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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.

The Tyranny of Challenge

Like most middle-aged gamers, I cut my teeth in the noisy, garish world of coin-op arcades. When each play costs anew, game designers and manufacturers had a vested interest in making them tough. Not too tough to put off potential gamers, but enough to require repeated coins pumped through the slot.

It was a delicate balancing act but we lapped it up, living for those sweaty moments of exquisite agony where new and unexpected situations taxed your muscle memory and you twitched instinctively over the joystick. Trying desperately to keep that personalised bunch of mindless pixels on the screen burning brightly for one second longer, fired with the knowledge that pocket change isn’t that easy to come by when you’re a teenager.

The same ethic of toughness pervaded the early home computer games. Partly it was inherited from the coin-op world, and partly it was down to technical constraints. But neither lasted. As early as the end of the 8-bit era there were games where progress could be saved, where the focus was more on brave exploration or engrossing story or cunning conundrums than it was on mastering movement patterns.

At a stroke this should have altered forever the culture of difficulty. Where is the value in setting up artificial barriers to progress when they can be overcome eventually with the repetition of saving and reloading? Anyone could master anything with no more skill than a reserve or patience, or obsession. And yet difficulty not only remained a shibboleth of game design, it remains celebrated now.

For evidence, look at the number of titles that hobby gamers repeatedly celebrate and marvel over from the most recent console iteration which are feted for their extreme levels of difficulty, such as Dark Souls and others. Observe the worry about input lag on modern TVs, and how microsecond differences can make difficult games unplayable. Look at the exhortations you see in columns and articles everywhere to play games on their most punishing settings.

I first started thinking about this when I saw a fairly heated discussion about the merits of doing just that on Max Payne 3. There was a minority of dissenting opinion that the best way to experience the game was to actually do the exact opposite, make it as easy to play as possible, and just sit back and enjoy the story and those cool bullet-time visuals. And I thought, why not? What’s wrong with just loving a game because its immersive and clever, treating it more like an interactive film than a traditional game experience?

I was reminded of that train of thought recently, playing Dear Esther for the first time. It’s an odd thing which defies easy classification, and I admired to hugely for its inventiveness and artistry, probably more than I enjoyed actually playing it. But it has no difficulty whatsoever, beyond the demands that piecing together the intentionally fragmentary, incomplete story places on the player. It may not even be a game.

But whatever it is, it wouldn’t work anywhere other than on a computer. I was dumbfounded to read that some of its critics felt it would have worked better than a film. How would a film incorporate the elements of exploration that reward the player with more clues on Dear Esther’s tantalisingly incomplete characters and plot? How would it randomise the monologue to ensure repeat value and different interpretations on each analysis? How would it draw the viewer into the central driving seat of the experience? It is fundamentally a digital experience, and must remain so to preserve its value.

But on consideration, its astonishing that it took so long for something like Dear Esther to exist. The ways in which it leverages the medium to create an absorbing yet highly creative and aesthetic experience seems obvious after the fact. And it’s not like artists haven’t tried using games to make important, interesting statements before although the results have been far more art than game, worthy of analysis rather than play. Why did no-one create a playable art-game hybrid like Dear Esther earlier?

Some of the blame rests with the deservedly dreadful reputation that the term “interactive movie” garnered early in its life. Games like Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace might have looked very pretty by the standards of their time but they were clunky, linear things with little replay value and the bad smell they left after their initial vast hype is only now beginning to dissipate. Recent titles like Dear Esther and Heavy Rain leave me wondering what that amorphous combination of film and computing could have managed in the intervening years were it not for the long shadow of the laser disc.

But mostly I suspect that the lack of progress in this space is due to the worship of difficulty on the part of game designers everywhere. The people in the driving seat of game releases have, up until very recently, been my generation, that same generation who had an association between challenge and gaming seared onto their developing adolescent brains from hours of coin-op play. To people raised on that cultured that celebrated challenge as the be-all and end-all of games, the idea of something sedate, easy, to be consumed and appreciated for reasons other than its difficulty is anathema.

The same people are doing a lot of work on mobile and tablets. They’re responsible for games like Super Hexagon, a game of such intense difficulty that progress for most players is measured in terms of seconds, not even minutes. But the interesting thing about this is that in many ways mobile gaming is a return to the early days on coin-ops because both formats have an inherent interest in keeping games short, albeit for very different reasons.

As a result high challenge games work exceptionally well on mobile. And as the format eats further and further into console and PC gaming it’s worth remembering that while difficult games have value, they don’t entirely play to the strengths of those platforms, which is rendering long, compelling, media-rich experiences.

This isn’t about bashing difficult games on consoles. When they’re built around the concept of their challenge, cunningly designed as Dark Souls is to make it a central feature of their game on top of which other involving aspects of play can be assembled, they can be superb. But the continued existence of fake barrier erected in many other games can simply lead to repetition. Don’t be phased. Enjoy games on whatever difficulty settings appeal to you most. And hope that now a new generation of developers is leaving the old god of challenge for mobile, where it properly belongs, we’ll see a whole lot more experimentation and innovation in the next hardware generation.

