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Dear Esther And Its Place In Entertainment
by Blackjack Goren on 03/08/12 01:28:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I recently bought, played and completed Dear Esther, a PC first-person adventure game.

Yes, an adventure game.

Some people, like professional videogame reviewers, are having trouble concluding whether or not "this is even a game."  Others are impressed with the "creative" ways in which it tells a story, and on how it represents unexplored territory for games.  I'll deal with these questions and presumptions in just a bit.

The environment is beautiful.  By far, the strength of Dear Esther.

Firstly, there is validity to some of the praise Dear Esther has received.  The game succeeds at setting a mood of loneliness and gloom.  The player won't run into other characters during his journey across a desolate island as his only companion are pieces of occasional dialog often directed at "Esther," left behind by a well-voiced character that has traversed the environment earlier, which trigger as the player arrives at different points of interest.  The writing, while often indulging in prolix speech that lessens the plausibility of the narrator's feelings of sorrow, is pleasant to listen to.  As the player progresses in the game, the audio reveals details about the narrator's past and/or experiences on the island, which are intriguing at best and efficient at worst.  Additionally, the environment is gorgeous and serves the purpose of giving the player a sense of place.  As already stated, the island is desolate, with subtle hints of land once occupied.  The music, which presents itself with the same frequency as the narrator's dialog, is expectedly effective at adding to the feeling of desolation, somberness and the infrequent discomfort.  When there is no music the aural experience is supplanted by a wealth of sound effects, from waves clashing against beach rocks to wind gusts brushing against tall grass as they find refuge inside the peaceful embrace of a cave's comforting womb... ahem.

But what about interactivity?

I could almost forget to mention what the player actually does, and my description above would still provide a comprehensive summary of the player experience.  Indeed, all the player does in Dear Esther is walk and look, nothing more.  And it is in this utter simplicity that many are confused about what this game is, while some other players are actually overwhelmed with a feeling akin to what an eleven-year-old boy feels like when opening an  issue of Playboy Magazine for the first time.

Let's address the concern that this isn't a game.  As I've pointed out, the player just walks as he soaks in the environment and listens to a character speak about his background and hike on the island.  While there is very little to do here, the player is still interacting with the world.  The player is solving a problem, albeit a very simple problem, that of navigation.  The player only has to be concerned with traversing the environment to get to the next unexplored location.  However, outside of walking, there are no additional mechanics to help engage the player in navigating the environment interestingly, so the player's mind and reflexes are minimally engaged (there are a couple of short, minor swim portions, but they are almost indiscernible from walking).  This detracts from the experience of exploring the island.  The sense of place gained from the beautiful environment is partly lost from the lack of interaction with it.

There will be few times when the player has to choose between two roads, but this is usually an exercise in frustration.  In these areas where the roads split, one of the roads will eventually lead to a dead end.  There will be some environment piece to see off the beaten path, and new dialog may play, but after reaching the end of the road, the player has to slowly walk all the way back to the origin of the split.  There is no run button, and once the pretty but fairly uniform environment has been carefully observed on the first trip down the road, there is nothing interesting to experience on the way back.  And what if the player picks the critical path first?  Well, in this case, since the game is all about walking and looking, the player's only incentive is to see as much of the narrow world as possible.  The player's goal becomes to explore.  So, once the player realizes that he's on the way to progress in the game, he will likely turn back to the unexplored path in case the area he's currently in becomes inaccessible later (and this is, ironically, the reaction a designer wants from the player -- that he cares enough about the world to spend the time exploring every nook and cranny).  So, the player will head back, slowly, explore the dead-end road, and then slowly make his way back to the position where he originally turned back.  This is an exercise in boredom and frustration.

Dear Esther is indeed an adventure game, no question about it.  It is just not a very interesting one, an offshoot of the genre lacking the puzzle-solving element, thus leaving exploration as its only hook to the interactive artform.  I will expand on this when I address why some reviewers have taken to the idea that this game is charting new territory, or expanding the limits of what we've experienced in games.

