setting. But the crowning glory is the sound. An unsettling bass drone over which is washed a muted cacophony of scratchings, fevered breaths and minor chords. When this is rent by sudden growls and screams the effect is truly shocking, inducing sudden panic from nowhere.

This ability to conjure terror from thin air ensures the game remains compelling even when there’s nothing happening. The early stages consist of little but wandering the inky gloaming of the game’s environment but are still unsettling. Your avatar goes slowly mad if left in the dark resulting in hallucinations and paralysis. He has a lantern to ward against this eventuality, yet light leaves you exposed as prey to one of the many fiends that stalk the hallways. It creates a contradiction the player can never wholly resolve, resulting in constant tension.

So powerful is this effect that encountering one of the castle’s monstrous denizens actually feels like a release. But it’s short lived. There is no combat in Amnesia: anything you meet can kill you with ease. You can only hide or run, both piling the pressure straight back on. Fleeing the horrors, slamming doors behind you and hearing them being torn asunder by the pursuing nightmare is an experience that can leave you sick with stress.

There are puzzles too, oases of relative calm where you can solve conundrums without fear of molestation. They make good use of the tactile physics of the interface, encouraging you to open hatches and pull levers as you experiment with solutions. Some are fairly challenging, though experienced gamers should prove equal to the task.

There is a passage common to tiresome horror novels where moments seem to last forever as the protagonist waits, frozen in fear. Amnesia is the digital realisation of that feeling, a game where a thirty second dash through a lightless, flooded corridor with an invisible monster at your heels can stretch into a lifetime. It is many fine things: terrifying, unusual, compelling. But it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, pleasant.