Games: They’re not Films

Braid screenshot - developer Jon Blow points out that games need to emphasise what's unique about the medium

It’s funny how things often tie themselves up in satisfying little bundles. One week after posting a long rambling piece on how we can go about forging a style of criticism unique to games, I came across this interview with Jon Blow. Now I’d never heard of indie developer Jon Blow before, or even either of his games Braid or the upcoming The Witness but it made fascinating reading nevertheless, which tied in nicely with the whole games-as-art thing that I’d been thinking about. Here’s a man who’s not just echoing what so many of us are saying about the one-dimensional nature of modern video games but doing something about it too.

It’s a long piece although entirely worthwhile. But just in case you don’t have time to read it I’ll go straight for what I thought was the money shot, toward the end of the article:

As Hecker explained it: “Look, film didn’t get to be film by trying to be theater. First, they had to figure out the things they could do that theater couldn’t, like moving the camera around and editing out of sequence—and only then did film come into its own.” This was why Citizen Kane did so much to put filmmaking on the map: not simply because it was well made, but because it provided a rich experience that no other medium before it could have provided.

This is one of those times where I was forcibly struck by the fact that this was screamingly obvious once stated, but that I’d never heard it stated before. Games are not films, and to become the unique artistic medium they can be, they need to concentrate on what it is that they can do uniquely.

And the tie-back to the criticism piece? Well, if this message is true of the medium, it’s true of the criticism as well. As writers we need to be thinking about this, about what makes games unique and focussing on that when we de-construct and analyse things. And not only that, we need to be thinking about what makes writing about games unique, and using that as the basis to forge our new art.

The Function of Criticism

Criticism - do we review games or do we critique them like art, and what's the purpose of doing either

It’s rare that I hear about a game and decide that it’s a must-buy. Rather, I prefer to take the softly-softly approach: wait, see what the community consensus is, read some reviews of the game and (if it’s a board game) the rules and then make a decision. Often, however many reams of text I end up digesting in the course of this process, it’ll be one paragraph, even one sentence that makes me choose one way or the other. Increasingly, I’m asking myself why I bother.

It’s also come to my attention that a lot, probably the majority, of people don’t choose stuff this way. There’s much more of a tendency to impulse buy stuff. And if you read a lot of the comments that people make on game reviews you’ll notice something else: it’s quite clear that a lot of the people who read reviews and comment on them have already played the game in question. They’ve come to the review seeking either validation of their own point of view, or the opportunity to disagree publicly with the opinions of the reviewer. And this begs the question: what’s the purpose of a review? Perhaps more importantly, is the perception of what most people want from a review the same as what reviewers believe they want?

I’ll tell you what I want from a review. I want to get a sense of what a game feels like to play, what the experience is like, what sort of emotions it engenders in the player(s). I like a bit of logistical information too and I want a clear reviewers slant telling me whether they think it’s a good game or not, and why. Personally I think you can do all that and still provide people who might not agree with you with enough information to help them decide whether they might think it’s a good game or not. That’s what I’d look for, and so obviously that’s what I’ve tried to provide in my reviews. I’m not sure I succeed all that well, too often getting sucked down into the mechanical detail needed as a foundation to explain why I think certain things about certain games, but I try. And frankly whether I’m happy with what I write or not, I do think it’s better than a lot of other stuff out there which seems to boil down to some mixture of verbatim instructional re-write, comedy value or “New! Shiny! Awesome!”

There’s a reason for this. I can’t claim the insight for myself, but our very own Michael Barnes has been pointing out for several years that professional criticism of all sorts of games is a relatively new phenomenon. In the video game sector, progress has been held back by a pathetically patronising long-time perception that games were for kids, and kids didn’t need proper reviews, although it’s finally starting to come of age. For tabletop games, a stubborn celebration of amateurism seems to have become entrenched, no doubt partially due to virtually zero professional coverage of the genre. And without a professional attitude, you can’t have the self-examination necessary to ask what the purpose of a review is, and thus how you might go about improving it.

But perhaps unsurprisingly if you turn to the more mature formats of books, films and plays, vast amounts of ink have been expended on the subject of the purpose of criticism. Equally unsurprisingly given the subjective nature of the material, little agreement has been reached. At the heart of the discussion seems to be the tug between wanting to help and inform readers whilst avoiding preaching to them. On the one hand, it’s likely that any given game reviewer probably knows a bit more about games than the audience in terms of insider industry information, the longer history of gaming and wider exposure to different current generation games, and therefore is in a better position to explore whether a game is not only any good but also genuinely innovative than the reader. On the other hand taste is of course entirely subjective, so how does a bit of education and eloquence give a few elite authors the right to dictate that something is good or otherwise, often in the face of popular opinion?

All opinions are equal. But some are more equal than others.

It seems that one of the common answers to this is to say that criticism is an art form in and of itself and so has no particular rights or wrongs outside the eye of the observer. I can see the attraction to this as a way of answering the dilemma of whether a critic should inform or preach, but it’s a get-out clause, an unsatisfactory answer for a number of reasons. For starters, in any form of criticism, it’s circular: it the work of an art critic is itself art, then that makes the criticism a valid target for other critics and so on. And whilst this is true, it turns a subject and its critics into a closed circle, which is liable to stagnate and is useless and impenetrable to outside readers. Which is pretty much what’s happened in the modern art world if you ask me, but I digress. It also comes no closer to answering our initial question. And when it comes to games there’s another problem, which is the question of whether a game is art in the first place.