Now that I've established that it is a game, one that is light on interactivity but still a game nonetheless, let's address the assumption that this game is creative, and later on that this game "explores the fringes of the form."

There is very little creativity here, even on storytelling.  The story is delivered through two methods: by the environment art, and by spoken dialog.  Environments used as a means to give context to a story, that is, by allowing the player to observe a piece of art that reveals some history about the virtual world, have been present in adventure games for at least two decades.  Even action games like the first Metal Gear Solid used the state of the environment, such as a corridor containing scattered corpses of bloodied, sliced soldiers on the floor and against the walls, to clue the player in as to the offensive capabilities and state of mind of one of the game's apparent antagonists (i.e. The culprit can single-handedly kill a bunch of armed, genetically enhanced soldiers by himself with deadly precision, and is disturbed enough to have no qualms about decorating a room with their insides in the process).  Most recently, BioShock popularized the use of environments as a means to tell the story of its world, of Rapture (just look up relatively recent talks by game developers for evidence on the subject, and you'll see that even then in 2007 this method of storytelling was somehow a sort of revelation for inattentive game designers).  Dear Esther, while using the environment for similar means, is actually quite restrained and subtle in this fashion, occasionally to the point of boredom.  While in other games the environment can prompt the question of, "What the hell happened here?," in Esther the reaction is either, "Hm, I wonder what these symbols mean?," or "Oh, this is the exact same thing the dialog told me I would find."  Yes, there will be times where the dialog will literally tell you about an object and its intended purpose in the story, and immediately afterwards the player will find said object in the world.  In this case there is no story being exposed here as the dialog already revealed it.  Overall, this makes for an environment that is occasionally uninteresting despite being well built and nice to look at, a big failing in a game where most of the time is spent looking at shit while walking.

Subtle environment storytelling.

As expected, of the two narrative deliveries in the game, the dialog is the most clear at communicating the story, although we have seen this method of storytelling before with, again, games like BioShock and its audio recordings, and countless games since.  Essentially, there is no substance to the claim that Dear Esther provides a creative way to tell a story.  Yet this claim is hardly new.  Innovation is a word overused and misused in the videogame industry, so pointing out yet another example of this sad fact does not do much of anything.  However, there is a bit of danger in the claim that Dear Esther is somehow pushing the boundaries of what a game is, or what it can be.  It could lead junior designers, or those unfamiliar with videogames, to misunderstand them further.

Let's look at a quote that is representative of what many players are saying about Dear Esther (emphasis mine):

"It left me feeling pensive, mildly saddened, and confident that games have plenty of directions left to explore. If you’re interested in what can be achieved when you abandon the conventions of games and explore the fringes of the form instead, it’s a must-play." - Keza MacDonald, IGN UK's Games Editor

According to IGN UK's Games Editor, and others on the internet, Esther explores the fringes of the form, the edges of gaming that are unexplored.  However, playing the game exposes the complete opposite of this statement.  Not only does Esther not explore new territory, but in fact it simplifies what has been present in other games to the point of making Esther almost irrelevant.  We've already had games that slowly expose a terrifying, somber story to us through both aural and environmental deliveries without explicitly interrupting play, but these forms of narrative are often accompanied by  interesting interactions.

