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Dear Esther: Down in the Deep

dear-esther

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.

Braid: It’s Art, but is it a Game?

Braid - indie puzzle platform game by Jon Blow - title screen

Since I cottoned on to the idea that game criticism could learn a thing or two from arts criticism, I’ve inevitably been sucked into the world of games as art. It’s an interesting space: before platforms like Steam and XBLA made it possible for indie developers to create and release something and make a profit there was simply a vast gulf between blockbuster, big-studio AAA titles and artists occasionally dipping their toes into computing. Now that space is gradually becoming filled with games like Journey, Limbo and, of course, Braid.

Having now finally had the chance to play Braid, I’m struck by the fact that it’s almost unquestionably art. There’s so much about it that fits that definition. The visual style is heavily reminiscent of post-impressionist painting, pretty much unique in the video gaming space, and distractingly beautiful as you play through. The snippets of narrative text that flash up as you wander through the gateway to each world are lovingly scripted and surprisingly profound. I have discovered that I end up wanting to re-read them every time I fire up the game and enter a world, and discover new elements of insight on most occasions that I so. The overarching story is clever, filled with metaphors that lend themselves to multiple interpretations, most of which can lead to further meditations on humanity and relationships. I even love the sound, although I understand that was recycled from elsewhere. Whatever definition of art you choose, Braid seems to fit.

However, the more I’ve played it, the more I’ve become unsure as to whether or not it’s actually a game.

Braid very much belongs to the puzzle genre. No problem there, of course, there’s a long and proud history of puzzle games dating back to Q*bert in 1982 and arguably further, most of which were, in my opinion, unspeakably awful. It’s rather more unusual that in Braid the puzzle elements are combined with platform ones but there are still some well-known antecedents such as Lemmings and Wario Land. What’s unique about Braid is its supreme, clinical coldness. The way the story is presented as a series of philosophical observations with no attempt to engage the player emotionally. But most of all the manner in which it presents the player with a series of discrete puzzles that are almost entirely intellectual in nature. Experimenting and working things out are the order of the day here, and in spite of the occasional pixel-perfect jump you’re required to make, physical dexterity, reaction time and manual skill very much take a back seat.

Braid - indie puzzle platform game by Jon Blow - everything needs more dinosaurs
What it reminds me of most are the apparently endless series of small puzzle applications and flash games that people use to while away their office lunch hours, rather than anything you’d be likely to find on the console of a dedicated hobby gamer. More than that, playing Braid feels almost like solving Sudoku, or some other popular pen and paper puzzle format. The exercise is so focused on the brain that you almost start to wonder why you’re bothering to play this sort of thing on a computer when a crossword or nonogram would offer a similar kind of pleasure in a cheaper and rather more convenient format. I get the same feeling playing some European-style board games, where the strategy is often more about making best use of the rules than actually engaging with your fellow gamers, but at least in a board game you’re playing face to face in a social situation. Braid is like a European board game but with even less warmth.

Of course, Braid has this funky time-rewind thing going on that it uses as the basis for most of its puzzles and there’s no way you could do that with pen and paper. And you have to stand back and admire the cleverness of that mechanic, which is not only unusual but leveraged to make you ask yet more questions about the game itself and the wider world which you inhabit. But really that’s pretty flimsy reasoning because while that particular approach to puzzle construction might only be doable in a video game, the basic prerequisite, which is that you think your way through every stage of the game instead of running, jumping and gunning through large parts of it as is the norm, didn’t require the time-rewind. A good puzzle designer could have built Braid as a standard platformer and still made it interesting, still made it deeply philosophical and still filled it with fiendishly intractable puzzles. No matter that it happens to have a clever gimmick, we’re still back to pen and paper logic puzzles.

Braid - indie puzzle platform game by Jon Blow - donkey kong homage

So how about that allusion and metaphor rich story that overarches the whole thing then? The ability to participate directly as the central protagonist in a thrilling tale is one of the central lures of video gaming, and has be used to create unique circumstances and surprises in games like Silent Hill 2 and Knight of the Old Republic. Could Braid perhaps earn its video gaming credentials there? Well, no. The narrative is immensely clever, but it’s mainly text-based and offers little you couldn’t get from a novel or a film. Indeed I was reminded a little of Time’s Arrow on more than one occasion whilst playing.

There are antecedents in terms of games that engage the player primarily intellectually rather than physically though. Computer wargames are the poster child here, although the wider world of strategy games offers other candidates, and no-one would suggest those weren’t video games. But again, Braid is different. All the computer strategy games that I can think of either utilised the computer to do something you couldn’t do in a physical format, or had heavy elements of hidden information and randomness that forced the player to make moves based on intuition as well as intellect. Often these were one and the same thing, such as a fog of war effect, or complex calculation for hit and damage. By contrast in Braid everything is open for the player to see, and almost all the puzzles are trials of pure logic and deduction.

And yet, for all the criticisms I’m here levelling at the game, for all that it remains remote and unengaging, I’m very impressed by it, perhaps more as a concept than as a game. It’s eaten many hours of my time none of which, and this is an astonishing rarity for a video game, feel like they’ve been wasted, although some of them don’t feel like they were actually very much fun. And ultimately the argument I’m pushing here, which is that it isn’t really a video game at all, leads to an even more interesting question and conclusion. Namely, that if it isn’t a video game, what is it? And I have no idea what you’d name it, but it is all of the things I’ve compared it to, rolled into one. A pen and paper puzzle, a (short) novel, a philosophical exercise and a piece of visual art. And in that amalgamation, finally, is our vindication and our answer: nothing other than a video game could successfully unite such disparate elements. And in doing so, Braid, like many of the other indie-art games that came after it have finally started the long-overdue process of pushing the envelope of what a game can be. Whatever you think of Braid, and it’s creator Jon Blow, it deserves acclaim for that feat alone.