This is a complex question that’s been tackled by others elsewhere and I can’t properly do it justice. In the past I would have argued that all game design is inherently mathematical, and that makes the status of games as art dubious. But more recently with advances in AI technology, emergent gameplay and multiplayer collusion it’s become far more of an open question. Nowadays I would say that they can be art. In video games the existence of titles like Journey bridges the gap between games created deliberately as art pieces and those created for playability. Board games have been skirting round this territory for longer, and in rather different ways, but arguably politicised games such as War on Terror or GMT’s Labyrinth and story-telling games like Once Upon A Time or Tales of the Arabian Nights fulfil a similar function.

But of course just because some games can be art, doesn’t mean they all can. I’m reminded of the chapters in American Psycho where the narrator offers in-depth analysis of rubbish pop bands such as Huey Lewis & The News. A lot of games, the majority, are just empty-headed shooters and platformers after all. But if some games have the potential to be art, even though many are not it strikes me that perhaps they have to be reviewed as though could be art. After all, one can write a clear and compelling review of mass-market rubbish while comparing and contrasting it with more rarefied examples because both, ultimately, spring from the same source. Film critics make much of their money doing exactly that. And if that’s the case perhaps a review can never be truly helpful in guiding people toward relevant purchases. In my years of reviewing I’ve struggled hugely with trying to address the question of how best to do this, continually being thwarted by the amorphous nature of my subject matter and the wide spectrum of taste in my audience. A lot of art critics don’t feel that advising readers is a key part of what they do and perhaps its part and parcel of game criticism maturing that authors and audience alike abandon the pretence that reviews are a realistic way of helping people decide what to buy.

Not all critics are good writers

So if we’re not in the business of giving commercial advice, why are we here? One of the things that I enjoy about writing reviews is that the process of organising the text helps to get my own thoughts into a coherent, sensible order and perhaps more importantly to explore them more deeply and see where they lead. That seems very insular as a stated purpose for something that is intended for a wider audience, but perhaps reading a review serves the same function, to offer clarity to the jumble of concepts we all carry around in our heads as we think about and play games. The existence of reviews has a further advantage of particular use in the internet age and that’s to engender discussion on the subject which hopefully leads to new avenues to explore and, in extreme cases, to new concepts being adopted by designers, developers and publishers. But you can achieve these same goals through editorial-style content such as this very piece: it may be that the thoughts they clarify and discussion they engender lack focus in comparison to the effects produced by a review of a specific product, but that seems a poor reason for reviews to exist as a stand-alone concept. You’d get the same effect sooner or later from a succession of opinion pieces.

So it seems that a good way to answer the question of why we write and read reviews would be to look at what – if anything – makes a review distinct from a less focussed opinion piece. And I suspect that the answer is actually in the question: focus. By forcing the writer to concentrate on a specific piece of work and comment from their, it means that what could be an opinion piece is actually an analysis piece. Instead of offering airy-fairy thoughts, they have to anchor what they’re saying in reality, provide evidence and reasons for their opinions. You could do the same in an opinion piece of course but you don’t have to, and I imagine most of us are familiar enough with the more extreme forms of fact-free journalism promulgated by the tabloid press, and the manner in which it is often swallowed wholesale, to understand the value of being rooted in reality. Furthermore because that analysis is focussed down on particular, individual products, the discussion that it engenders has a much higher chance of resulting in something equally concrete, feedback that a developer or publisher can take on board, react to, use to improve the quality of their output. Reviews and criticism entertain and inform readers certainly, but their final purpose may well be their ability to push the envelope of design, development and publishing. The ongoing furores over the re-sale of used games and the lack of creativity in AAA titles suggest that without people capable of articulating what’s right and wrong with existing games and starting meaningful discussions around those subjects, the industry has little hope of delivering improvements for their own sake. But sadly, it seems to me that the current poor state of reviews on far too many outlets has little chance of managing to making a lot of difference. At the moment, that’s still up to the fans, and the fuss over the ending to Mass Effect 3 demonstrates that it’s not always desirable that fan power should win over artistic integrity.

I suspect that the answer to my original question that we have arrived at is a lot less interesting than the journey we took to find it. And that highlights the final point I want to make, which is that although we may have found it reasonable to suggest that games reviews share a lot of common ground with the critique of high art there is a long, long way to go before we can meaningfully compare them on the same level. But there is hope that one day we might get there. And perhaps most importantly of all there is certainty that in the exciting, gruelling process of forging this new art, there is room for all of us to contribute and to help shape whatever it is that rises from the flames into something we can hold up and be proud of.

A big thank you to Jesse Dean of 2d6.org who started the ball rolling in my head on this subject. He’s posting his own series of pieces about it, starting by wondering why the flawed A Few Acres of Snow got a free ride from reviewers.