Let us look again at BioShock (not only is this a good example of everything Esther does and a lot more, but it's a popular one that hopefully most who read this have already experienced, and can therefore better understand what I'm saying here).  After the first few minutes of play, the player arrives at a transportation station in Rapture.  The player, armless, after arriving in a bathysphere, witnesses the murder of a human being by another individual at the station, the latter leaping out of view shortly afterwards in shockingly superhuman fashion, followed by his trying to break into the bathysphere from above, where the player is located.  The player is likely thinking, "Why did he kill him?  Why is he trying to kill me?  How the hell did he jump that high?  How do I survive this?  Can I kill it?"  The aggressor gives up for a moment, walks away out of view, and silence takes over.  The player exits the bathysphere and is immediately drawn to the environment.  Protest signs litter the floor of the station, all complaining about the state of Rapture, about a man named Andrew Ryan.  The walls are painted with what looks like blood, screaming messages of despair and doom.  Numerous pieces of luggage share the floor along with the signs of mass displeasure  "Who is this Andrew Ryan?  What happened here?  What is this place?  Were people trying to flee, and why?," the player is likely to question.  The player is also likely traversing the environment very slowly, very aware, very engaged, for somewhere nearby there's a murderous psycho, and the player has no weapons to defend himself.

This sequence alone, in addition to the previous sequence of the player swimming past a burning fire as a result of a plane crash, and a walk through a visually pleasant trip to the bathysphere, essentially provide nearly the same level of interaction and environmental storytelling as Esther.  Later in the game, as the player picks up and listens to the recordings of the people responsible for the fall of Rapture, and its victims, the player is essentially exposed to the same form of aural narrative as in Esther.  So, a game like BioShock, and others already do everything Esther does.  There is only one exception.  In BioShock, the player has to interact with the dangers of this world, and at times be consumed by them, and for this to occur the story has to take the occasional backseat.  In Esther, the player is merely a passive observant and listener to someone else's more interesting tale of tragedy and adventure.  Indeed, this game does not present unexplored territory, but rather simplifies territory that has already been explored plenty of times before.  The only difference is that it simplifies player interactivity and player engagement to the point of uselessness.

Now, I can already see some of you thinking, "But Jack, the lack of interactivity is what allows me to feel the sense of solitude this game provides.  It allows me to absorb the tragic story without distractions!  It is necessary for the experience."

Ah, and this is where we get to the crux of all this.  Indeed, ignoring its flaws, the main difference between Esther and most other games that do everything this game does lies in its lack of interaction.  Essentially, it simplifies what is the defining trait of the artform to enhance the strengths of other artforms, in the case of Esther the strengths, primarily, of film (visual storytelling).  For film allows the viewer to simply watch, to observe and absorb the entirety of its story.  Videogames, the highest artform, can therefore include all other artforms, including film (cutscenes), and it's this innate trait of videogames that can lead some to focus on these other forms, since after all, they have been heavily realized through history and are therefore easy to create for.  Esther has not chosen the road less traveled, but instead has chosen the clearly defined and explored road of film-making, and merely repackaged it as a videogame.

The island is a movie set.  Books are painted on the foam rocks.

In other words, if player control is replaced for a scripted camera, the experience of Esther would be at best better, and at worst unchanged from the original game. "Better" because the player does not need to traverse terrain he has already explored slowly, as camera editing can remove these boring, uninteresting portions.  "Unchanged," because the action of walking in the game, of navigating, is meaningless.  The player is merely an observant, a watcher.  There is nothing significant lost if the player loses interactivity.  There is no loss to the experience.

Following this hypothetical scenario, that of the player losing control in place of a scripted camera, that is, a camera built to traverse the environment in first-person view in the most interesting, carefully paced way possible, then what would Esther become if not a film?  Because you see, what separates Esther from film is merely the nigh-pointlessness of player-controlled walking and looking.  If we were to stack all artforms on top of each other, with videogames at the top, Dear Esther would be so far down the bottom of the videogame barrel that a simple flick of the finger would cause it to lose its feeble grip on videogames and drop down into the land of independent films.

