Saturday, 19 May 2012

Dear Esther

Poetry in video games? Yes please!


It's been well over a month but I'm finally dragging myself back to the writing chair. And I've really missed it, it's actually a really comfortable chair. With its high back, leather padded arm rests and smooth swivel... admittedly, it's the exact same chair on which I do everything else with my life, but it's nice to be back here for the sole purpose of writing a blog post. I'm sorry internet, I've let you down. I'm sure you're all very disappointed in me.

By coincidence, this is also the chair which I sit in to play video games. Which is what I'm writing about again today.

How about that.

This week, because it was on special on Steam, I played Dear Esther.

Dear Esther is not so much a game as an interactive experience - a journey one can take from their living room. It's something everyone should try, because everyone will relate to it differently. When making the case that video games can be art, can tell stories, can immerse like no other medium, this is the kind of game to be upheld. This is the closest I've experienced to a game being like an interactive poem. Unlike some popular Indie games, this will not shift ground in the blockbuster gaming business. Maybe it will get someone hired; hopefully it will get other developers thinking.

Originally a mod for Half-Life 2's Source engine, the game is an immersive journey set on a deserted island (in the Hebrides, Wikipedia tells me), in which the player traverses the island, triggering voiceovers that exposit a story relating to the island, and several related characters. It's immersive and atmospheric; a journey worth experiencing, especially if you don't take in a lot of media other than video games. I know you're out there.

There's a familiarity to this game - being based on one of my favourite games of all time - that is effectively broken by the change in the control scheme: I couldn't jump. I couldn't duck, I couldn't shoot, use, run, speak or smell. The only controls given to the player are to move, and to zoom. I found the zoom surprisingly fun, and for the first time ever wondered what it would be like to play a game in 3d. The controls are minimalistic and appropriate. This game is about experiencing the scenery and the story, and would no doubt be ruined by having me jump about the place (much less shooting at aliens). While Half Life is intelligent and experience-driven in it's own right, this game is much more calm and reflective; a game that's relaxing to play rather than exciting.

To the story itself; and spoilers do follow... if it is possible to 'spoil' an experience like this.

I had a hard time at first figuring out what was going on, and I'm sure I'm not alone. In fact, by the end of the game, I thought I had it roughly figured out, until I took a cursory glance at the  Wikipedia page and realised some people interpreted the game completely differently to me. There's also the detail that the voice overs are, to some extent, random. I'm not sure exactly how much this might change the story, but it seems as though two people could come away with very different impressions about what happened.

I haven't done any thorough reading on what this game actually means because I want to get my thoughts down and then compare notes with others later. Chances are I'm completely alone on this, and perhaps a second play through would clear up my thoughts, but here goes.

It all started to become clearer to me when I thought of the island as the main characters delusion, or dream. Perhaps immediately after causing a fatal car accident, or perhaps in hospital in a coma. The main character, dead or dying, envisions letter he would write to Esther, were he able to reach her. Esther was his lover (or someone dear to him), who was married to a man named Donnelly. The main character might have killed Donnelly in a car accident, and it may even have been deliberate. 

This I understand from a couple of clips referencing his travel along the motorway, 'dragging Donnellys corpse', and intent to murder. There's an extended portion where the main character talks about his broken leg, and his efforts to climb up a hill on the island; these I saw as his immediate experience after the crash; crawling along the asphalt. There are candles littered throughout the island that highlight particular objects: a picture of a crash site, a smashed picture frame containing the image of a woman, car parts littered around, etc. There is also one instance of a skeleton of a few birds and, a little further along, the birds nest with three eggs in it lit by the candles... Dare I say that Esther had kids and the main character has murdered their father? Or perhaps Esther was also in the car.

There is also a crucial moment in which the player falls into a pool of water... and emerges in an underwater scene on the motorway, two cars halted at strange angles. I don't recall them actually being damaged in any way, but It did seem to me to be the scene of the accident - either the main character half-waking from his delusion and seeing the scene but without any people or damage; or as his memory of the scene.

He also feels isolated and alone, as emphasised by both the nature of his imaginary world, and continued references to the hermit. In some clips he talks about the Hermit, in others he talks as if he is the Hermit. This may speak to the personality of the character; one who feels cut off from the world, and is simultaneously happy and frustrated by it. He makes connections with very few people and Esther was one of those. I'm sure there's something to be said here about the John Donne poem 'No Man Is An Island', but I'm not familiar enough to say it.

There is a lot of detail about the island and how people relate to it that may support the idea that this is a real place, but I think it's too outlandish, as presented here, to believe. Perhaps the island is a real place which he is now imagining, with details of his life littered across it?

I don't know what to make of the Bible verses, or the references to the Shepherd, Paul and Damascus, except that perhaps these are how the main character sees himself; as some kind of saviour or guiding figure to Esther, or to others. References to the ariel atop the mountain on the island could possibly be equated with references to death or heaven (the 'bright light at the end of the tunnel'), and ultimately the character reaches the ariel and jumps to certain death... or does he? He becomes a bird, and flies along the beach, past his 'armada' and into blackness. Did he go to heaven? Did he die? Did he wake up? I don't know.

Now I've got all that off my chest, I'm off to read up on some more carefully thought out interpretations to see where I might have it wrong. But, like any good work of art, there is more than one way of looking at it, and the game may mean completely different things to different people. I saw it as a tragic story told through the lens of a man imagining an island on which he recounts his life. Maybe I was wrong and the island is real. In any case, if you've read this far and haven't got it yet: Dear Esther is a worthwhile experience, go and play it!

And, since I keep forgetting to do this on all my posts, I would like to invite everyone to comment!
Have you played Dear Esther? What did you think of it? What is your understanding of the place and characters? What other games can you think of that are comparable as an experience?
Hope to hear your thoughts.