We don't live in a videogame bubble.  We aren't just exposed to videogames.  We are exposed to different forms of entertainment at all times, and for most of us, these are readily available to us for our pleasure: audio books, books, movies, television shows, radio shows, theater, etc.  We have felt the strength of other artforms affect us deeply in ways Esther tries to emulate.  If you want the feeling of solitude that Dear Esther intends to provide, and you want it done right, successfully and everlasting, there is a very good chance a more powerful work at delivering this experience is readily available to you in a good film, or in a good book.  The tools of the artform in the hands of talented and experienced directors, writers and actors will guarantee that your journey is never tampered by distractions.  Your strings will be pulled just so at the right times, and your mind will be engaged when it needs to be, and you will come away with an experience that will last for a lifetime.  In videogames the player is in control.  If a game developer intends to evoke a certain emotion in the player, and they find themselves limiting player control more and more to the point of meaninglessness in order to maintain the successful delivery of such an emotion, then they're creating their work in the wrong artform, and wasting theirs and everyone else's time.

It's still a fucking beautiful game to look at.


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Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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I have argued the sentiments provided in your analysis previously here on Gamasutra pertaining to other different games (I picked Mass Effect at the time).

But back to what you wrote:

"In other words, if player control is replaced for a scripted camera, the experience of Esther would be at best better, and at worst unchanged from the original game."

Doesn't that stand in contradiction with what you wrote previously?

"Now that I've established that it is a game, one that is light on interactivity but still a game nonetheless, let's address the assumption that this game is creative, and later on that this game"

If you can remove the interactivity from the "game" in favor of a better experience as "entertainment", can we really call it a "game"?
My concern is the language here to describe an object (game) in relation to other objects (movies for example).

If I recorded a static picture of the Mona Lisa with Bach as background music, would I be justified to call it a movie, or film. In my understanding I can't, I can call it a recording, or a video, but "movie" or "film" is something different.

I feel the same functions with games, I can't necessarily call Dear Esther a game, I might call it an interactive adventure or even an (interactive) visual novel/poetry.

Unfortunately our choice of words "game" is ingrained from a simpler time, when everything that ran on a computer and was interactive entertainment was considered a -game- because the technology was not far enough advanced to even produce efforts like Dear Esther and because society treated the machines runnint them as -toys-

But now as the medium has matured and technology with it, we can't continue to use the same words anymore because they simply do not fit.
Computers went from a curiosity, toys or extremely expensive typewriters to fully fledged multimedia devices with instant, mobile cross-country communication capability in under two decades.

We seriously need to re-evaluate the meanings of words we use, because our communication in the industry (both players and developers) is muddy at best and nonexistent at worst.

I actually plan on writing an article about this soon, but I first need to collect and structure my thoughts about this topic more.

Terry Matthes
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@Aleksander You said "If I recorded a static picture of the Mona Lisa with Bach as background music, would I be justified to call it a movie, or film. In my understanding I can't, I can call it a recording, or a video, but "movie" or "film" is something different."

I would answer this by saying that if your intention was for it to be a movie than it is a movie. The difference between something being considered art (or not) is largely in the creator's intentions.

The same would apply to Dear Esther. It is a game because that was the intention upon creation. It might not have many rules, but it does let you walk around and when you mix an experience with interactivity and rules (boundaries) you have a game.

This whole "what is a game?" argument always feels snobbish to me. It's somewhat akin to the "Is golf, bowling etc. really a sport" argument. It's largely based on personal preference which means that the definition is going to fluctuate from person to person.

I also don't know why we try so hard to pin down what a game is. In the end it's all just entertainment. I feel that it doesn't matter whether it's a movie, game, or even a play. In the end you're still competing for people's attention and if you feel cheated because someone created a better experience in something that doesn't meet your personal definition of what a game is than it's likely an internal struggle (perhaps even a little bit of jealousy ) that is warping your opinion.

If you take the game for what it is - and I don't know why you would treat it any other way - than it's a gorgeous experience.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"I would answer this by saying that if your intention was for it to be a movie than it is a movie. The difference between something being considered art (or not) is largely in the creator's intentions."

I am not debating what is or is not art, that is something that would be a "philosophical" debate. I am interested in the meaning of the word, like I said, communication is important to exchange ideas. And if the language is muddy, so is the exchange.

"I also don't know why we try so hard to pin down what a game is. In the end it's all just entertainment. I feel that it doesn't matter whether it's a movie, game, or even a play."

Imagine a situation in which I am pitching a game to a publisher, I use words like "RPG" and "sandbox".
There is no clear consensus on what constitutes an RPG or sandbox at the moment. I might be thinking "Skyrim", the Publisher might be thinking Minecraft.

Contrary to that if someone commissions me to do cyberpunk art (for example), I know immediately and precisely what it is and what is expected, the word is infinitely more accurate.

"Game" is ambiguous if you take your approach and a meaningful exchange about it becomes impossible to achieve.

I can't count how many times I had miscommunications with a game designer because he just could not articulate what he wanted to say to me because we had completely different understandings of the terms he was using.

The lack of meaningful communication due to lack of language or muddy and unclear terminology and taxonomy makes this industry very hard to work in.

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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I disagree on many points :).

"so the player's mind and reflexes are minimally engaged"
To me I was thinking the whole way through, intepreting signs, thinking and feeling in the scene. The slow pace and no challenge / puzzle let me intepret things more tied to the story rather than "oh perhaps I should pick this item and put it into that!" or be interupted by ferocious battles!

Saying a movie could do the same thing as esther but better is ridiculous. It is like saying it is pointless to play guitar when you can just listen to a record of hendrix instead. To me the execution and slow walk ment a lot. To be able to control the pacing yourself and synch it to what you felt and wanted to look is a very different thing than just taking in a scene determined by someone else. Sometimes being able to express things yourself is a thing of its own.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"Saying a movie could do the same thing as esther but better is ridiculous. It is like saying it is pointless to play guitar when you can just listen to a record of hendrix instead."

I can't play guitar at all, i do not have a sense of rhythm or an ear for music nor can I write music at all.

Indeed for me it is better to listen to a record of Hendrix and admire his craftsmanship over what I would produce by pointlessly plucking at the chords of a guitar.

This metaphor is very bad for various reasons that should be very clear by now.

"To be able to control the pacing yourself and synch it to what you felt and wanted to look is a very different thing than just taking in a scene determined by someone else. "

Thats exactly the point, you can't control the pacing, because there is no control (in the game-mechanics).

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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"This metaphor is very bad for various reasons that should be very clear by now."

How come it is fun to build stuff in minecraft yourself, even if it doesn't look very good? I can play guitar, not very good but enough to be very rewarding and pleasing. The same as Dear Esther might not appeal to everyone. I know it is a matter of opinion but saying stuff like Dear Esther should've been better as a movie just rubs me a little wrong.

"Thats exactly the point, you can't control the pacing, because there is no control (in the game-mechanics)."

But you do! You decide how long to stay at any point and look or just to proceed.

And in any way, I still think that "being the camera man" gives a certain immersive vibe that movies cannot replicate. And if that vibe is good or bad is dependat on how you are as a person.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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Rasmus, you are comparing active -creation- (Minecraft, playing guitar) with passive -observation- in Dear Esther.

You do not see the difference?

Bernardo Del Castillo
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And you Aleksander are asuming there is such thing as passive observation, Comunication interpretation and information transmition are not passive, that is a common misconception of people today. Thinking that action requires a pick-up, jump, punch buttonpress or a move gesture or a swipe doesn't consider the real complexity of the process.
This is why in art (and everything else in life) a same object can have a different interpretation.

Even if there was such thing as "passive observation", dear esther still presents many optional vantage points, hidden messages, audio triggers and hints that many players might skip. I found myself enjoying running around a rock trying to make up what was written in it. This doesn't even apply to your "passive observation" calification; it is active exploration.
Yes bioshock did this , and it did it well but in my opinion that game loses focus of its own potential halfway through (I still think they are great games).

Now I do agree that dear esther doesnt technically do anything to move games forward, it most defiantely strips components away from contemporary games, but that is not a usual thing. With this it accomplishes to move games forward in a much more important ideological aspect.
It seems to me that you are looking at it from a very established technological product, but this is only one (probably the weakest) aspect of dear esther.

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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What Bernardo said. There is a difference ofcourse but I would not call it that big. If observation is passive or active depends on the viewer, does he engage in it? There is loads of signs that hints at the narrative, understanding the person that writes the letters is an active process as the island feels like his footprint.

Jason Wilson
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Is it meaningless to take a hike in the mountains when I could watch a film of the very same scenery? I could skip all the boring parts or the times I need to back track. The film could offer just the highlights.

I've not played Dear Esther, so I can't really comment on this particular game, but I know there are people who enjoy the act of exploring and from what you describe this type of gaming experience caters to that type of person.

Maurício Gomes
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Dear Esther is like a non-procedural Noctis.

I suggest you go play Noctis instead...

Bernardo Del Castillo
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sorry posted the reply in the wrong spot. But noctis looks very interesting.

Tadhg Kelly
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Would you consider visiting the Serial Killers exhibit at Madame Tussaud's a game? You could walk through it, see different interesting and scary models, hear tales of Lomdon's dark days and so on in a quasi narrative format. Modally speaking, it is no different to Dear Esther, except you walk with your legs rather than WASD.

If your answer is yes, then the problem becomes that anything is a game, so nothing is. If no, then you must concede that Dear Esther is not a game, that a game requires a level of action and change that is more than walking and seeing.

None of which, by the way, is meant to derogate or devalue what Dear Esther is. It's a haunting and beautiful thing, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what Dan and the team do next.

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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"then you must concede that Dear Esther is not a game"

Perhaps a notgame then? :).

I agree though it isn't a game but it does "come" from a game. Reducing those things that made it a game to begin with to create another kind of experience. What would you call it? Virtual promenade is not good enough as the focus in Dear Esther is not the walking but the experience, that would be like calling adventure "jumping and running with thematic puzzles" or something. Perhaps virtual story?

Tadhg Kelly
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Well I encourage notgame makers to perhaps find a more positive label than a reactionary one. There should be more to the movement of interactive art (such as a 'promenade' as I labelled DE) than simply defining itself as against something else.

Roger Klado
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Is it really important that esther be a game?
As different digitally interactive experiences, perhaps very new exciting immersive arts and
real time graphic driven experiences first begin to mature...
Where else will they have to go where there is a large enough community well versed with similar talents and interests?
It's a strange position to have such a strong love for what is possible with real time environments and character study.
And adding to the language an immersive art that is just being born.
Where you have absolutely no interest in game design other than the several instances where it allows you to view a new exciting discovery where the immersive language matures at a faster rate every day.

It just seems obvious that there would be enough overlapping interests were the majority of experience is easily appreciated.
And that community seems the obvious home for such an art. On the other hand, where the fidelity of the dreamy hyper-realism in an experience like Esther...
Although it is easy to see how rich the immersive levels are when graphics with as much talent builds an environment where such dreamy translation is actually "experienced".
For an artist whose ambition was such a dreamy experience "realized"...
That talent would be exemplary of what is proficient in such an art form.But as graphics technology advances, where the possibility of exciting new immersive experiences and the possibility of that previous compromises could be overcome, There is often a knee jerk resistance to graphics. As if it was the evil enemy of game play.
And for someone essentially "stuck" as a minority where video game play is
nothing more than the pornography of the real time graphic experience...

The argument seems to suppose that graphics == satan's slick production value rather than the meatiest aspect of immersion in which the richest parts of your experience may be orchestrated.Not that the developer of Esther subscribe to that same belief...
But as the question of whether the experience is "even a game" is repeatedly brought up as if the answer was a definite no that Esther somehow loses credibility or that as much certainly infers some negative designation.
If not, I would question why such a requirement would even be important?If not, a game...
is the game development community as the only real game in town still the obvious home for such work?